Steam rises in the cold air and we cross a creek that is running freely, not frozen. We’re at Chena Hot Springs — off the grid, no mobile phone, no internet. Public radio still gets to places in Alaska where other communications don’t reach. To run my credit card the resort had to use one of the old fashioned machines that makes carbons. My new Visa card has a chip, a strip, but no embossed numbers. When the carbons didn’t print the clerk had to write in the number. No Internet, no phone, lots of time to chat with the other guests. Many are Alaskans. The staff calls it “Alaska week.” And Alaskans get a 30% discount. The winter direct flights from Tokyo to Fairbanks start in a week and a half. Then there will be a lot of Japanese visitors. Many of the signs at the resort are bilingual and some of the staff is Japanese. But this week we sit in the outdoor warm springs with air temps ranging to 30 below and talk with folks from every part of the state. It’s a reunion of people who have never met. I feel some pride when I say I’m from Sitka and someone says “The Emerald Gem of Alaska.” I swim blind because of the steam. I gave loud moos, foghorn style, as I side stroke through the water. I see more looking through the water than through the air.
The Chena Hot Springs Resort was started in 1905 by a miner who wanted to get some relief from rheumatism. Over time a road to Fairbanks was built along with roadhouses. It is about 60 miles so it was a two or three day trek. Now, with a good road, it is a little over an hour’s drive from Fairbanks. In the 1990s the state was running the resort and was losing money, largely because of the amount of energy it takes to heat the buildings and generate electricity. The State sold the resort to a guy named Bernie Carl. Bernie came north with the Pipeline and after it was built he got into recycling pipeline surplus, buildings, equipment, whatever. He moved whole pipeline “camps” to the highway system.
When Bernie bought Chena he diverted some of the geothermal water to heat the buildings. When we were there in 2004 he had built an ice hotel with the idea of keeping it going year round using energy generated with hot water to power refrigeration. It didn’t work, the ice hotel melted that summer. He went back to work, using geothermal energy to build a bigger heat absorption refrigeration system. Ice carvers Heather and Steve Brice rebuilt the hotel in 2005. The walls are no longer ice blocks but refrigeration coils covered with insulated material printed to look like ice blocks. Interior walls are still ice block. There are ice carvings, a bar, a wedding chapel, and an approximation of the Aurora lit by little colored LEDs. There is also an ice xylophone that actually plays. But don’t hit too hard. Some of the ice is clear, some cloudy, some has bubbles and some has twigs or grass trapped when it froze on a lake. The carvers have frozen fresh flowers from the resorts gardens into blocks of ice. The ice is lit with colored LEDs that change the mood of the pieces as the colors change. The ice bar serves drinks in martini glasses turned on a lathe and there’s a workshop that gives ice carving lessons. The structure has been rebranded “Ice Museum” rather than “Ice Hotel” so it doesn’t need a fire suppression system. (Tomorrow’s post will all be pictures of the Ice Museum. Here are 3 to get your interest.)
In 2004 Bernie also decided he wanted to generate geothermal electricity. That was difficult because his water is not hot enough to create steam. Engineers solved this using a refrigerant R 134 A, the one that new refrigerators use to replace Freon. The water that comes out of a well drilled into the geothermal area is 165 degrees F. It evaporates the refrigerant, which has a low boiling point. The refrigerant steam turns a turbine, it goes into a condenser where cold water from another well cools the refrigerant for reuse. The hot water is re-injected into the well. Initially that caused a problem. In the first 5 years water temperature from the well dropped a degree a year. They drilled deeper to get hotter water and re-inject the cooler water not so deep so it can reheat as it filters down. They don’t want to deplete the aquifer. The power plant is housed in an old Hanger from Prudhoe Bay.
The two geothermal generators provide most of the resort’s power quietly. I say most because the thermal generators are not good at setting a true 60 cycles. They use a small diesel generator to set the timing. That may soon end because Chena power got a new Chinese generator which works more efficiently and will set the frequency accurately. They had it running last year but it’s off line now because of some problems with welds. The resort literature says that this type of power plant may be useful for about 170 places in Alaska, villages off the grid that have warm rather than hot springs.
So how do you use the excess power that you generate when you’re off the grid? The resort uses water to heat greenhouses. Extra electricity operates LED grow lights. With some knowhow from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks they grow “Chena Fresh Produce” year around. You eat fresh at the resort and they are expanding “Chena Fresh” to stores in Fairbanks. A tomato plant can produce fresh tomatoes for about 14 months. They claim to be the furthest north commercial greenhouse in the world. The resort also keeps its own chickens for fresh eggs.
Chena Hot Springs is in a deep valley. If the Aurora is low on the northern horizon you can’t see it well from the springs, so the resort offers excursions up to the top of Charlie Dome with a 360o view. There are Yurts there for warming. We sat up until 2 AM watching for the Aurora. The University of Alaska Geophysical Institute predicted a powerful magnetic storm that could produce a powerful Aurora. But the moon was bright and there were clouds to the North so what we saw was not as spectacular as I’ve seen in the past, but I did get a chance to try my new camera and got a few nice shots. I got to bed at 3 AM. When I got up to use the toilet at 8 I saw the Aurora outside our window. I watched the sun overcome the colored bands.
On Friday night the resort picked up. A busload on church retreat arrived and the Fairbanks shuttle picked up some international visitors, the vanguard for the season. We had some French, Taiwanese, Japanese and Columbians. Friday night had good promise for aurora watching, clear skies and a magnitude 5 Aurora predicted. Around 10:00 PM guests gathered in the building that holds an activity center, café and glassed fronted viewing area looking north, past the landing strip. It has rows of seats. Suzi and I passed the time in the café with coffee and books. The couple on the couch behind us was necking, getting in the mood for the Aurora. Out in the activity room several people prepared cameras on tripods. Outside on the airstrip two tripods were already set up. One photographer had a stocking cap over his camera to protect it from the minus 25 temperatures. Another couple had a camera set up with the display on. I thought they may have seen something. Why else would they keep the display on in this temperature? Cold drains batteries and can damage the display (I have one camera with a frostbitten display from taking pictures in 13 degree Sitka weather.) I asked them if they saw a trace of aurora. The woman said “No, I have never seen one, I don’t want to miss. I am so excited!” Back in the heated glassed in viewing area two visitors in rented bunny boots and parkas sat motionless, staring straight out the glass to the north. At midnight Suzi and I decided to go to bed, we had been up until 3 AM the night before. The front desk promised to wake us if the aurora appeared. (The knock never came, the predicted magnetic storm was a fizzle). Before going to bed I went out to the airstrip with camera and tripod to take one time exposure of the northern sky, full of stars but no aurora. I walked back through the glassed in viewing area. The couple was still sitting there, staring north, stoically waiting for Godot.