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Back on the Ground

Thursday, 19 September 2023, Healy AK

Good news greeted me when I turned on my phone in Sea-Tac: the guide was all-in. Now I could finally relax and breathe easier.

Which is hard to do while wearing a mask for 17 hours. The pressure on my nose, along with dry, processed air after 12 hours of flying (and more hours in airports), had congested me, and I realized I was breathing through my mouth... which dried out my throat, giving it a hint of soreness. Great ... now I've got to learn how to breathe again.

I'll never understand some people. As we boarded the plane to Fairbanks, the pilot announced that the temperature there had dropped to -10. So why did the two men get on board wearing shorts??

Once we arrived at my final stop - at 12:33 a.m. - I caught the shuttle to Pike's Waterfront Lodge. On the drive over, a female passenger remarked on the cold. Said I, "Yeah. Can you believe those guys wearing shorts?"

"And flip-flops!" she added. "They wore flip-flops, too!"

The driver shook his head. "Once I picked up a guy - it was 35 below zero, and he wore shorts and flip-flops. Just came from North Carolina, he did. Even worse, his luggage was still somewhere in the lower 48, so he had no cold-weather gear. I could tell he wouldn't be going out for a while."

At least I'd gotten some sleep on the last flight, since my last rose had earned me an upgrade to an exit row. When my head hit the pillow at Pike's at 2:00, I got several more hours, enough to put most of my jet lag behind me.

This morning I put it on the line again, trembling as I swabbed my nose and waited 10 minutes for the result. Again, a solitary blue line resulted. Looked like I dodged the bullet again.

The breakfast bar at Pike's ranks among my favorites: scrambled eggs, home fries, hash, peaches with cottage cheese, along with other typical fixings. The downstairs lobby enticed people to linger, with overstuffed couches and chairs. Covering the walls and shelves are Alaskan art -

paintings, sculptures, Eskimo dolls, famous poetry - the hotel claims that they have the third largest collection of Alaskan art extant, behind only an Anchorage museum and the University of Alaska. To further the old-timey, pioneer feel, Tiffany-style lamps provide the lighting. Even the rooms furthered the feeling, with vintage-looking phones by the bedside.

I struck up a conversation with a middle-aged woman luxuriating in one of the chairs beneath a painting, and we chatted easily for a half hour. She would soon pick up a new camera she'd rented, and asked me for hints on her photography. She also showed an affinity for national parks, - she'd lived outside Grand Canyon NP for three years - and I envied her for having hiked to Macchu Pichu (an adventure I'd considered once, years ago). She mentioned that forecasts called for a stellar viewing of the Northern Lights tonight and tomorrow night.

Then I was off to pick up my rental car, and make the 2+ hour drive south to Denali. The temperature along the way acted like a yo-yo: -9 in Fairbanks, then 11 only five miles later as I climbed out the valley the cool air had pooled in. Before long, another pool of icy air dropped me to -11, only to reach 15 at Healy, then 23 a few miles further at the park entrance.

The scenery held my interest - long corridors of trees cloaked in white, overlooks into valleys in the grip of cold, and eventually growing numbers of small mountains as I neared the park.

The view of the Nenana River flowing north particularly caught my eye.

I checked into my B&B, Denali Dome Home, a geodesic dome in the village of Healy.There I met Angie and Nick, a couple also adventuring in the frozen north. They had taken a half-day dog sled ride today with the same guide who would take me into the wilds starting tomorrow. They showed me pictures of their ride, exulting in the details.

Since they'd hear the same Lights forecast I had, we made plans to drive to a prime (e.g., dark) spot for viewing later. Since I had yet to familiarize myself with my new camera, Angie took charge and changed my default settings to capture the best shots. Thanks, Angie!

At 9:15 we headed out for a spot they'd scoped out earlier. Once there, we rejoiced for the clear, star-studded skies that would serve as a perfect venue. For 15 minutes we milled about guessing which direction was north, where they lights would come from. When the cold made standing around uncomfortable, we hopped back in the car and waited. And waited, And waited. As teh time passed 11:30, we finally conceded to fate, heading back to Dome Home. Tomorrow night we could try again - though clouds were expected to move in and shut down the show.

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