Thailand’s Tiger Temple tragedy shows how tourism can be horribly wrong right on the heels of the Harambe silverback gorilla incident at the Cincinnati Zoo. Joe and Laura discuss these issues among other travel news before turning to perceived danger versus realistic safety in summer travel.
Train travel is without question the most comfortable and sexiest form of long-distance travel.
Luckily for my travel preferences, this year just so happened to be the centennial celebration of the Alaska Railroad, launched in 1916 in time to fuel the gold rush. Today, it’s still a beauty of a rail line that travels between Fairbanks and Seward, a distance of 470 miles, with Denali National Park in between.
Stops are limited in the winter, but still well-worth the experience, especially if like me you’re going from Anchorage to Fairbanks. Though the train is mostly tourists and local skiers these days, it’s also popular with Alaskans who have built cabins off the road network. They’ll board, let the train engineer know which “whistle-stop” they need, and the train will come to a stop so they can hop off and start their trek to the cabin.
I saw the sun rise and set on that train, yet it hardly felt like a day went by over the nearly 12-hour ride. The experience was mesmerizing throughout (when I wasn’t busy napping off a Great Alaska hangover). I could’ve stared out the window for hours. In fact, I did. I never once got sick of those mountains, forests, and rivers. Who in their right mind could?
Luckily I had nothing else on my itinerary when arriving to Fairbanks, so I could collapse into bed.
Chena Hot Springs
I met Jerry Evans of Explore Fairbanks for breakfast before a mini-tour of the city and heading out to the Chena Hot Springs Resort, which is what you do when you’re near Fairbanks. During the drive, we recorded a podcast and I learned that he’s also a standup comedian. He’s opened for the likes of Louis C.K. (before Lucky Louie) and Jim Gaffigan.
At the Chena Hot Springs Resort, we started off with the first trail we could find and hiked up as far as we could before our ill-equipped footwear could no longer handle the piles of snow. Still, it made for yet another breath of fresh Alaskan air.
Speaking of that air, it certainly is noticeably colder in Fairbanks. Whereas we had 20’s in Anchorage, Fairbanks floated between -10 and 0. Even that’s considered warm based on averages and the time of year. Again, climate change is the culprit. An earlier acquaintance said it best.
“I’ve lived here my whole life. Nobody can tell me something’s not going on.”
Back to the air, it’s cold. Damned cold. So cold, you can feel your snot freeze when inhaling through your nose. I found it to be a fascinating sensation. I guess what I’m saying is, your city isn’t that cold until you’ve been accustomed to your snot freezing over upon every breath.
The whole point of heading out to Chena is for the aurora borealis or northern lights. They also have an outdoor hot spring where guests will amuse themselves by briefly dipping their head underwater and coming out to freeze their hair in any number of silly stylings. There’s also an ice museum with an impressive array of ice sculptures housed year-round in a giant igloo. I happened to be the lone American tourist among a throng of Chinese tourists, who by the way, were loving every moment of the experience as evidenced by their constantly clicking cameras.
People tend to mock the Chinese tourist for traveling in their groups, wearing matching colors so nobody gets lost. But they clearly are enjoying themselves. We should be so lucky to ever experience life as a Chinese tourist.
Then, it was decision time. You see, catching the aurora borealis requires departing at some point around 9 p.m. into a military-style tank of a vehicle to go out into the middle of nowhere until approximately 2:30 a.m. Natural phenomenon aren’t really my thing. I enjoy experiences, not sitting and waiting. Many do enjoy waiting for that rare bird to fly out or for the sky to show a burst of green. If that’s you, fantastic. Go for it.
But it’s not me. And it’s especially not me when the aurora borealis forecasts (yep, they exist) say it’s unlikely to be visible that night. So, I opted to call it a night and instead headed back to Fairbanks early the next day for dog sledding. Lucky me, my gamble seemed to have paid off when the next morning I was told I hadn’t missed anything. Most say you need at least three days that far north to guarantee an aurora sighting, which I duly noted for future reference.
I met with Jeff Deeter of Black Spruce Dog Sledding who Jerry described as one half of a “hip young couple.” I admit I didn’t know what to make of dog sledding. I’m not a rah-rah PETA type, but I do feel animals should be treated ethically. Were dog sledding dogs being treated ethically? I wondered.
I can’t speak for all dogs, but these dogs are assuredly in good hands.
After introducing me to some his dogs, Jeff began to assemble his team of eight for our ride. The males are stronger, but the females make for better leaders, so they generally should go in front, I learned.
“Just like in everyday life,” Jeff quipped.
The dogs could barely contain their excitement, barking and some even pounding on the ground with their paws like a bull ready to charge a matador. On Jeff’s call, the dogs went from a standstill to a healthy run.
Riding as a guest (i.e. not doing any of the work or directing) felt like an amusement park ride with the occasional hard bounce and sharp turn. Before long we settled into a nice trot as we meandered through the narrow trails in dense forest.
On cruise control, Jeff shared more of his dog sledding experiences, including riding with the temperature as low as -68. He’s also done the famous Iditarod and plans to again, but first will tackle the Yukon Quest next year, which many in the dog sledding business say is more difficult than its celebrity cousin. For those keeping score, the Yukon Quest is 1,000 miles between Fairbanks and Whitehorse, Yukon.
Jeff has clearly come a long way since starting as a handler at a kennel in 2003. Now he’s running his own business and hopes to expand with other activities and welcoming guests to spend the night at the property. The trails would make an obvious match with cycling, cross-country skiing, and hiking on top of the night tours and dog sledding they already offer.
As promised, Jeff gave me an opportunity to stand on the skis and give this dog sledding thing a whirl. To start, I was instructed to keep my right foot on the drag between the skis. This would keep our pace relatively slow and easier to control as a beginner. Then on my call, we were off.
We moved so slow to start that the snow piled up to my shin as I put most of my bodyweight on the drag. Eventually, however, Jeff gave me the go-ahead to lay off the drag and stand on the skis. I have to say, it was a blast. I still prefer human-powered adventure, but I certainly left understanding the appeal of dog sledding. There’s something romantic about the idea of heading out into the unknown with a team of man’s best friend, and there’s a clear sense of camaraderie between Jeff and his dogs.
Not So Bad
I started my trek back home that night, knowing everyone’s first question would be some iteration of, “How cold was it!?”
For me, the cold was a non-issue. Personally, I’d rather bundle up than melt. You can only take off so many clothes before you’re breaking the law (with the exception of some progressive European beaches, I suppose).
So I bundled up and saw Alaska in a way most in the lower 48 never will. I cycled on a river, drank good beer, marveled at the snowy landscapes, felt my snot freeze over, and spent an afternoon hanging out with a field full of giddy pups.
Yeah, Alaska in the winter isn’t so bad.
Disclaimer: I traveled as a guest of Travel Alaska. As always, all opinions are my own.
I love nature and I love adventure. Something about fresh air filling my lungs with a western backdrop will always appeal to me. Despite my preference for city-living, few things satisfy me more than a week (or two) away from it all.
Capitol Reef country offers that and then some. That’s why it’s high on my list for an adventure getaway. Continue Reading →
Everyone wants to go to Alaska. It’s certainly on the top of any North American’s travel wish list and is incredibly popular with Asian travelers, particularly from Japan, China and South Korea.
However, the 49th state is generally portrayed as a barren wasteland during the winter months when daylight is minimal to non-existent. Of course this perception is based on little more than assumptions. It’s north, ipso facto, it’s cold. But as I’ve found in my travels, assumptions are almost always a steaming pile of, to stick with the Alaskan theme, moose crap.
So, I purposely traveled to Alaska for a Matador Network story this past January to see what exactly one does in an Alaskan winter.
I had little idea of what to expect, my Alaskan knowledge based solely on a reading of One Man’s Wilderness, Richard Proenneke’s diary-turned travelogue on his 16 months building a cabin and surviving in the, as the name suggests, Alaskan wilderness. Oh, and I knew Chris McCandless of Into The Wild fame died up there.
Unlike Proenneke, my Alaskan travels began in the city — Anchorage, the city most outsiders (Alaskan for residents of the lower 48) mistake for the capital (it’s Juneau). After my flight, gliding in over snow-capped mountains out of a coffee table book, I met with Jeanette of Visit Anchorage. Jeanette is the kind of person anyone wants to meet after a long flight with what felt like a motherly affection for all, even strangers such as myself.
Driving into Anchorage, Jeannete started giving a basic background on Alaska and her own upbringing in the state. To begin, she explained that people like her are native Alaskans whereas Alaskan Natives are those with indigenous roots, harboring a variety of cultural groups and languages. In fact, the local school system counts over 100 languages among its students, including Russian, Korean, and Japanese alongside English and Alaska Native languages.
One of the first things I noticed on that short drive into Anchorage was a bumper sticker protesting the controversial Pebble Mine. I would’ve known nothing of the controversy had I not just watched PBS Frontline’s piece on the matter. In short, it would have been the world’s largest mine causing unspeakable environmental damage by the estimation of most experts. For now, the project has been put on hold after losing its funding base, marking the rare win for indigenous and environmental groups in this world.
Anchorage is tiny. You can walk it easily within 30 minutes, an hour if you stop to look at some things. One of those things to look at in the winter are the ice sculptures in Town Square Park, left behind by professionals of that craft following ice carving championships. Otherwise, given the cold, most aren’t toddling around. Others, however, are out running and cycling regardless of the temperature.
Now speaking of the temperature, it really isn’t that bad in Anchorage. It’s on the water, after all, making for comparatively warmer temperatures than cities more inland. I bundled up, sure, but I never felt uncomfortable walking around outside. In fact, I welcomed and enjoyed the brisk, fresh air, something I got plenty of when fat tire cycling the next morning.
Fat Tire Cycling
Dan McDonough of Lifetime Adventures met me for an hour ride around Winner Creek. Granted said ride started late as I spent a solid 30 minutes layering up in the park restroom, grunting like a 300-pound man suffering from constipation as I sat on the toilet, sweating through feeble attempts to pull my skin-tight bike kit over my long johns.
Fat tire cycling was a thrill. It combined the aspects of mountain biking I enjoy, which is scenic cross-country cycling, with the ability to trudge over obstacles that would typically send me flying over my saddle.
Most novel of all was cycling on top of the frozen creek itself. Dan assured me we were perfectly safe, though we did eventually make a turn for dirt trail when the ice seemed oddly thin. Sadly (yet unsurprisingly), Anchorage and the whole of Alaska have been suffering from climate change, experiencing temperatures far warmer than typical for the season. Several locals shared that the prior year had been the warmest winter for Anchorage on record with this year’s shaping up to be the second warmest.
All told, we only covered two miles within our hour together, including time to stop for some photos of the surrounding mountains and snow-covered forests. But I learned that fat tire cycling in Alaska is something I would enjoy doing for hours at a time through the remote countryside. Dan, who has directed fat tire races such as the Iditarod Trail Invitational, assured me that I could come back and shuffle across the landscape from cabin to cabin.
It struck me as a romantic notion, being alone in the Alaskan wilderness with nothing but my bike and panniers full of clothes and supplies. Romantic, so long as I don’t get myself eaten by a bear a la the Grizzly Man.
With a morning of fat tire cycling under my belt, I meandered through the rest of my day with stops at the Anchorage Museum and Anchorage Distillery. In between, I caught a cloudy sunset over the Chugach Mountains that dominated the Anchorage skyline.
The next morning I got a taste of a local breakfast favorite with the Snow City Café. All I recall is seeing a breakfast option combining chorizo and eggs, so I was happy. Then, it was off to Alyeska Resort in nearby Girdwood for some snow-shoeing.
Unfortunately, thanks to the aforementioned climate change, the snow hadn’t really accumulated enough to warrant snow-shoes on the trail. Instead, the dirt trails had been iced over, forcing my hiking companion Shannon and I to skid along the trails rather than hike. Nothing makes a human look more unathletic and uncoordinated than catching oneself from slipping on ice. Arms flail, eyes bulge, breaths are held, and legs go in opposite directions. I lost track of how many times I almost completed a Looney Tunes-style wipeout before finally reaching a snow-covered portion where firmer footing was possible. On the return, we opted to cut up the side rather than risk sliding down the trail.
Ice aside, it was nice for this city guy to get back-to-back retreats into the woods.
The festival was conveniently located right in downtown Anchorage with my hotel crawling distance away. I forget how many beer tickets came with admission, but I know it was enough to put any reasonable liver in the hospital.
What can I say? I love a good beer fest. This was a good beer fest with drinkers excited to support local beers of the Alaskan variety. It’s not that guest beers were ignored, but the Alaskan half of the venue resembled something of a popular rock concert. I had a blast, complete with traditional German singing and lederhosen (watch the end of the video).
Suffice it to say, I was sufficiently put on my ass and into bed for an early wakeup call to catch the Alaska Railroad up to Fairbanks.
What’s Cedar City? Well to begin, it’s in Utah, so you know you’re going to be surrounded by alien landscapes (unless you’re from the West or Middle East) and adventure. That alone is enough to convince me to pack my backs for a weeklong adventure getaway.
But after some research, it turns out Cedar City, Utah is a veritable adventure hub full of outdoor possibilities and history. Utah itself even made Fodor’s “Go” list for 2016. Naturally I couldn’t help myself and came up with a list of six reasons I want an adventure getaway in Cedar City, Utah. Continue Reading →
Fairbanks, Alaska’s own Jerry Evans joins Without A Path during a drive up to the Chena Hot Springs Resort to talk growing up in the 49th State. He’s also a stand up comic who has opened for the likes of Louis C.K. and Jim Gaffigan.
Germany in of itself is the place to be in 2016 to enjoy a variety of beer festivals across the country as the Fatherland celebrates 500 years of the Reinheitsgebot, or Beer Purity Law. The law was a series of regulations determining the ingredients in beer adopted in Bavaria, 1516. That said, Germany isn’t exclusively all barley, malt and hops. Frankfurt, better known as one of the primary international business hubs of the world, is also the gateway city to Germany’s wine country. The area surrounding Frankfurt is world renowned for their Riesling history, stretching back to the 1200s thanks to the cool climate producing an acidic grape that comes through in the wine. Back in Frankfurt, check out the Bahnhofsviertel neighborhood near the central train station. Traditionally this was a no-go zone or brothels, but now artists and restaurateurs are buying up the cheap space to revitalize the neighborhood. Across the river, get back to wine culture by checking out Lorsbacher Thal for some traditional Apfel Wein that owner Frank Winkler says, “tastes like the angels peed in it.” Continue Reading →