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bucket list – arctic style

Bucket List. I have to imagine we all have one but we keep putting things off. Work, cost, is that *really* on the list? Sometimes you have to stop and then, just go. Go do it. Put away the excuses and hide the reasons from the logical side of you. So while I had some downtime, I decided recently to shut up and then, just go.
Past bucket list items I’ve checked off include singing on stage with friends. This may not sound like much, but growing up whenever I tried to sing in the car with friends, it was always the “what did you do with the money your mother gave you?” type stuff. Finally making it on stage to sing (courtesy of my good friends, Monkeyshyne!) everything fell into place. No one threw anything at me, I discovered I’ve got a natural “vibrato” (I had to look up what that means, btw) and honestly I have the time of my life. I’ve done it several times since then and count those moments in my life as some of my brightest moments. Overcome fear and discover a new side of yourself.
Ever since I can recall, I’ve been infatuated with the northern lights. I call them that because I can never spell Aorura Boreallas correctly. (Leaving it wrong to prove my point) While I’m not sure if on TV or in a photo somewhere, I always wondered what it would be like to go to Norway and see the lights. While I’ve yet to make it to Norway, (still on the list) I did do some homework and found our Fairbanks, Alaska was a great spot to go see them. So I booked the dream; packed up my camera gear, getting an inexpensive tripod I could put in my suitcase (later to be a downfall but let’s not rush into this) and I went.
I wanted to be clever and book flights that went at night cause it’s a 9+ hour flight plus changing planes. So yea, I’ll sleep through the pain of travel, that’s the ticket! The flight itself was book on Alaska Airlines, BUT American Airlines was to get me to Seattle. The day I was to leave, I checked the flight and sure enough the flight was headed to Seattle.
From Chicago.
I called Alaska Air and ensured I had the right gate number and even they were confused and finally came back with E11; pretty much Alaska’s only gate in DFW. I get dropped off and head inside and the lady behind the counter was confused. The flight from Alaska Air already left. I gave her my info and she did some digging and I needed to go the C terminal and they were to leave in 45 minutes. So haul out to the shuttle area and get shuttled to the proper terminal and wouldn’t you know it, the flight coming *in* From Seattle was an hour late. Well, I only had about an 80 minute layover in Seattle so this got interesting quick.
Another lady sitting behind me was also going to Anchorage (another stop I chose to make I regretted later) from Seattle and she was smart enough to call for a shuttle to get us from the A terminal to C and we got there with minutes to spare. I must admit I never had to go outside to get on a plane before, much less load up from the back of a plane more or less cut in half so cargo can go to Anchorage as well. But this was the long flight and sleep would be coming to me soon.
Who the HELL brings a live cat as personal carry on? Needless to say the constant “meow’ing” right behind me the whole trip made sleep more impossible than Democrats and Republicans agreeing on something. Getting into Anchorage I had about 4 hours to find a spot to sleep and I did; right behind the gate counter where we were supposed to take off. SWEET! No one could see me for the most part and it was dead quiet in the terminal. Terminally quiet???? I so didn’t go there.
Here I was to find that the Anchorage airport has a very LOUD loudspeaker system (so aptly named) and it was their mission in life to tell you time at the top of the hour AND at the 30 minute mark. At the 15 minute mark it was an announcement of what you can’t take on a plane and at the 45 minutes, they told me about all the artwork you could find in the airport. At this point I was so ready to just slam my head into a concrete wall to force some sleep but in time it was time to load up. Looking around, however, no one was there. I checked my ticket, I was at the right gate but it was going to Kodiak, not Fairbanks. Sigh. Haul myself to a new gate, go down the stairs, walk outside and back into the backend of another 737-400 cargo plane.
Finally I made it to Fairbanks but my luggage did not. It would be here around noon, I was to discover so I got my rental car and made my way outside. It was cold, to be sure, but it was the cold I love! I stepped onto the road and didn’t see a “curb” there and before I could take 1 step into Fairbanks I went spinning up in the air and landed on my left knee, although saving my camera equipment. While it hurt like hell to limp to my Taurus, it would’ve hurt a lot more to have to buy another 2.8 lens from Pentax.
Whoever said the Taurus was a full size car never met a full size iceberg. I swear getting into that thing made me feel like self-packing sardines and I had to pull my head in every time putting a kink in my neck from time to time. Anyway, now its 7am and time to go to my room and FINALLY get some sleep. I mean, what else could go wrong?
Check in time is 3pm
I honestly wanted to just about fall over and give up. I went over my story to the desk clerk, explained everything, included the *(*&@&*($) cat crap, and he pointed me to the breakfast area and he’d see what he could do. I think the walking dead look on my face and highly noticeable limp bought me some pity points. He came in about 10 minutes later and said he would fast-track cleaning a room for me and by 9am, I was in my room passed out. Around noon the airline called and my luggage was there and they’d ship it to me. By 4pm I called bullshit then called them 2-3 times and no answer.
Back to the knee-killing airport I go. All the roads are snow packed and I have no idea how to park in Fairbanks so I’m sure I drove through a walking lane to get to the parking lot and another one to get out again, but I did it and my luggage was mine. SHOWER TIME! I used the rest of the night to simply recover, regroup, and try to forget the last 18+ hours of my life. In writing this so far it doesn’t appear I did a good job of that.
I did decide while here to hit all the Diners, Drives Ins and Dives (DDnD from here on out) spots in the North Pole and Fairbanks so I’ll just do a mini review here for all the sites.
First up was Country Café. I wasn’t 100% sure this was a DDnD spot until I walked through the door. Then there was no doubt as Guys pic was all over the place. I was set! The food was good and the chicken fried steak was fresh, not frozen and that makes a HUGE difference to me. Service, meh as I felt pretty ignored at times. Next up I went to the Pagoda Chinese place still in the North Pole. The General Tso’s chicken was a little different, but spot on. Hot and Sour soup, the same. The egg roll was more like an egg-log and a bit hard to eat but tasty when you could. My only complaint was the iced tea was out of a fountain. GRRRRR. Huge pet peeve of mine. They made up for it by hot tea for free they put over the table candle.
Now Fairbanks. 1st up was Big Daddy’s BBQ and Banquet room. I had to say I Googled “what hurts worse coming out my a** then it hurt going in” and oddly enough, a pic of this place showed up. Guy – you steered me wrong here, big time! The burnt ends were soggy pieces of undercooked brisket or chunks of fat I could only eat one or two of them and that was to try and justify the $9 price for an appetizer. I got the rest to go and managed to eat the sausage sandwich through the night but there was nothing special about it. I should have been tipped off when I got to the place at 4:30pm and the parking lot was empty. To anyone going to Fairbanks – avoid like the plague.
On my last day there, it was The Cooke Jar time. I almost didn’t go because the name made it sound like a cookie place but they do have a full menu. I again got chicken fried steak and eggs but this time the steak was prime rib. Odd, to be sure, but very very good! The eggs were fantastic and I honestly never had better scrambled eggs in my life! This would be a repeat visit to be sure if I ever do Fairbanks again.
Now, back to the adventure! The North Pole was fun to do just because, but that was about it. It’s honesty in motion to say there’s not much to do in Fairbanks in the winter, but there’s even less to do in the North Pole. I was surprised how many people I met in Fairbanks who lived there, however. Friendly place, they have a Subway, McDonalds and oddly enough, perhaps the last remaining brick-n-motor Blockbuster.
I made my way to Fox, Alaska at the recommendation of a local as a good spot to photograph the lights. Do you know what is in Fox, Alaska?  A convenience store and the Silver Gulch Saloon, that’s it! The Saloon was also on DDnD (Diners Drive ins and Dives) so I could cross that off my new list. Outside that, a truck weigh station that looked PERFECT to setup that night and take my pics! Back to the hotel and get ready to watch the Walking Dead then head out to my perfect spot! Damn I’m good and brave!
Did you know even closed weigh stations still use their lights in the parking lot at night? So much for perfectly planned perfection I suppose. At this point I just took the road to what looked north and drove to find a spot that I could setup my equipment and hope the lights would cooperate. Several miles down a snow packed road I finally saw a turn out that was about 50 yards long and off the road a bit. PERFECT! I got out, broke out my inexpensive tripod, put my expensive camera and lens on it and pointed it up so I could just let it go for a minute.
To my horror, I slowly watched the camera fell back to a level spot. Fear set in. I reset it, tightened it as best I could and tried again; same results. OK! You wanna play it this way? I CAN DO THAT! I put it up a bit further to test some stars shots. This time the results were quick and it just fell back to a straight up position.
As I’m fighting everything, I slowly come to realize where I am. I’m somewhere in the middle of frozen nowhere with woods all around me and a car that takes me 38 seconds to get into. I wasn’t sure if shining my pocket light into the woods was a good, or bad idea. Given everything that was happening anyway, “bad idea” seemed to be written all over this so I packed up and headed back, calling it a night. I swear I heard a wolf howl, even if only in my mind.
By Monday evening, I had txt’d my sister more times in the last 24 hours than I had the last year. But she was pushing me and excited I was taking the trip and doing all she could to help. We decided I would find a guide to help me do this right. If I can’t take pics, I can at least still go see them! I found – a tour guide place that had some great tours, but I was only here 3 more functional days – was anything open? I called but no answer. Left voice mail with my panic saying I’d take any tour they have, bus or plane just let me know! Sent a txt to their contact and by lunch Tuesday I got a reply saying they had an Aorura (I’m serious, I can’t spell it!) Arctic Circle adventure that would leave at 11am and come back between 2-3am the next day!
Like a Polar Bear in heat, I pounced on this opportunity! Anxious to find out more about the tour, I rushed back to my room and researched it and JUST DAMN! Leave, go to the Arctic Circle (of which I put it on my list so I could check it off) and coming back, we’d make several stops to “hunt lights”. It was nirvana and not the 90s kind. I called, paid and was set. Be there by 10:30 and bring food. They’d supply dinner but I’d have to cover everything else.
I got there and I was amazed at the number of people going. 22 of us in total and 16 of them were Japanese. We loaded up in a 24 seat van and I sat at the back, fortunate enough to not have someone sitting next to me.
The Wildwood General store was the first stop and it’s where I found the lemonaid stand. It seemed like a joke to me but the guide said in the summer, it was so popular they had to move it off the road and closer to the store because it was backing up traffic. Oh yea, Outhouse stop! I withheld and refused to stand in line to pee in a wooden box. That and I just didn’t have to go.
The next stop was the pipeline and man alive, this was definitely “out there” in regard to nothing else around you. FYI – no outhouses on this stop.  Next up was to sit on blue mats and sled down a 20 foot slope. I wasn’t going to haul my out of shape hiney up the slope so I just took pics and laughed at 18 Japanese sliding down usually ending in a snow covered tumble. But they were having a great time and that was the point of all this, ya know?
From here it just got, surreal as twilight was on the horizon. We drove over the frozen Yukon River and pulled over for yet another outhouse break. Not me! I made it this far and I refuse to stand in line! That and I didn’t have to go, so take some pics instead. We had about an hour of daylight so we let go of the opportunity to drive onto the river and setup hot drinks as it would take that long to get to the circle.
We did make 1 final stop at Finger Mountain, named because of Finger shaped rock coming up out of the snow. The scenery along the way to the Arctic Circle was simply breathtaking. Tracks in the snow from various wildlife, barren snow covered mountains, trees dressed in white and then nothing. When I say “nothing” I mean no rocks, no trees, no tracks…just snow covered tundra. This is what felt so surreal.
We finally got to the circle and everyone was taking their turn getting pictures of “crossing the white line on the red carpet”. This is the official rite of passage and one of the top reasons for the trip itself. Back on the bus it was getting dark and dinner was served. Have you ever heard of “heater meals”? Open box, open bag, open water packet, put water in back, put meal face down on white surface, close bag, put in box and wait 15 minutes.
Screw that, where’s the extra sandwich I got at Safeway that morning? Come to papa! The process of heater meals appeared to be pretty complex and for some it just didn’t work. For others, I’d have to think they wish they got extra food also because it just did not look appetizing.
The cloud cover at the circle would prevent any light watching here, and it was still early, around 8pm. We loaded back up and headed south, all of us praying to see stars along the way, indicating at least a chance to see the lights. Little buggers don’t always cooperate, ya know?
With a ton of relief, we did start seeing stars peek through and we were given at least a fighting chance to do what we’ve all frozen our body parts off at this point to do. Coby, our guide, stopped at Finger Mountain to look. He came back in, sat down and had to break the news that no, no lights. Not yet.
Back to the Yukon River turn out and we couldn’t be sure but we were going to get on the frozen river and wait a bit. Great idea, but a gas supply truck that refilled a local village got stuck coming off the river and blocked the path. He thought we were the tow truck and not real happy to find out we’re a group of tourists doing crazy things in the middle of the night.
The Japanese group setup shop and I must admit, they were much more prepared that I was. You see, I LOVE the cold. Only I seem to love TEXAS cold and it’s quite a bit different. I also certainly was not dressed nearly as well as I should have been. The sky looked more like a green mist than anything else but from the camera shots they were taking, there *was* some aurura (spelling) activity. Hope was shining a bit more brightly this arctic cold evening. Pack up and keep on moving.
Coby pulled over 20 minutes later where he could and got out, walked to the back of the bus, and then came back in and said “come on out and look!”
There they were. It was like this faded green mist slowly changing shape but it was the northern lights, pure and simple. I asked Coby if this was normally how bright they are and he said they can get a bit brighter, but as he also found out from this trip, they look nothing like you see in photos. Cameras can take a minute to pull in the lights, making them appear brighter than they really are in life.
But this was real life and a bucket list item I had before I even know of a bucket list was crossed off in the most memorable fashion I could ever have asked for. I stayed out as long as I could stand it, got back on the bus to warm up some and went out again. And again. Words were a waste of time at this point and I actually had to fight back a tear or two on just how beautiful it was.
Finally even the prepared were cold and we needed to head south if we were to ever make it back in time. We did pull over 2 more times through the night and each time was its own memory so well worth the effort.
We got in around 4:30am and I headed back to the hotel to get some sleep. You simply can’t sleep on one of those buses because the pavement pisses off the permafrost, melting it and putting waves in the road. I lost count of how many times we bottomed out the bus on the trip but each one hurt. Between the bumps in the road and the glass next to you is -15*, which was the coldest we hit on the way back. I honestly think I could have withstood that but when you put an arctic wind behind that? Even this iceberg has his “too cold” points, I was to find.
Here I now remembered that I had not gone to the restroom in what would now be 19 hours and rushing into my room, I barely saved myself the embarrassment of telling this part of the adventure. WHEW. I need to get ahold of Coby and see if anyone else has ever “held it” while taking that trip? For the record, I don’t recommend it.
Since the trip was to take pics of the lights, part of me was upset I couldn’t take the pictures I wanted because of my choice in tripods and lack of pre-testing, there are pictures of this in my mind that will never fade. I can’t share these, unfortunately, but I can encourage you to not sit there and wait for a good time to live a dream.
Today is as good as any.