An experience, I remind my husband around Christmas every year. I don’t want new trekking poles, tires, kitchen accessories or anything else that I could buy myself. What I really want as a Christmas gift is something for us to do together, something to share.
My card last year congratulated me on three nights at Tolovana Hot Springs, north of Fairbanks.
I asked for an experience, and boy did I get one.
Quick pause for context, and a short disclaimer about me. Fellow Alaskans, I would like to take this moment to remind you that generally you are crazy. I mean that in a good way, I think. Particularly Fairbanks people: You don’t seem to have that switch in your brain that flicks on normal animal reactions to physical stress, such as discomfort or pain. In fact, I think some of you people enjoy and actively seek out those situations.
Me? I consider myself Alaskan, but not that Alaskan. Meaning, my difficulty threshold is not high. I’m keenly aware of the difference between my couch and everywhere else. I sense even the most moderate uphill grade.
Let me tell you, there is nothing moderate about accessing Tolovana Hot Springs.
In retrospect, I should have mentally prepared myself better. Very capable friends who have skied out there described the journey as “epic.” Maybe 11 miles seems like nothing, they said, but there are some real hills, and there’s always something that makes the journey even more intense: wind, classic Interior winter temperatures, cars not starting upon return to the trailhead.
Other friends just got a faraway look in their eye that I mistook for nostalgia.
Then, there was my friend who snowmachined in. I thought of him often while out there on the trail. Him and his snowmachine, and his big smile upon recalling the trip. Him and his 45-minute journey, as opposed to my five-hour slog.
It started out benignly enough. It was a more-beautiful-than-normal March day: bright, blue skies and warm.
My husband and I skied across the parking lot looking, I think, spry and solid with our backpacks loaded up with three days’ worth of food, including the essentials like good Scotch. Two women who were preparing at their car to hike out commented as we passed that they had just been talking about how scary some of the hills on the trail out would be on skis.
“You guys good skiers?” one of them asked.
“Yep, pretty good!” I said cheerfully as I skied past.
Running the risk of sounding like a whiner, or worse, incapable, I’m going to share here what I would have loved to have known about the trail going in: It is a snowmachine trail.
On the one hand, that grooming makes the trail nice and hard-packed (depending on the season and other conditions, of course) for skiers, hikers, snowshoers and even fat-tire cyclists. On the other hand, the trail is quite simply designed for machines that seek the fastest way to get from point A to point B: straight up, and straight down. The trail is also the width of a snowmachine at most points, flanked by trees on either side.
Since I couldn’t make any turns or even really engage a snowplow stance for long, I quickly discovered that the best way to stop if I felt I was going too fast was to sit down. Put another way, I fell. A lot.
Because of stubbornness, it took me most of the herringbone, two-steps-forward-and-one-step-back journey up a 1,270-foot ascent on the way in to realize I could make quicker and less wasteful progress if I simply took off my skis.
Looking forward to making faster progress on the downhill to the cabin turned out to be a farce, because it was still too steep and narrow for me to ski effectively. Maybe not for everyone, but certainly for me.
By the time we reached our cabin, I had hit delirium. Luckily, the sky had also hit peak warmth: an amazing nearly 50 degrees. The woods were still. Birch bark peeling off trees was warmly backlit by the sun. We stripped off our wet layers and lay them on the small cabin porch railing. We marveled that our bottle of Scotch survived, even after all those falls.
The hot springs? They were amazing. The place is remote, in a stunning only-in-Alaska kind of a way. It’s the kind of place that visitors help to improve and take care of, where card games and some extra coffee were left behind in our warm, well-appointed cabin. We spent three full days and nights walking across spring snow from cabin to hot spring and back, surrounded by a profound kind of quiet.
Hiking out was not nearly as harrowing as the ski in despite double the elevation gain. We traded off hiking and skiing more frequently and strategically, which led to far fewer falls and a much happier me.
If this experience sounds like something you, too, might wish to ask for next Christmas, check out the Tolovana Hot Springs website: tolovanahotsprings.com.
Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.