Frigid Fun In Fairbanks

Bethany Buckles

© Copyright 2020 by Bethany Buckles


Photo of Bethany at the outhouse.
Photo of Bethany. Property of Bethany.

I like to say that I wouldn’t mind traveling so much if I didn’t have to leave home. My hubby, on the other hand, loves adventure, traveling, and new places. Now that our son, Jacob, was living in Alaska he had the perfect excuse to plan a trip. “I booked tickets for Fairbanks,” my hubby broke the news to me over the phone. He knew I would be less than enthusiastic. Though I wasn’t really overjoyed, I wasn’t upset either, and maybe even a teeny bit excited. Conflicted, I suppose.

The planning wasn’t tremendously detailed. Our son would show us around, hubby really hoped to see the Northern Lights, and we would only actually be there for three days. “Three days?” I asked, somewhat shocked but partially relieved, thinking I wouldn’t be away very long after all. But then I learned the itinerary for the travel getting there and back. From northern Vermont, it’s a pretty far distance. The cheapest tickets meant three separate flights with some lengthy layovers, each way. I’d be gone a week.

We’re staying with Jacob”, hubby added. Gulp. I said nothing. Although that meant no hotel fees, no strange beds, real time with our son, all good things I was happy about, one thing terrified me. The outhouse. Jacob’s cabin didn’t have an indoor toilet. And this was Alaska, in January. I could just picture having to make midnight treks to the john in the frigid darkness. I dreaded that scenario through the rest of the preparation.

You’re cutting it awfully close,” my youngest daughter warned, a little worried herself. She was pregnant, due in February, and I was supposed to take her other kids when she went into labor. Her other children had been born early.

Don’t you have that baby before I get back!” I begged. As if either of us could control that.

As the departure date drew near we made arrangements with hubby’s parents to care for the dog and chickens while we were gone. They also agreed to fill the outdoor wood furnace that we heat the house with. I checked the forecast for Fairbanks and it was going to be a whole lot colder there. When I began packing, I tried fitting all the cold weather clothes I could think of but it was a challenge. Hubby was adamant, carry-ons only. No checked bags. Turtlenecks, sweaters, long johns, wool socks, flannel lined jeans, hats, gloves, and disposable hand warmers. Lots of hand warmers! I even managed to fit my insulated cold weather boots after my daughter suggested rolling and stuffing clothes inside them.

At last the day came and our adventure began. Our first flight was out of Montreal leaving at 7am which meant we had to be up very early. There were long lines through Customs and security but the waiting wasn’t terrible and we had plenty of time. Still, my hubby, the seasoned traveler offered, “You know, if you had a Nexxus card we wouldn’t have to wait in line”. Ya, ya ya. And then, guess who gets pulled out of line to have her bags searched. Yes, me. Both bags… What was the issue? Almonds for my snack in the backpack, my hot hands in the suitcase. They let me keep both but you can bet I did not bring either of those items on the return trip home. (I’m not insulting TSA, mind you; I’m very thankful they are so thorough.)

This country girl is also not a huge fan of some of the modern conveniences. Like escalators. Maybe it has nothing to do with being a country girl and is more due to my lack of coordination. Airports are full of escalators. Seems to me stairs and elevators are enough of a choice but now these escalators forced me to test my skills. Believe me, I took the stairs whenever I had the option but often I didn’t. I had to quickly time getting my pull along suitcase on while stepping on at just the right moment. Let’s just say I was less than graceful and often caught my hubby glancing my way and just shaking his head. I never tripped once though. Pretty proud of myself.

We landed in Detroit and enjoyed a hot breakfast while killing time before the nest flight to Seattle.

By the time we reached Seattle I was pretty tired. Hubby can sleep anywhere. He slept on the plane as well as sprawled out in a corner of the airport and sometimes across the chairs. Me not so much. I was feeling a little chilly too. And then I saw it. A Starbucks sign. Just the sight of it made me feel a little warmer. ‘You want a hot coffee?” Hubby read my mind. We don’t actually have a Starbucks near our town back home so I was unfamiliar with a lot of the choices but to be “adventurous” on our trip I decided to get something new, something I’d never had before. I ordered and paid for my drink and only when the girl handed it to me did I realize my mistake. A frappucino is NOT a hot drink. It’s made with ice! Frappucino, cappuccino, I had thought they must be similar….it was tasty, but I was not warmed. While sipping my icy treat and waiting for the last flight, we looked at our boarding passes and realized our seats were not together for the four and a half hour flight. I groaned. I would have survived but sweet hubby talked to the ticket agent and she was able to switch our seats so we could be together.

The last flight left Seattle and arrived in Fairbanks around midnight, which was 4 am back home. We had been up for more than 24 hours but it was so great to see our son and be greeted with big warm hugs. Stepping out of the airport to hop into his still running truck was like a slap in the face. It was nearly -40 and the cold hurt my skin. “Wow, welcome to Fairbanks!” I thought.

The drive to his cabin wasn’t long and in that short distance we saw our first moose, a ginormous beast grazing on brush right alongside the main road. We have moose at home, but not many, and not nearly this big. What a thrill! Jacob’s cabin was adorable and exactly what I pictured for “Alaska” Made of giant logs, a gambrel style, it boasted the most inviting covered porch. It was tiny, but just right for a bachelor. One open kitchen/livingroom downstairs and one open bedroom with a shower and sink upstairs. But the toilet. The dreaded outhouse was a short walk off the front porch around to the side of the cabin amongst some snow covered young trees. It didn’t even have a door! I was in disbelief. They say the permafrost and the high cost of a septic is the reason why outhouses are not uncommon there. Any time I was forced out there you can bet I wasted no time. I invented the word “turbopee”, and anytime we were in town I sought out the warm indoor “facilities”.

Jacob had bought new flannel sheets and gave us his bed while he slept in a sleeping bag on a cot next to us. We were thrilled to meet his dog, named Goose, an energetic yellow lab, about 5 months old. Goose was eager to sleep on the bed with us and we were happy to oblige. Jacob had strung colored Christmas lights around the bedroom and it was so cozy snuggled under the blankets chatting and catching up before we drifted off to sleep.

And then, it happened. I awoke at 5am and I had to pee. I tossed and turned and tried to ignore it. I did not want to go out in that frigid air. Hubby stirred and asked, “What’s wrong?” When I told him he offered, “I’ll go with you. I have to go too.” We donned coats and boots. Goose went also, a welcome companion. “No one home will believe this”, I thought. My fear had been realized. The cold was brutal. I’ll spare you the details but suffice it to say I was so happy to crawl back into that warm bed.

That day, our first full day there was the coldest day of the trip. It was midmorning when we finally woke up, but it was still dark outside and -36 degrees! We enjoyed coffee, watched it grow light, and enjoyed the beautiful snowy view out the window. On this day Jacob took us to his college campus to show us around. Including the showers. His water was frozen because the heat tape wasn’t plugged in. Thank goodness he’d had bottled water for the coffee. We took pictures of the lovely view from campus, The Alaska Range in the background. It was nearly noon and the sun was just barely above the horizon. We ate lunch at a tiny local restaurant called The Chowder House. Of course, I had chowder. Smoked salmon chowder. It was fabulous and especially hit the spot on such a cold day.

Because of the extreme cold, Jacob pointed out to us, almost everywhere you went at the front of parking spaces there were outlets. People carry extension cords and if their vehicle will be turned off for long, they plug it in. Most vehicles are wired near the front bumper for that. It is so cold there that if you don’t plug in you risk a dead battery and being stranded. Also, because of the extreme cold, they don’t salt the roads in Fairbanks. Salt doesn’t work to melt ice when it’s that cold. They just plow and spread sand or gravel. The roads were great and their vehicles had very little rust.

This day was also the only day Jacob had to work while we were there. He was employed by an Alaska Wildlife Tour Guide Service as a tour guide. This particular evening he was taking a van full of tourists to the Chena Hot Springs. We were invited to use his truck to meet him there and take the tour, with strict instructions to be sure and plug the truck in when we got there of course. First activity on the tour was exploring an ice museum. There were some pretty impressive ice sculptures. We’ve seen some ice carving in the winter back home but they are created and melt all in one season. These sculptures have been housed, preserved, and maintained for years. The oldest being carved, I believe, in 2006. Next, we had a yummy dinner in their restaurant. My hubby finally indulged in the king crab legs he’d dreamt of.

Dinner was followed by a soak in the hot springs. I was genuinely dreading that but I knew I would be sorry of I didn’t go in, at least for a quick dip. Still, the air was so cold just walking from building to building was torturous. I couldn’t imagine going into any water and not freezing, especially getting in and out. We changed into our swimsuits in separate locker rooms, made the short frigid walk to the water, and hurried in. Wow! That water was HOT! The air temperature was -30. I don’t know what the water temperature was but amazingly we were not cold. The water was chest deep with a gravelly bottom and a slight sulphur smell. We were surrounded by giant boulders and dimly lit colored lights. There was a sprinkler adding cool water at the far end and the steam coming off the water was incredible. The tops’ of everyone’s heads were white from the steam refreezing. We actually stayed in there for 30 to 40 minutes and I was definitely glad I had tried it.

The final activity was a cold 10 minute walk uphill to a glass walled semi-heated building called the Aborium to sit and watch for the Northern Lights. We sat. We watched. We looked. Sadly, we really didn’t see much, just a slight green line across the horizon. The Northern Lights just aren’t that predictable. Incidentely, 2 days after we returned home, Jacob sent us pictures he took with his phone of the sky lit up and filled with the brilliant green aurora.

By the time we returned to Jacob’s cabin and crawled into bed it was 3am and so we again slept until midmorning. Ordinarily, I would feel so lazy sleeping that late, but the extended darkness helped alleviate the guilt. We enjoyed a delightfully cozy morning, drinking coffee (it was a 2-cup morning!), playing with Goose, cooking brunch together, and just hanging out. Jacobs’s water was still frozen.. sigh… He expected it would take a couple days to thaw. We heated bottled water to do dishes.

While I sat on the couch sipping my second cup of coffee, I suddenly felt water dripping on my head. “Why am I getting wet?” I jumped up excitedly, feeling relieved for Jacob, announcing the water, thinking the pipes must have thawed and maybe the sink was on and overflowing upstairs .The perplexed look on both hubby’s and Jacob’s faces told me that was not so. Jacob asked, “Where’s Goose?” He was upstairs. The reality began to sink in. Goose was MOSTLY house trained. It was dog pee dripping on me through the floorboards upstairs. And the water was still frozen so I couldn’t shower. I stifled the feeling of horror and repulsion. Goose was only a pup, still learning. I stood still for a minute, planning my next move. What could I do? I finally grabbed a handful of water bottles and climbed the stairs. I stood inside the shower washing and rinsing my hair and body with the cool water from those bottles. I suppose I could have taken the time to heat the water first but I did not wish to wait around with head wet and dripping and smelling of dog pee. I just wanted to wash it out immediately.

By early afternoon the temperature had climbed to around -20 so we determined it was warm enough to venture outside for a bit. Jacob took us for a beautiful trek through the woods around his cabin and even showed us lynx tracks. In some ways it was much like our woods in Vermont with deep snow and evergreen trees. But these were black spruce and they looked stunted compared to the taller conifers back home. And I had never seen lynx tracks. The trek was delightful. Sunshine made the snow sparkle. I wore all my warmest clothes and insulated boots. So long as we kept moving I was not cold. Goose accompanied us, bounding alongside or ahead of us the whole way. No leash, just happy to be with us.

When we grew too cold to stay out, Jacob drove us to Ester Dome, a hilltop that overlooks Fairbanks and the surrounding areas. The views were amazing. Fairbanks sits in a bowl and to get up above and look down on it was pretty cool. But interestingly, because it sits in a bowl, Fairbanks has poor air quality some days. On the coldest days the smoke or exhaust from vehicles, furnaces, stoves, and such just sits or settles into the city. Not so cool. For dinner, we met up with hubby’s cousin and family at a local Japanese restaurant in town. His cousin has lived there for quite some time now and it was great to see them and meet their new little baby.

Our last day in Fairbanks, Jacob had one class on campus that morning. We dropped him off and went into town to the nearest Laundromat to buy a hot shower. Yes, his water was still frozen. Jacob warned us not to leave our belongings laying around in the Laundromat. . Oh wonderful. But the shower was hot, and the woman we paid was very friendly, chatting away while she folded laundry as we were leaving.

We picked Jacob up on campus, stopped at the cabin to get Goose, grabbed some McDonalds for lunch, and headed for Denali National Park in search of wildlife and beautiful views. We were not disappointed. Most of the tourist attractions, shops, restaurants, lodges, and so on were all closed for the winter. The road through, at least some of it, was open. What a gorgeous ride. After driving through there, Jacob took us on to Cantwell where he has seen caribou. Though we didn’t see any, there were signs of them everywhere, and there was moose! Boy did we see moose! Some alone, some in groups. Amazing. One was even comfortably bedded down, chewing it’s cud. And the mountains. The incredible majestic mountains. To God be the glory! The awesomeness of it all was indescribable. Jacob had me a little worried when he continued driving down a road that had warning signs. He reassured me he knew where he was, what he was doing, and just wanted to go a little further to find caribou. I started imagining being stuck, stranded, maybe freezing to death, but before I could get too worked up he decided we’d gone far enough and turned around.

On our way back through Fairbanks we had dinner then headed to the cabin to pack, and excitedly discovered Jacob had water! The heat tape had done its thing at last. Maybe that’s because the temperature that afternoon had climbed all the way to 0 degrees. Who knows, we were just relieved and felt better leaving knowing he had his water back. Hubby even washed all his dishes before we left.

Jacob delivered us to the airport about 11pm and we hugged and said our goodbyes. I was sad to leave him but happy to be going home. Three more flights and a few escalators to conquer. The first flight to Seattle was relatively boring. Hubby slept. I tried. Next flight was long, to Atlanta. Flying to the East, it was daylight and a good part of the country was unclouded. It was fascinating watching the landscape below change as we passed over. The snow covered Rockies melted to less snowy fields and forests, and then to open farmland. Hubby slept. I tried but the changing landscape below at least helped pass the time when I couldn’t sleep.

Near the end of our trip after I had accomplished so many escalators I was beginning to feel less anxious about them, but then there had to be something new and unexpected to thwart my newfound confidence. I stepped onto an escalator going down and the bottom fell out from under me! The steps collapsed becoming flat again, like a moving conveyor belt. What’s the point of that!? My hubby glanced back in time to see the look of panic on my face as I teetered in perplexity and he advised, “Just walk.”I made it through, unscathed but not impressed.

The last flight was to Montreal. On the final approach I couldn’t see anything out my window other than blowing snow. We were almost landed, fairly low, nose down, when suddenly the plane changed to nose up and climbed quite fast. We could feel the power of the plane’s engines. The pilot informed us that due to poor visibility we would have to make a second attempt. Hubby was amused so I was mildly reassured.

After departing the last flight, walking forever from one end of the airport to the other to get through Canadian Customs, and conquering all those escalators and moving stairs, we came to the last door out. A revolving door. A revolving door that doesn’t stop moving. I had to walk in and out at just the right moment. I was in disbelief. I managed to get the timing right and we emerged outside with all flights over. Then hubby, the seasoned traveler, turned to me and asked, “Do you remember where we parked?” Seriously? I bit my tongue. We wandered all through that parking lot, at midnight now, 20 hours since we boarded our first flight, up and down rows and rows of vehicles looking for own. When we finally did find it, it was completely coated in ice. We sat inside with the defroster on high waiting for the truck to warm and the ice to thaw. Hubby scraped it some but it was a hefty coating and we were forced to wait a bit.

At last we could leave the airport. As soon as we got on the road, however, construction traffic and road closures blocked hubby’s usual route and he was forced to find a new one. I think we drove through every side street, maybe some a few times, and through 14 tunnels until we finally got out of there. Maybe I’m exaggerating, a little. I now know why people say traveling makes you tired. I found it exhausting. Needless to say, we again slept until midmorning.

In spite of the cold weather, the long travel, lack of water, and yes, even the outhouse I’m glad I went. It was great to see our son and experience a bit of his life and to have a fun adventure with hubby. But still, “Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.” And we did make it home just in the nick of time. The very next day my daughter called to say she was bringing me the kids. She was in labor and by days end we welcomed another grandson. My heart was full.

My name is Bethany Buckles and I reside on a dirt road  in northern Vermont with my husband. I love the outdoors and enjoy all that the four seasons offer, including snowshoeing, gardening, and hunting. We have 4 grown children, 3 of them married and close by which means I am also fortunate enough to spend a lot of time with our grandchildren, We have 8, with #9 due this summer. This story is an entry for your travel nonfiction category. It is about a trip my husband and I took this winter to visit our son who was attending The University of Alaska at Fairbanks at that time. 

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