A Travellerspoint blog

Off to see the Northern Lights I

Flight to FAI, Chena Hot Springs.

sunny 0 °F

Seeing the Northern Lights (NLs) has been on my bucket list for a few years. When Chris was here in August, I told him I wanted to fly to Fairbanks (FAI) AK to view the NLs in Jan. His vote was 'no.' OK, I would check with my friends and see if anyone wanted to make the effort to see the NLs this winter. All voted no either because of cost or cold weather. OK, I would go alone.

I started my planning and found out it would be best to be there with a new moon. With that info, I looked at the calendar and decided on Feb. 3rd through the 10th. New moon was Feb. 8th, so my entire week in FAI would be as dark as possible. Unfortunately, to get the best price, I will arrive in FAI at midnight. All the cheaper flights: LAS-FAI leave Seattle around 9pm, arriving in FAI at midnight. I picked the 9th Ave. Hostel for my bed and e-mailed Cho, the Korean owner. I needed a lower bunk as I am too old to climb up to the top bunk. He locked in a lower bunk for my 7 days and told me taxis would be waiting when I arrived.

Feb. 3rd arrived and I drove over to McCarran's park & ride lot. Best deal IMO for my situation. You can park for free for 7 days and take the shuttle bus over to the airport. $2 each way. I parked, bus to T-1 where Delta flew to Seattle. Flight OK, had plenty of time in Sea-Tac, ate, teeth, walked, stretched, read my book. Alaska flt 117 left at 9:30pm for FAI. Got in on time and got my gear together. I only had a carry on bag. If it did not go in that bag, I did not bring it. Rolled my bag outside and got my first intro to AK. It was zero, (-17c) outside! Back inside, got on my gloves, hat and rolled my bag to the next taxi in line. He knew where the 9th Ave Hostel was and off we go. About 15 minutes and $20 later, I was there. A 'closed' sign was in the window, this is not good news at 12:30am. Knocked on the door and then saw the sign, 'door is unlocked'. Cho was waiting for me and checked me in using his smart phone. Swiped my credit card and a receipt was sent to my e-mail. There is a computer in the front room for all to use. I checked my e-mail and there was the $210 charge for 7 nights at the hostel. I joined Scott, Nancy & Debbie at the kitchen table and had some hot chocolate. They were on the same plane and got in 5 minutes before me. All 3 were there for the Yukon Quest dog sled race. They volunteer each year and are friends of Cho. He showed me my bunk, stored my gear at the end of my bed. After about 30 minutes of chatting with Scott, Nancy, time for bed. I used my flashlight rather than wake-up a guy sleeping in the lower bunk across from me. My long first day was over.

Thursday I was up early, 6:30am. I don't sleep very well in my own bed, let alone a single bunk with a guy snoring. Had some hot chocolate, e-mailed, waited for someone else to come upstairs. Scott came up and I got some news. Cho had flown to China shortly after I checked in. The reason for the 'closed' sign was no more guests would be allowed in until Cho came back in 2 weeks. Scott, Nancy, Debby would be running the hostel in his absence. I asked about walking to the store and was told Debbie has a daughter in FAI and they could use her car. They walked over to get it, came back for me and we went to Safeway. I bought my oatmeal, bread, apples, bananas, eggs, PBJ, etc for the week. Back to the hostel, meet the guy snoring, Till from China. Two brothers from Mexico, Andre & Fabio were having BF. They were bunking in the downstairs living room. Cho put 2 bunk beds in that area when you come down the stairs. The other room is for ladies. At least this week. That room has its own bathroom. The guys use the one upstairs. Andre told me they were off to visit Chena Hots Springs. OK, see you this evening. Quiet day, read, computer, TV. When the bros. came back around 6pm, I asked them how it went. They ended up not renting a car and just did some sightseeing downtown FAI. They would go to Chena Hot Springs on Friday. I asked them if it would be alright if I joined them and paid half of the rental. They agreed and we chatted, dinner, TV, computer, my exercises, bed at 10pm.

Friday I got up early, oatmeal, toast, computer, and waited for someone else to get up. By 10am the sun was up, the bros. had BF and then called for a taxi. We went over to Enterprise Rental and Andre started getting a car. The roads were clear, no snow in FAI for a month. But, he wanted the Dodge Challenger that had all wheel drive. OK, my half was $40 with insurance. We had the map and headed for Chena. It is about an hour outside of FAI and colder as well. The resort sits in a valley and cold air settles in the valley. FAI was about 15 (-9c) when we left, Chena was 8 (-13). Parked, photos, found the building for the hot springs. Paid the $15 to use the facilities for all day. Chena has a box of bathing suits available, free to use. We all grabbed one, changed, showered. They have several indoor hot tubs, but we wanted to outdoor main hot springs. With no footwear, we stepped lively on the concrete to the warm water. It was around 102 (40c) and has a sand bottom. Really a nice set-up. I recommend visiting Chena when you are in FAI. We stayed in too long, almost an hour. You really start to feel weak if you overdo it. Out, shower, time for lunch.


We decided to visit the Ice Museum while we were there. Signed up, $15, had lunch at the snack bar in that building and waited for our tour. Chena has a proper restaurant, but we made do with soup, sandwiches. Tour time arrives and we follow our guide over to the Ice Museum. It was close to where we parked. There are double doors to keep the temp at a constant 15 (-9c) so the ice won't melt. It was warmer in the building than out! We lasted about 30 minutes, had our photos and wanted to warm up in the car. Final photos, fire up the car and head back.

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Andre turned the Dodge back in and Enterprise drove us back to the hostel. Scott, Nancy & Debbie were treating all of us to a chicken stir fry dinner. Cho keeps the hostel at a constant 70 (35c) so we got out of our cold weather gear and waited for the big meal. Great dinner, some of us even had seconds! Friday had been a good day and was glad I could tag along with the brothers to visit Chena. I would not have rented a car and done it on my own. Friday was clear but cold and conditions looked good for viewing the NLs. Most vans leave FAI at 10pm, so I had plenty of time after dinner to decide. I called and they thought it would be a good night for viewing, clear skies. It is $75 to go out to Chandalar Ranch, so I called and signed up. The van came, paid the driver and then make the rounds of FAI hotels to pick up the rest of the group. The NLs were on display when we got out of the van at 11pm. Unfortunately, by the time I got downstairs and ready to shoot, the clouds rolled in. A wasted night as the NLs were not visible all the way to 2am when we drove back to FAI. Win some, lose some. Friday night was a loss.

Posted by vegasmike6 15:45 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Off to see the Northern Lights II

Yukon Quest, Northern Lights, Super Bowl

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After another poor night sleep, I got up at 6:30am and headed upstairs. Hot chocolate, toast, wait for someone else to hit the kitchen. Scott, Nancy & Debbie were upstairs at 7am and ready for BF. They were going over for the Yukon Quest, premier dog sled race in Fairbanks. Scott & Nancy would help with the start of the race, then drive to Circle AK to check in the teams as they arrived. The Yukon Quest is 1,000 miles (1,600km) long and takes 7-8 days to complete. I would not see Scott & Nancy again. They would not be back in FAI until Wed. afternoon and I had to be at the airport by 10am for my flight home. Debbie would be taking care of the hostel while Scott & Nancy were gone. They drove away at 8am. Andre & Fabio came up at 9am and called for a taxi. We exchanged e-mail address, said goodbye and they started the long trek back to Mexico. I had my oatmeal, banana, toast, hot choc. then got ready to walk over for the race.

I packed my day pack with camera, granola bars, water, map and started walking. Cho has FAI maps in the living room and I had asked Scott the easiest way to walk downtown. Pretty easy really. The hostel in on 9th Ave. Walk to 1st Ave, turn right, walk to downtown. It was cold, about 10 (-14c) but walking helped warm me up a bit. Once I crossed Airport Rd, I just followed the crowd. Within 10 minutes I was at the starting area for the Yukon Quest. Got out my camera and got some shots of the trucks, kennels and the mushers getting their dogs ready. The PA announces when the race starts and most of us try to get a spot to watch/photo the teams as they leave the starting line.
The teams follow the frozen Chena River for several miles before they go overland. I walked away from the crowds to get better photos, got an overhead shot and then walked to the Visitors Center to warm up. Into the VC, bathroom, warm up. There is a bus stop right outside and decided to take the bus back to the hostel. I found out from Cho that all seniors ride for free. Nice perk and makes it easy to get around FAI, including the airport. I took the red line to the Noel Wien Library, got out and looked for a book to buy. I brought a Jack Reacher novel with me but finished it. I thought there would be plenty of paperbacks at the hostel but none I wanted to read. I found one worth buying and walked back to the hostel. It is only 1 block from the library. 9th Ave Hostel really is a good location. Right on the red line for the bus, can walk to downtown, restaurants, bars, library.
The hostel was empty when I got there. Cho gives you a code to get in the back entrance, the mud room where you take off your boots. I showered, got into comfortable clothes, e-mailed, read and waited for Debbie or Till to come back. Till arrived and started packing. He leaves at 8pm for the airport and that leaves Debbie and I in the hostel. I had my scrambled eggs, toast at 6pm and decided to go out for the NLs again. The aurora website said it would be a good night so I booked the van again. At 9:30pm the van arrived, I was first on again. First on, last off. The driver made the same rounds as Friday, picking up fellow NLs viewers from various FAI hotels. We got to Chandalar Ranch at around 11pm and the NLs were on display. Same routine, downstairs, stand in the snow, got a few photos and then I decided to go up to the balcony. I did not have the use of a tripod tonight. An earlier photographer rented it before I got there. But, I got some good shots by using the railing and holding the camera as steady as I could. It was zero (-17c) at the ranch that night so we went in to warm up, back out for more photos many times. The NLs really fired off tonight and all of us were glad we came to the ranch Sat. night.
The real treat for several of my group were the Chinese girls. It was Chinese New Year that weekend and Chandalar Ranch was packed with Chinese. They have rooms, food, tours and some guests basically spend their holiday at the ranch. When the NLs were really active, pulsating regularly, several of the girls laid down in the snow and started screaming in Chinese. Well, young girls get excited and they let loose! It was fun for the older crowd with me on the balcony. None of us are going to lay in the snow and none of the men are going to scream about seeing the NLs. No matter how spectacular they were! This is why I came to AK in Feb. The NLs really were special tonight and I got to see & photograph them. Everyone at Chandalar Ranch knew they saw something special tonight. Viewing the NLs really are a crap shoot. Some nights are cloudy, some nights they just don't fire off. It all depends on the sun. When there is a high amount of solar flares, you get active NLs. I was told if you are in FAI for 7 days, you have a 70% chance of seeing them. I got home at 3am and went to bed. I will have the room to myself until I leave. That was really a lucky break. When it is busy, there will be four guys in this room.
Sunday was Super Bowl Sunday and the buses don't run. Not much I wanted to accomplish today. I had my oatmeal, chat with Debbie, decided to walk both for fitness and to see if there was a bar where I wanted to watch the Super Bowl. It was about an hour before kickoff and the streets of FAI were basically deserted. Took a few photos, went into a bar, but their menu was basically meat. Since I am a veggie, decided it was not for me. Walked home and watched the Super Bowl with Debbie. We both wanted Denver to win, so it was an enjoyable experience. We had the leftover stir fry, computer, read, chat, did my exercises, shower, went to bed at 10pm.

Posted by vegasmike6 16:27 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Off to see the Northern Lights III

Museum of the North, Arctic Circle Tour

sunny 0 °F

I was up early as usual. Waited for Debbie to get up, had my BF and decided to visit the UAF Museum of the North. We chatted and she said it was worth visiting. I got the red line bus in front of the library, out at Fred Meyer. Transferred to the Blue line bus, it stops at UAF. Then you get on a free UAF shuttle that takes you right to the Museum. Paid $17, entrance plus movies. They run 3 movies on Alaska, I saw all 3. In between the movies, I would stroll the exhibits. Plenty of photo ops, plenty of walking. After seeing everything I wanted, I hit the Gift Shop. I bought a NLs calendar, well worth the $14. Every photo better than most of us could ever take. Of course they are pros, live in AK and can go out every night. Took the shuttle to bus stop, blue line to Fred Meyer. I saw a Subway across the street from the Safeway store. I bought a foot long veggie delite, bought some bananas, bus to hostel. Had my Subway, computer, read, hung out until Debbie came back. She was visiting with her daughter and had a good day as well. Did my exercises, shower, TV, read, bed at 10pm.
Tuesday was going to be my last day in FAI and I had signed up for the Arctic Circle (AC) tour. $220. A bit more than I wanted to pay, but I had e-mailed Jean about it and she told me to go. How often would I be close to the AC? True, so I put it on my credit card and got over it. I did go for a walk after BF, back, then my exercises. Shower, packed my bag, got ready for the tour. I was picked up first, then Matthew picked up the other people. A family from China, college age daughter spoke very good English. A couple from Minnesota, Matt & Linda were at the Wal-Mart waiting. They were staying outside of FAI and had driven their rental to Wal-Mart. Off we go to the AC. First stop is a well known petrol station/restaurant a few hours outside FAI. I have seen it on Ice Road Truckers. Bathroom, walk around, onward. We are paralleling the Trans-Alaska Pipeline or TAPS. All vans stop at the main pull out. Plenty of parking, pipeline close to the road. We all got our photos, learned about the pipeline.

Next stop was Wickersham Creek Trail. Matthew gives us enough time for bathroom break, short hike if we so choose. We turned onto the Dalton Highway and got out at the sign. Matthew took the group photo with my Nikon and then it quit working, Cold battery was the culprit. I switched to my Canon G11 and kept it warm as I could for the rest of the tour.
We crossed the Yukon River and stopped at the rest area. Vehicles are not allowed to stop on the bridge. Cameras are monitored 24/7 for bad behavior we were told. Bathroom break and several walked down to the river. It was cold, dark and I stayed in the van. Linda took a flash photo and it was not bad. Should of gone down to the river. I asked her to send me the photo but she never did. We stopped when the Chinese father saw snow covered trees and wanted a photo of them We all pile out it really hits you how cold it is out here. Back in the van and we drive until we hit the AC sign. Other vans are there first and we wait in the warm van until they get their shots. Finally it is our turn and I have Linda take several of me at the sign. Then Matthew takes a group shot and we scurry back into the warm van. Matthew tells us his thermometer says it is -17 (-27c) at the sign. It is 10pm and we will stay until midnight to see if the NLs come out. Hot chocolate is served and I eat my last half of my Subway sandwich.

We have a tripod to share and around 11:00pm the NLs do fire off. We take turns sharing the tripod and I get a few good ones. I had the Chinese girl stand there for a more interesting shot. Just as it was time to leave for the long drive back, we got very lucky. I had really only seen green NLs so far, but we got some other colors at midnight. Got probably my best shot and Matthew told us we had to leave if we were to get back by 4am.

Not much talking on the way back. Most of us tried to sleep or at least rest. Matthew dropped off Linda & Matt, then the Chinese family and I was last. We all talked about giving Matthew a tip and decided $10/person was fair. He really knows Alaska, the Dalton, pipeline and was a good driver. You want a steady hand on these snowy, icy roads. They do carry emergency SAT phones, flares, food, water if the van breaks down in the middle of nowhere. I was last off and was in bed about 4:30am. Going to be a short night's sleep as I wanted to get up at 7am, to shower, eat, pack and get on the 8am bus to the airport. Red line to Fred Meyer, change to yellow line to the airport.

In order to get a better price, they had me fly to Anchorage, 3 hours, then Seattle. An hour and then on to Vegas. Got into McCarran around midnight. Long day and was ready to shower, go to bed. My Alaska NLs adventure was over. I am glad I went, got to see the NLs and visit the AC. Doubt I will go up to FAI again. Once was enough I think. There are other places I want to see first before I would do that again.

Posted by vegasmike6 23:02 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Las Vegas Neon Museum

Touring the Neon Boneyard

sunny 65 °F

One of the Senior centers where I deal Hold 'Em poker offered a tour of the Las Vegas Neon Museum aka Neon Boneyard (NB) last month. Carl and I decided to go and paid our $10. Seniors normally pay $12, $15 everyone else for the day tour. The day of our tour we all met at the Las Vegas Senior Center, close to both Fremont Street and the NB. We walked over as a group and waited for our tour time.


Our guide Mitch introduced himself and he found out where we were from. Four locals, guys from LA, a couple from Chicago, some from Florida. The tour follows a set path going counter clockwise as you enter the boneyard. Hotels, motels, bars, restaurants have donated their signs over the years and Young Electric Sign Com. (YESCO) stored them at their own facility. The City of Las Vegas decided that they wanted to display some of the more famous signs and worked out a deal with YESCO. This land was made available for the Neon Boneyard and the project began. When the La Concha Hotel was torn down to make way for another project, the NB wanted their distinctive lobby for their entrance and gift shop It was cut into seven pieces and trucked to this location. Then it had to be re-assembled and became the centerpiece of the NB. The sign out front was made from letters from Golden Nugget, Caesars Palace, Binion's Horseshoe, Desert Inn, star is from the Stardust.

Mitch told us the rules, stay on the path, don't cross the rock barriers (one lady did and got chastised), no tripods, no video. OK, I can live with that. The tour starts out with older signs, motels, restaurants. He gave everyone enough time for photos and explained the history of many of the signs. The Golden Nugget sign has 1905 on it and it certainly did not exist in 1905. It was built in 1946, greatly re-modeled in 1973 when Steve Wynn bought it and the first hotel tower opened in 1997. The GN then became the classiest hotel downtown. He asks us why 1905 is on the sign and I provided the answer. Las Vegas had a land auction in 1905 and we officially became a town. Las Vegas means 'the meadows' in old Spanish. This is why people have been in the LV Valley for thousands of years. There was a natural flowing spring where The Springs Preserve is now located. We had fresh water and life depends on water when you are in a desert. We were a water stop for the trains running between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. I am sure Mitch got tired of me answering his questions for the group, but hey, I was born in Vegas and knew the answers. Hard to resist showing off for the tour group! Several of the others on the tour starting asking me questions about growing up in LV and how the city has changed since I stared school in the 50s.


On we go until we head for the exit. The newer, better known signs like the Stardust and the Riviera are at the end of the tour. As you can see in the pictures, we had a decent day. It was a bit windy, cool, bit overcast but overall a nice day for Feb.


I enjoyed the tour of the NB and would recommend it to visitors that have an hour to kill when they are downtown.

Posted by vegasmike6 22:18 Archived in USA Tagged wildflowers Comments (0)

Death Valley Wildflowers

Off the see the 'Super Bloom'.

sunny 85 °F

I had been following the news of the 'Super Bloom' of wildflowers online and in the Review Journal. I called the Death Valley National Park (DVNP) Ranger station and he confirmed that the wildflowers were at peak. He said the best bloom right now were those south Of Badwater Basin. I talked to my neighbor Jean and asked her if she wanted to drive over to see the wildflowers. Yes! was her answer. Her daughter Jackie was visiting and wanted to go as well. We picked Tuesday March 1st as our day to visit DVNP. I figured Tuesday would be less busy than the weekend.

I wanted to leave at 7am, but the ladies thought 8am was more realistic. I fired up my Odyssey and picked them up. Since they live across the street, it was not a difficult task! We drove state route 160 to Pahrump, and then state route 190 straight to the Furnace Creek Visitors Center. Bathroom break, chat with the Ranger on duty, got a wildflower map and we headed for Badwater Basin on 178. We started seeing yellow flowers as we approached Badwater, but knew the best fields of wildflowers would be south of Badwater Basin. At mile marker 20, we saw lots of cars pulled off the road and people walking among the flowers. I found a spot to pull over and we all got out. I grabbed my Canon G11 and walked out into the vast field of yellow flowers. Great vistas of flowers in every direction. Several couples ask me to take their photo and of course agreed. One lady had a professional video camera on a tripod. She told several of us that she was in DVNP yesterday and thought the best expanse of flowers were between mile post 25 & 26. After getting all the shots I wanted, I told Jean & Jackie that we would drive down to mile post 25.


That turned out to be great advice. Plenty of places to safely pull off the road. I parked and walked out among the flowers. This was the best spot for flowers and I started getting shot after shot. I was happy to stay a bit longer, but both ladies said it was too hot and wanted some a/c. I fired up the van and got the a/c going. It was mid 80s (30c) on March 1st, very pleasant day. Warm enough for shorts, but not really hot. We drove back to Badwater Basin and got out for a few photos of the sign. Badwater is 282 feet (85.5m) below sea level. Also the hottest place in the US with a record high of 134 (56.6c). Badwater came by its name honestly. The water that seeps out of the surrounding mountains is so salty to be undrinkable for man or beast. DVNP in the summer months is almost unbearable. It routinely goes over 120 (48c). Then you really need the a/c going and plenty of water! A few shots of Jean & Jackie on the salt flats extending out from Badwater Basin and we called it a day.


I drove back to Pahrump and we picked Denny's for our lunch stop. After lunch I filled up the gas tank and back to Las Vegas. We got home at 4:30 and all agreed it had been a successful day. We got to see the Super Bloom and I had the photos to prove it!

Posted by vegasmike6 19:43 Archived in USA Tagged flowers Comments (0)

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