Alaska has been called a land of extremes, and swimming in the steamy, rock-ringed pool at Chena Hot Springs, a modest "resort" 60 miles up a very lonely road from Fairbanks, brings together those extremes pretty well. The mineral-rich springs, first noted for their medicinal benefits during the Klondike gold rush a centuryago, bubble up from deep below the tundra, geothermally heated to a more than balmy 110 degrees—a contrast to the icy air arriving in gusty torrents from the Brooks Range, straddling the Arctic Circle 240 miles to the north. On early-February nights temperatures typically plunge to 35 below zero. This is a 145-degree swing, whiplash extreme on any scale, especially when your submerged tummy and chest are being happily parboiled and your hair is frozen solid.
"Cold, very cold—but very hot too," noted my fellow bather, a thirtyish Japanese man who, in passable English, introduced himself as "Kazuo, from Osaka." Kazuo regarded the tiny icicles he picked from his bushy eyebrows with bemusement. But he kept his head above water and continued to look up. It only made sense. In the sky above the steaming spring, unfurling across the impossibly black and starry central Alaskan firmament, was the planet's splashiest show, the aurora borealis, a.k.a. the northern lights.
On a good night—at Chena, almost any relatively moonless/cloudless night between late August and April is good—the aurora appears fleetingly, coquettishly, along the horizon with the first of the evening stars. Before midnight the main event is usually well under way. This time,the show commenced with a billowing white plume, as languorous as smoke blown from an ivory cigarette holder poised between the sultry lips of Marlene Dietrich. It was followed by great green sheets of light, hanging in the southern sky like emerald-hued curtains. As if ruffled by a cosmic, celestial breeze, the luminous drapery began to sway, undulating to a wholly idiosyncratic yet perfect time signature. Veteran aurora-watchers call this dancing. At Chena, the lights dance until morning, which in early February doesn't come until shortly before brunch.
This is what I'd traveled 4,000 miles to lay eyes on. You see, I've always been kind of a closet sky nut, one of those semi-nerdy boys with a telescope set up in the backyard who never tired of looking at the Sea of Tranquillity and the rest of the moon's pockmarked face. It is an intermittent passion that has continued to this day, with chilly evenings spent on the deserted runways of Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn to see meteor showers, and trips to the Coney Island beach attempting to catch a glimpse of Saturn's rings before the local muggers close in.
Named in part for the Roman goddess of dawn, a tragic figure who was obliterated each day by her sun-god brother Helios, the aurora has long been a source of wonder and, upon occasion, dread. Native Alaskans regard the aurora as a torchlit bridge over which the spirits of the dead pass on their way to the heavens. Explorers' opinions are equally metaphysical. In 1871, George Kennar, an early polar adventurer, wrote: "No other natural phenomenon is so grand, so mysterious, so terrible in its unearthly splendor as this; the veil which conceals from mortal eyes the glory of the eternal throne seems drawn aside, and the awed beholder is lifted out of the atmosphere of his daily life into the immediate presence of God."
Peering up through the hot-spring steam clouds at the pulsating smear of electricity above, I saw no reason to disagree with Kennar. A simple, stammering "far out" more or less summed up my general sense of awe. For his part, Kazuo, having arrived in Fairbanks via the direct flight from Narita just that morning, evidenced a more clinical kind of knowledge. He knew, for instance, that the most common aurora color, green, is produced by the solar bombardment of oxygen atoms approximately 60 miles above the earth's surface, while the rarely seen red glow emits from a similar reaction in deeper space, at least 200 miles into the heavens. In this way, the aurora operates like a giant color TV, with charged electrons causing various atmospheric gases to glow in various hues. The main difference between this and a Trinitron is that these electrons do not come from inside a fake-wood console, but from the sun, 93 million miles away.
But it wasn't science that brought Kazuo to Chena. It was romance, and a practical plan for the future. Kazuo had come to Chena for the same reason that many of his countrymen travel here (some 70 percent of the spring'svisitors are Japanese): he firmly believed that should he and his wife successfully conceive a baby while in Alaska, under the neon skies of the aurora borealis, their offspring would be "much more intelligent" than the typical child.
I'd heard about this idea of the northern lights' supposed procreative benefits on the part of Japanese tourists but dismissed it as a Klondike urban legend, a north-country old wives' tale. Kazuo had set me straight only a few hours before over a couple of shots of Grey Goose inside the Aurora Ice Hotel.
The Ice Hotel, a phantasmagoric Gothic cathedral-cum-Quonset hut/art object, is Chena Hot Springs Resort's most spectacularly eccentric addition. Carved from 15,000 tons of ice and snow by Steve Brice, a 10-time winner of the worldwide ice-sculpting championship, the hotel, kind of a high-tech igloo, provides more flamboyant accommodations than anything ever dreamed up by Ian Schrager or a whole family of Hiltons, Paris included. Outfitted with a life-sized carving of a jousting knight on horseback, plus several ice chandeliers, the hotel sports six "rooms," each with its own uniquely styled ice bed. Of these, the one with the headboard in the shape of a polar bear is the most popular. While plumbing is something of a problem—you have to go outside to another room to pee—ample insulation and down bedding are provided. Every unit also comes with a fire extinguisher and smoke alarm, as per Alaska hotel law. Brice and the Chena management argued against having to comply with this law, contending that any potential conflagration would inevitably end in a giant puddle anyway, but the state proved inflexible.
The most impressive aspect of the Ice Hotel, however, is the fully equipped 15-foot-long bar, breathtakingly fashioned from transparent local ice, which is reputed to be the clearest in the world. It was at the bar that I met Kazuo, who, after making the drive from Fairbanks in a snowstorm, found himself in need of a stiff drink—even if they cost $15 each and the bartender regretted she wasn't set up to serve frozen margaritas, which would be "what you'd want in an ice hotel, right?"
Sitting on a fur-covered, see-through ice stool in the relative comfort of the 28-degree temperature maintained in the hotel at all times (it was 25 below outside), Kazuo, decked out in a newly purchased Carhartt parka, told me he'd initially been skeptical about whether the northern lights would help his prospective child get into the best schools. However, his older brother had honeymooned at Chena several years earlier during a period of strong auroral activity, and Kazuo's now six-year-old niece was at the top of her class. So, when Kazuo was married, Chena seemed a natural destination.
A few hours later, up to our necks in the hot-spring pool, Kazuo pronounced himself overjoyed to have come to Alaska. In the state less than a day, he'd already seen more ice and snow than ever before in his life, plus he'd just barely missed driving his rental car into a huge moose that had refused to move after blocking the exit lane of an espresso shop drive-thru on Airport Way in Fairbanks. Even though the Chena Hot Springs brochure provides a full discussion of "moose nugget" scatology in Japanese (complete with line drawings of the "lump-upon-lump" and "chain-concavity" formations), Kazuo had had no idea beasts of such mammoth size and recalcitrance actually existed. This excited him. Here, in the largest state in the United States, with the aurora doing a full-tilt celestial boogaloo overhead, he felt anything was possible.