It’s wet at Chena Hot Springs
As if the world changed overnight, reasons, six, seven, and a new reason eight in support of August fly the coop. Trucks, cars, and bikers are everywhere. The road is crap, and it’s a bloody oven outside.
I hear three bikes pull into the way side at Finger Mountain and rouse myself to say hello. I tell of the dry and fast road ahead only to hear that they’re turning around at the Arctic Circle. Well, shoot. Who only rides 200 miles of the Dalton Highway? Minutes away from striking camp, two more riders pull into the way side. I bite my tongue and wait to hear plans of Deadhorse before I even mention road conditions.
Brian’s from the UK and his riding buddy lives in Miami, Florida but calls Argentina home. That’s also where they’re headed after Deadhorse. I don’t get his name, but the Argentinian is traveling surprisingly light. I see a cot and a duffel on the back of his V-Strom — and that’s it. I don’t see what Brian rides, but he grabs a grocery bag from a pannier and walks over to offer everyone a bite to eat. While handing me a chocolate covered granola bar, he jokes about eating this for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Suddenly, I feel ashamed for eating into their food stores, and it hits me how they travel so lightly. These boys really are roughing it.
I leave Finger Mountain once and for all and ride the miles to Yukon Camp. Trucks and cars are everywhere as if fuel and tires are free. Not only that, but I’m considerably over dressed. It was cold and windy at Finger Mountain, but at Yukon, my body drips sweat as I refuel the bike. A quick disrobing of excess layers and I’m on the road again, bound to relax at Chena Hot Springs tonight but actively wondering if it’ll be too hot to enjoy the water.
The Dalton Highway ends as abruptly as it begins, but the Elliot Highway lasts forever. Separating them doesn’t make any sense. The Elliot is paved, but the Dalton is too — in parts. There’s nothing at the end of the Elliot except the start of the Dalton. Simply put, the Elliot just adds another 60 miles to both ends of the trip and takes this journey to about a thousand miles.
Chena Hot Springs Road starts three miles from town and makes a steady climb up the valley alongside the Chena River. With the scorching sun to my back, my right foot finally cools down from the combined cooking it gets next to the exhaust and in continuous heat of the western sun. I set a leisurely 55-mph pace and enjoy the ride.
Very odd signs adorn this road. Several places are marked “no hunting next 1.5 miles” as if hunters just leap from their trucks, take aim, and kill on a Sunday stroll along the Chena River. I bet the caribou of Happy Valley wish the sign lobby made its way up the Dalton.
It’s my first reminder that I’m back among nitwits in their cages when a driver enters my ride away. I’m clearly about to make my way across the one lane bridge onto the resort, but this nitwit doesn’t care. I safely stop before the bridge becomes too narrow for us both and glare as the car passes. I’m afraid now that this is what I can expect for thousands of miles to come.
I’m not certain about what most people look for in a camp spot, but I bet my criteria are unique. I need a nice downward sloping flat instead of level ground for my tent. Also, a good camp offers a solid perch for my bike’s side stand. Most importantly, I need at least six large rocks to anchor my tent. I do have and sometimes use tent pegs, but those only work in semi hard dirt — not on the packed gravel in the camps at Chena. Camp number six fits the bill on this sixth night of camping, complete with six rocks, and a sick path to the pool.
The day is waning, but I still find time and will to put on my suit and head to the pool. Ten bucks buys a pass good until midnight. I kick off my shoes at the door and can already smell the sulfur in the water. The locker rooms open to an indoor pool with chlorinated hot tubs. Outside, I find the path to the hot spring. Giant boulders line the circumference of the large heated basin, and people climb just out of the warm water onto their cool surfaces. Others find refuge beneath a giant cold water fountain at the center.
I edge my way down the ramp into the water and sigh at the heat and softness of the natural spring. Finding my way closer to the source, I dip shoulder deep, close my eyes, and melt six days of riding pains away.
Time stops, rewinds, and I think about what it must have been like to find this spring a hundred years ago. A geological survey in the early 1900s reported rising steam on the Chena River, inspiring an eager gold prospector to investigate. He sought the most likely cause for such steam — a natural hot spring and perfect remedy to the ailments of prospecting. A hundred years later, Chena Hot Springs Resort attracts world wide attention for its aurora borealis viewing and chemical composition. The resort in recent years also began harvesting power from the spring, and its owners hope to collect hydrogen to power vehicles in the future.
The heat turns my mind to mush, and I head to the fountain. I stand beneath the shower of cool water and am instantly reminded of swimming in the afternoon thunder showers of Florida. Giant drops of water pelt the surface around me and create momentary mountains. Thousands of them rise and fall around me. I close my eyes again and outstretch my arms along the surface to feel every drop. The cool water running down my face, neck, and back contrasts sharply to the heat of the pool below my chest. It’s a heavenly experience — the best of both worlds. I move to a floating position on my back and with eyes shut calculate just how long my riding budget will let me stay here.
I’m reluctant to exit the pool, but a stomach hungry for food growls with the reminder that breakfast was a long time ago. A server directs me to a seat at the bar, and Nathan takes my order for a burger and fries. I’m definitely in the mood for meat! I splurge and sip on a strong margarita while waiting for food. At $6.50 a pop, I compliment myself on having an empty stomach and getting a cheap buzz. The menu says this drink will help me to better see the northern lights. I chuckle, knowing someone with a marketing degree and zero experience in ionospheric illuminations wrote this baloney as I chomp into a half pound of tasty cow.
Both dinner and my buzz end before I’d like, but I’m too cheap to invest in another round of each. Plus, I have six days of journal entries to transcribe from my notebook to the computer. I chuckle at the thought of drunk typing and hurry along back to the tent to grab some coffee.
The resort’s activity room is open 24-hours and offers tables, chairs, and electricity. Another ten bucks buys the password to the wireless Internet, but I hold out to see if someone will split the cost with me. Another man enters with his laptop and I wait an hour before offering a piece of Dove chocolate. The bait is set. Apparently visiting Chena to capture pictures of the northern lights, he fiddles with his DSLR and reads photography tips online.
I casually walk over and ask about the camera, feigning surprise when he mentions reading a tutorial online. Unfortunately, I don’t get the password — only a tip that it costs $10 and is available at the front desk. Rats. I return to my station and vow to find an open WAP somewhere in Fairbanks tomorrow.