Chasing Winter

Breakups (a.k.a. Spring) in Alaska are messy. Let’s face it—this land’s relationship with winter has always struck most of us as verging on obsessive. So the ensuing seasonal shift, though expected, comes with the volatile clinginess and emotional roller-coasting that those in any ending, co-dependent relationship might feel. We’ve come to accept this year in and year out and just roll our eyes when it snows a foot in April but melts the next day.

Since we are at the whim of the land, when Alaska started to question impending summer by throwing more snow at us this March, a friend and I decided to comfort her the way we would any friend struggling with change—“you’re right, winter was wonderful/those WERE good times/sure, we’ll reminisce with you…

So we headed north in search of ice and more winter.

We started in Fairbanks at the World Ice Art Championships, which are always spectacular.

Your ticket lasts all day and our only regret was that our public use cabin was far enough towards Chena Hot Springs that we couldn’t make the haul back to see the sculptures lit up at night.

At the hot springs the next day, we paid to visit the year-round Aurora Ice Museum before succumbing to the warmth of the hot springs (remember no alcohol before the springs so plan accordingly!). Inside there are four actual hotel rooms beyond the bar that guests are welcome to stay in. If you don’t make it the whole night, the staff will come let you out (you’re locked in because the Museum has a dual door system to maintain freezing temperatures) and move you into one of the rooms at their Moose Lodge. There is also an ice alter at which weddings can be performed.

I neglected to get any photos of the hot springs, but they were lovely–clean, hot and relaxing. After turning prune-ish, we headed to another public-use cabin in Delta Junction so we could be closer for our hike out to the Castner Ice Caves the next day. The parking lot was easy to find, it even has a sign for the Castner Glacier, but we were glad there were so many people hiking out that day because we didn’t realize you needed to cross the road to begin the hike up the river (there’s a bit of deceptive trail directly from the parking lot that leads to a viewing of the pipeline).

Remember you enter this cavern at your own risk with no guarantees of safety. It’s a good rule of thumb to never enter an ice cave when temps have been or are above freezing, but even then they are unpredictable and dynamic. We had read that because this glacier terminates on land and moves very slowly it is perhaps more safe, but I have read news stories of people dying from collapsing ice caves, so enter with full knowledge of your risk.

The floor is a frozen creek bed so we brought skates in hopes of finding it smooth enough to glide on. It wasn’t, so we just strapped on our boot crampons. And helmets, which we were glad we brought because rocks are slowly making their way out of the walls and ceiling and there were remnants of fallen (sometimes quite large) rocks at our feet.

And we decided to keep crawling back.

We first came to a room we dubbed the Chandelier Room from which ice formations dangled. I think earlier in the season, when the outside air is colder, these chandeliers can hang down quite low.

We ventured further, crawling again, until we found a pitch dark void and open water. We turned our lights off and sat reverently listening to the creaking of the slowly moving glacier and the distant roaring of rushing water for a few moments, feeling the (frightening) magnitude of being inside a glacier.

Crawling back we stopped just before the chandelier room and spent some time lying on our backs studying the incredible ice formations only a few feet over our heads.

We finally decided to head back to the truck.

Driving home down the Richardson Highway is a sure fire way to appreciate the beauty of winter. And by the time we were home to the melting, brown mush that will be lawns in a few months, we agreed with Alaska—winter is splendid.

Thank goodness it’s a perpetual on-again, off-again courtship.

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