Wednesday, 31 October 2012

SCHOLARSHIP DAY 62: Footprints in the Snow on Alaska's Birch Hill

The US Presidential Election is rapidly approaching, but the USA has this week demonstrated to the world that it is governed, not by people in suits that live in a large white building, but by the forces of Geography. From the recent earthquake in Seattle, on the west coast, to Hurricane Sandy in New York, on the east coast, USA's current geography is being studied all around the world, once again illustrating just how significant the subject is in contemporary society.

Interior Alaska, fortunately for me, is out of Sandy's path and isn't likely to experience an earthquake, so today was yet another day of exploration, and after yesterday's leisurely day, I considered that a good walk was perhaps best. I've been meaning to visit Birch Hill ever since Bill and Sarah suggested I take a trip up there many weeks ago, but have seldom found the opportunity until today. Birch Hill is on the periphery of Fairbanks downtown and offers (after a bit of a walk) a lovely panoramic view of the city skyline. Well worth a visit considering today was another clear day.

Birch Hill's primary role though is not necessarily a viewing area for tourists, but a cemetry. From a map, and from my window seat on the bus this morning, it didn't look difficult to get to, but oh how wrong I was. I didn't get lost as such as I knew where I was all the time, but it was more of a case of walking down roads leading to dead ends; it seemed like any route I took led me to a wire meshed fence and no option but to turn back and try another. At one point, I ended up walking around what turned out to be a Ford garage; the salesman, coming out, was just about to commence a long and detailed list of specifications about each car on display, so I upped my pace and tried to find the exit.

Well, I did eventually reach Birch Hill. The narrow gate leading into the cemetry stood underneath this large snow dusted Birch tree, so opening the gate, getting through and closing it without also getting a white dusting, was a tough operation. Still, I contortioned my body and managed it successfully and before long I was making footprints in the snow on Alaska's Birch Hill.

The cemetry was larger than I expected, and despite most of it looked well maintained, I was the only one there. There's something about walking in cemetries; reading the dates and working out how long people lived for. I walked around Anchorage's cemetry on my first full day in Alaska. (It seems like months ago now, but then, it is indeed nearly three months ago.)

From the top of Birch Hill, I could spot many of the city's familiar landmarks, and the mountain range. It's from this hill, that you appreciate the rather flat topography of Fairbanks' cityscape, and the surrounding mountain ranges are perhaps emphasised even more. The US Army veteran section of the cemetry is in the foreground, adorned by the country flag.

Ok, so it's not hiking in the mountains, but it's still exploration. Today I explored a new part of Fairbanks and perhaps Birch Hill's solitude, which is only temporarily punctuated by the familiar tunes of bird song, makes it just as inspiring as a mountain range. Perhaps this is a different kind of wilderness..

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

SCHOLARSHIP DAYS 58, 59, 60 and 61: An Amazing Alaskan Adventure- Mountains, Caribou, Wolves, Waist-deep Snow, and Truck Puncture!

Returning back from these fourtnightly weekends in the Brooks Range, with the University Geological Engineering Departments, really does put life into perspective. The grandeur of my visits to some of Alaska's most stunning snow-capped mountain ranges, being so far away from even a speck of civilisation, ultimately makes you realise just what's important for life and what is not. It's the purity, I think, that brings about this emotion; the knowledge that an array of life can exist without concrete, without cars, without a whole bundle of unimportant issues that we humans create in our day to day lifestyles. Life can exist, very simply, without the internet, without the television, without politics, basically without us and another weekend spent in the Brooks Mountain Range is evidence for just that. Before I go into my adventure, let me say just this: the next time you encounter a problem, whether it's a printer error or maybe a burnt pancake, pause a moment and consider that actually it doesn't matter as much as you first thought. By all means, find a solution, but remember the clock will still tick, the Earth will still rotate, and life will go on.

Every couple of weeks, if you didn't already know, I get the opportunity to leave Fairbanks and join a research project taking place 200 miles north of the city, within the Brooks mountain range. We're specifically studying the movement of these relatively new geographical features called Frozen Debris Lobes, and some are very dynamic, moving up to an inch per day. Effectively, land movement is not a new phenomenon; after all, the planet changes this way and that, every second, of every minute, of every day. However, these debris lobes pose a threat to the nearby Dalton Highway and more significantly, the Trans Atlantic Pipeline. Ironically, after man put in place these two money-making structures, it's left up to man to sort out the resulting choas that they bring. And so we were off; Professor Ronald Daanen and myself, in a 4x4 truck, left the university Friday afternoon, loaded with what seemed every piece of equipment that the university owned.

The journey from Fairbanks to our base camp, at Wiseman, is somewhat of a long journey as there is only one way there, but having said that, it means that I- the lucky passenger- can see the transformation in the scenery, week to week. For instance, this weekend offered more snow-scapes than I had been greeted with, only a couple of weeks ago. It's amazing to see just what survives the snowfall and what doesn't; some trees, furthermore, suffer stunted growth due to the weight of the snow. A strong snow flurry, and deep snow, can uproot whole trees, so every now and again you notice a few 'drunken' trunks amongst a landscape of perfectly healthy upright Birches and Hemlocks.

After some good progress on the road, on Ronald's part mostly, we arrived at Wiseman; our base camp. It's the closest settlement to the lobes, about an hour away, and offers a selection of very agreeable cabins. Exceedingly inkeeping with the true values of nature and wilderness, the cabins are rustic; constructed out of pine, and offer a selection of facilities such as a gas stove, a TV, and round the clock heating. Yes, these services may sound obvious, but that's because they are taken for granted; here on the periphery of wilderness, it's only a bonus to find these amenities.

An early start on Saturday morning meant that we retired to bed early, and after what seemed like only five minutes enveloped in the cosiness offered from a Wiseman Lodge Bed, the alarm clock sounded, and we were up again. Not that I complained about a 6:00am start; today would be another fantastic day, I was sure of it. Funnily enough, it was. Want to hear why?

Well, the day wasn't as sunny as a fourtnight ago; indeed, the sky was a wash of grey and the sunrise wasn't exactly that sublime. However, an overcast day didn't withdraw from the majestic nature of the landscape. Today we wanted to take a lot of DGPS measurements, (basically, measurements that log the exact position of a certain point on Earth) and to do this, we had to set up what's known as a base station, beside the creek.

We decided to split up for the morning; Ronald would proceed with taking recordings from the gyroscopes and he left me to take the DGPS pole and record where exactly the perimeter of the lobe was. This was quite fun, but very hard work in some places, especially where trees had fallen and the only way through was by climbing up on them and clambering over. From where I was taking the measurements, I was also treated with the most beautiful vista. It's funny; the lobe causes such destruction- and it does, believe me- and yet in and amongst this abolition, from it, nature seems peaceful and pristine; the landscape seems to be in equilibrium.

It was when I was surveying the surroundings that I suddenly heard it. At first, it sounded like a large horn from a lorry that was somewhere in the distance. But this one singular long note was not a horn; it was a howl, and slowly but surely, this one howl turned into a couple, and then a few, and before long, a whole chorus of howling cries were circulating the valley arena. Well, my heart started to pump because I knew exactly what it was, and wolves were not the best animals to encounter on your own. Aware of this, I started to make a very quick hike up the lobe, and went to search for Ronald. I eventually found him, and we both agreed that it was a pack of wolves somewhere across the river. To my surprise, Ronald then started to imitate the howling and began a series of notes; I was impressed to be honest at the accuracy, although it didn't seem recognisable and we didn't hear another note from the wolf pack, for the rest of the day.

For the rest of the day, we worked together. Our task-ambitious to say the least- was to hammer metal stakes and attach data loggers to them, in transects all over the lobe. When a stake was hammered into the ground, my job would be to use the DGPS to track its position. Sometimes, we swapped roles: I would be on bush-wacking duty and on the hammering, but this seemed more exhausting.

Throughout our work, creating these transects, we encountered quite a few Retrogressive Thaw Slumps. Basically, ice rich permafrost thaws and causes a mud slurry, which consequently flows down slope to the base. They're quite indicative, therefore, of where permafrost thaws which can tell us a lot about what's happening with the lobe.

We worked past sunset; these transects were taking a bit longer than expected. It wasn't long before we were wearing head lamps to guide our way through the thick vegetation, and it was at this point where the work was starting to get exhausting. Great relief, therefore, when we reached the truck and started to make a steady journey towards Wiseman. It turned out we had actually spent about 10 hours at the lobe, and I think even for the most passionate of geomorphologists, this length of time out in the field was enough for one day.

Sunday arrived. We had scheduled a long trip to Deadhorse (basically the northern coast of Alaska) which would take in itself 6 hours, to plant a transect of data loggers in the ground, before heading back to Fairbanks. This wasn't a project related to the frozen debris lobes but did concern permafrost and so I was interested nonetheless. I have to admit that I was also looking forward to travelling all the way to Deadhorse; it would mean that I would have travelled from the tip to the toe since my arrival here at the end of August.

We set off in clear conditions with perhaps the odd cloud here and there. That soon worsened though as we headed north; the sun hadn't yet risen, but you could see that the dawn sky was getting darker and darker as we neared the Atigun Pass. As soon as we reached the pass, we hit a raging snowstorm, with a really dense flurry heading North East. We even drove past a recently slumped avalanche; indeed, this was turning out to be a risky journey. From exiting the pass, and back now on the other side of the mountains, visibility was not improving, and through the radio, we were hearing reports of trucks coming off the roads northbound. Ronald finally made the decision not to proceed, but to instead, place the data loggers in a tundra region, on a lake called Galbraith.

I cannot begin to describe just how white the landscape was; how pure the scenery was. I have never experienced such a landscape. Panoramic nothingness surrounded us as Ronald and I headed off to the site. Ronald went on ahead and managed to get a head start, whilst I followed in his footsteps. As the snow was knee deep, it was crucial to step in the tracks Ronald had already made, and the words "mark my footsteps" from Good King Wenceslas came to mind.

Planting the data loggers was not difficult work. Each metal button glued onto the stick is programmed, and can store data which can later be read on a computer. It's a fantastic piece of engineering if you ask me; gone are the large and bulky data loggers to be replaced by small metal buttons.

From observing Ronald make the final touches to his transect, I turned around and saw figures in the distance. Well, at first they looked like bears, but they were moving closer and squinting as to not get snow in my eyes, I realised that they were indeed Caribou. My first wild Caribou sighting here in Alaska; another one to add to the list. They didn't seem threatened by two obvious red coats, and stayed in a group as they made their way across the tundra.

We started to head back to the truck, which just looked like a minature toy from a distance. The snow was getting deeper, and from knee deep, it began to reach waist deep. I had never experienced so much snow, and wading through it will certainly be something I will remember for the rest of my life.

Having reached the truck, it was now a long journey to Fairbanks but since we had not dedicated ourselves to Deadhorse, we were naturally ahead of schedule. It provided therefore many opportunities to stop to take photos and also made the whole 'going back' experience less stressful. Over the course of our journey, we travelled over several creeks, but I couldn't resist not getting a photo of this particular one; dedicated, of course, to my Dad.

We were making our way back to Fairbanks, through mulitple snow flurries; some of it quite bad in  places. Driving into a layby to let a larger lorry pass us, we received a radio message from the driver, who thought it might be "in our interest" if we checked out the rear passenger tyre. Well, you can guess what happened next. I went outside, amongst the thick snow storm, and made out through quite low visibility, a tyre that was well and truly punctured. Ronald couldn't believe it; I couldn't believe it, but adjusting to this almost unreal event, we both got out the truck and set to work to change the wheel. Well, I must confess to being innocent to the procedure regarding tyre changing, but after watching Ronald, I think I've got the idea. The whole process wasn't costly in time, but it did punctuate our journey unnecessarily and the weather wasn't a help.

After crossing the Atigun Pass, we were blessed with sunshine. The mountains now gleamed, the recent snow sprinkled flanks polished, and we both had to apply sunglasses! Chandler Valley was a spectacle. I had seen this valley two weeks ago at sunset, but in the full light of day, the whole experience was boosted. There's something about the sunshine that allows you to pick out every detail; every crevasse, every joint, every rocktype.

The excitement continued up in the air, aswell. We were blessed to have some really lovely cloud formations to watch as we made our way back to Fairbanks. The first is orographic, and we were lucky to find it propped up above this mountain. Cloud science isn't one of my expertise subjects so it's hard to be exactly sure on the second, but it's once again evidence of a diverse sky.

Slowly and surely, hours passed, and I was starting to drift in and out. There's something about not doing anything at all apart from looking out the windows that tires you out! As each hour ticked by, the Sun was now becoming ever closer to the horizon, and by 7:00pm, we were blessed with a stunning sunset. From every angle, we managed to get so many great photos of this daily spectacle; here's just a couple.

I have just one more field trip to the Brooks Mountain Range, in two weeks time. Until then, I'm going to try and reflect on the weekend just gone; after all, there's quite a lot to reflect on, as you can see!

Friday, 26 October 2012

SCHOLARSHIP DAY 57: Another day at the lakes

Apart from the rapidly decreasing temperatures, the other clue that winter has arrived is the later sunrise and the earlier sunset, and for that matter, the fact that the Sun doesn't really shine much higher than over the horizon. I arrived at the university today in my usual winter attire, at 8:00am, and it was at least another hour until I saw any glimpse of sunlight. Having said that, a lovely dawn is just as rewarding as a sunrise, and from standing at the top of the Taku Parking lot, the only feature punctuating the solid orange coloured sky, were the few trees in the distance.

Today, I would go out on what would be my third field trip investigating the lakes of Alaska, and our chosen lake today was Vault Lake; half an hour away north of Fairbanks and not easily seen from the road, which meant that our highway dominated journey concluded with a brief drive along a dirt track. Vault Lake actually is situated next to an old gold mine; some of the mining equipment can still be found, to this very day, scattered around.

The lake itself, just like the other lakes we have visited and worked on, is a typical example of a thermokarst lake- read previous posts for an explanation on that. The north bank shows signs of failure, with slumping quite developed in some regions whilst the south bank is perhaps more stable, and doesn't accomodate tall growing trees, but tussock, grasses and ground shrubs mostly. We noticed as we started to make our first footprints into the snow on top of the lake, that the ice here was not as thick and so we had to watch our step carefully throughout the day. The lake also showed evidence of a lot of gaseous activity; in other words, methane bubbling from thawed permafrost up to the surface of the lake.

In the distance was a mountain. For some reason, whilst surveying the lake, it caught my eye, and it was its colour that I was most impressed with. It reminded me of the colour of a freshly baked cake, golden brown as it comes out the oven. I was starting to feel hungry and so turned away to continue on with the work.

Eventhough our task was the same as Tuesday, (recording the bathymetry of the lake by measuring lake depth at standard points), the way we went about it was different, and by doing it a different way, we could evaluate which particular method was best. We started (that's me, Jacob and Allen) to mark out a grid on the ice, marking out every 2 and 1/2 meters with an 'x' using just our shoes. It was critical to make sure the grid was as accurate as possible, but I can't help feeling that marking out on ice with just our boot was a sophisticated method. (By the way, this is what a bunny boot looks like).

The next job was drilling, and this time, we used an industrial machine- a gas powered auger, which could drill a hole in about 10 seconds. Jacob did most of the drilling, and there was a fair few holes to be drilled. (134 to be exact!)

Whilst Jacob busied himself with drilling, my job was to measure the depth of the lake. It certainly wasn't as deep as previous lake excursions, only being about 3m deep, but still, the topography of the bed was very interesting. There was an undulation of 2m between two points suggesting a possible depression caused by permafrost thaw.

Next week, we shall be returning to do some more work on lakes, but until then, I'll be happy to get my feet on stable terra firma!

Thursday, 25 October 2012

SCHOLARSHIP DAY 56: Visit to the Alaskan Permafrost Tunnel

Today I was very lucky to be offered my own individual tour of one of Alaska's most interesting tunnels; the internationally recognised and researched 'Permafrost tunnel' just outside Fairbanks. Hiking over permafrost affected features is all very well, and I have enjoyed my work so far on top of terra firma, but I decided that the time had come to actually get up close to the permafrost.

Margaret Cysewski was my guide; a PHD student, and extremely knowledgeable about permafrost. She very kindly drove me from the university this morning and off we went. It was great to be able to talk about permafrost and permafrost-related sciences to someone a little younger, and it convinced me by the end, that there is an all round interest in the subject, which is good news for the future generation of Alaska's permafrost studies.

We arrived at the tunnel, a little after 11:30am. The whole site is surrounded by wire meshing and two very tall metal gates, but this was no surprise as I had been briefed about the fact that the army owns this area of land. Despite these observations, after we passed the gates, the atmosphere was rather relaxed and I was able to focus my attention on the tunnel and the science. (That was, after I had my very embarrassing difficulties with fitting my hard-hat). The tunnel is very clearly marked from the outside, and before you could say "permafrost" we were in.

The Permafrost Tunnel was built in the 1960s and after various revampments over the last 50 years, it currently stretches 110m, about 15m below the surface. Originally it was used for evaluating excavation techniques in permafrost soils, and how mining could be successfully managed. Over the next twenty years or so, it was to be a great resource for researchers who wanted to study ground ice features up close. For the public, it serves a different purpose. Given that Interior Alaskan engineering is governed mainly by whether there is permafrost or not in the ground, the tunnel allows the public to see just what it looks like, hopefully making them more aware of it, and ultimately to remind them that the Earth is just as diverse underground as on the top.

Bison horn fossils are just one of the many artefacts that are preserved within the permafrost. These are said to be at least 12,000 to 14,000 years old; the dates configure with radio carbon dating tests and match with other fossils found.

The tunnel now branched into two separate tunnels and we made our way down each. It was starting to get quite narrow now and whilst Margaret had no difficulty in making her way through, I was a little taller and had to duck at many points. What we eventually walked to was just one of the many examples of ice lenses and ice wedges. Perhaps, for the benefit of those who aren't quite knowledgeable on these features, I should explain each in turn.

Ice lenses are very hard to capture in a photo, due to the fact that they are often localised deep within the soil and can be disguised very easily by a silt layer. As moisture accumulates in the soil (in this case silt loess deposits) ice forms, and produces a disc known as an ice lens, which can force the rock apart. Below ground they aren't significant enough to be able to cause large disturbance on the ground surface above, but they can actually work together to create pingos (tall earthly mound covered in ice) and palsas (lower more oval shaped mounds). In the photo below, the ice lenses cannot be seen clearly, but you can just make out the cracks in the rock, that have been caused by ice lens frost heaving processes.

Ice Wedges are slightly different. They begin as 3m wide cracks just below the ground surface, which extend down into the ground, often getting narrower as they go down. At wintertime, the ice expands and causes cracks in the ground surface. In the Spring, meltwater can accumulate in these cracks and freeze once again, during the fall. Multiple ice wedges working together can create polygon formations on the ground surface, as I saw when I was walking through the Boreal forest in Creamers a couple of weeks ago.

The tunnel is popular with the public, make no mistake about that. Indeed, the last open house event in August attracted 3000 people; some having to be turned away. When it isn't being shown to these very impressive numbers, the tunnel is subject to permafrost researchers and recently it's being used as a freezer for researcher's sediment core samples. After all, the tunnel is kept cooled by refrigerators during the summer and is naturally sub-zero at winter. Plus, despite the risk of seismic activity, I was assured by Margaret that the tunnel is very unlikely to collapse. (The reason why is some quite complicated soil science that I won't go into here).

I enjoyed my tunnel visit, for two reasons. This phase of the scholarship has allowed me to talk to professors about cutting-edge research regarding permafrost, and has given me the opportunity to go out in the field to witness the impacts and pressures that permafrost puts on the state. The Permafrost Tunnel didn't just supplement that, but enhanced my understanding of just why the ground surface looks the way it does. And the other reason? Well, it's once again, a 'diversity' thing. To go underground, is to observe the anatomy of the Earth; to realise the mechanisms that work together to create what we see on top. If you catch your finger in a door (and I have), you'll notice a bruise forming; in other words, you're observing how events below the surface of the skin can affect the outside. In the same way, the permafrost tunnel allowed me to witness just how ice-rich soil below the surface have such an impact on Alaska's rugged surface, ultimately making me realise that the underground world is possibly even more diverse than that which lies on top.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

SCHOLARSHIP DAY 55: Lake Bathymetry Fieldwork (in minus 20 degree C)

It was to be another early start for me, and after the excitement of Chena Hot Springs yesterday, I was by no means surprised by my fatigue this morning. Today was set to be another field trip to a lake, but with a different purpose. I've done some fieldwork in my time, but never I don't think in -20 degree C temperatures. How best to describe how cold -20 degrees C is? Well, if you touch bare metal with wet hands, you're stuck there. If you pour water over your jacket, it will freeze almost immediately. Oh, and if you've just had a shower and your hair is still wet upon going outside, your hair starts to turn white. The truth, and I should know, as the latter in that list happened to me as I was waiting for my bus this morning.

I arrived at the university to meet Allen; the professor that I would be assisting today and Jacob (another volunteer who I met the other day). I was also introduced to a pair of Bunny Boots; don't laugh, this is serious stuff! Bunny Boots make all the difference between freezing cold wet feet and nice dry and toasty feet. So, it turned out my hiking boots got a day off today, whilst the Bunny Boots were put in full service.

Well, our first job was to get the equipment out of this large storage tin; about a garage size tin, with a combination padlock for security. Normally, one would put the combination in and away you go, but this is Alaska, and life isn't that simple. It seemed like the padlock was frozen, and so we were left to figure out how to get the tin open. Hammers didn't work. A metal pole didn't work. We eventually tried using a blowtorch, and after consistent heating, we eventually melted the padlock, and accessed our equipment.

The lake (when we finally arrived) was much the same in comparison to the one we studied last week. It was a thermokarst lake, with split trees on the shore, and much the same vegetation; Spruce and Firs. If anything was different, it was the thickness of the ice. In other words, it was much safer to walk on, with at least 2cm of white ice and a further 12cm of black ice.

So, the task today was to study lake bathymetry. Basically for those who are unsure, we want to form a 3D model of the lake; how deep it is, and the topography of the bed. To do this, individual holes had to be drilled with an auger, the location of the hole had to be defined by DGPS (Differential Global Positioning System) and then the depth of the lake would be measured using a tape measure held down on the bed by an iron weight. (The mix of sophisticated and particularly amateur equipment never ceases to amaze me!)

I had a go with the auger, but believe me, this is hard work. Very hard work! It's a hand one, and drilling through thick ice became weary on the arm, to the extent where your arm becomes dead. Why we put ourselves to all that effort when we had a petrol one in the van, I will never know! If anything positive was to become of it all, it was the fact that you instantly became nice and warm, although after a few holes, you start to produce a sweat which instantly turns cold. Fortunately, Allen and Jacob saw how difficult I was finding it, and we switched roles after lunch.

We worked until the Sun was starting to set, and the light was starting to dim. By that time, we had drilled and measured 120 holes; not bad going for three people! My coat and trousers were covered in ice which had formed quickly after water from the drill had splashed up on me, and so I defrosted in the truck on the way back to the university. When I returned, this scene caught my eye. It's not smoke from a fire; it's water vapour. After drilling through ice and measuring depths of lakes, to see such a dramatic scene formed from water vapour, really does show you the immense diversity of water. No more than 24 hours ago, I was bathing in water heated by the Earth; today I was walking on frozen water, and now I was seeing it leaving the Earth- once again, how wonderfully dynamic the planet is.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

SCHOLARSHIP DAY 54: Trip to Chena Hot Springs

Since arriving here in Fairbanks, I have been longing to go to the Chena Hot Springs. It's suggested by most guide books as the 'must see, must do' attraction and most travellers who have come in and out Billie's Hostel have made at least one visit. The Chena Hot Springs are about 50 miles North East of Fairbanks, and without a car, it's quite difficult to get there myself, but I was offered a lift up there today and I'm very pleased that I took it, as the experience, like everything else, was a fantastic one.

The Chena Hot Springs is a resort that seems to cater for all types of visitors; the inquisitive can marvel at intricate sculptures in the Ice Musuem, energy fanatics can visit and learn in the Geo-thermal centre and energy plant, the hikers can go walking up to granite tors, and the stressed can relax and unwind in the geothermal springs. The group that I went with (including myself) as tourists were interested in seeing a wide range of the resort's facilities.

After a pleasant car journey up there, we decided to start the day with a hike around the surrounding area, and so made our way with only an A4 hand-drawn map and our bearings to get around. It was enough, I'm pleased to say. Whilst the hike wasn't difficult and although we didn't make much in the way of altitude progress, what we did see was impressive. When I arrived in Fairbanks, avid blog readers may recall I walked the Chena River; it was great to see another section of its profile today.

On our walk, we cut through kennels, and were greeted by a chorus of woofs and howls. These dogs are used in sled-races amongst other winter activities, but I presume they are just as active during the summer, even if mushing isn't possible. One thing I did notice about these dogs is that some of them were perhaps a little skinny; it's a wonder how they manage to stay warm. Once again, a decade ago, you wouldn't have found me within ten miles of a place populated by so many dogs; today, I was the last to leave.

We soon realised our hike wasn't one of the official trails as set on the map, but we made our own loop and eventually headed back. Most of it was through spacious forest, alongside one of the tributaries to the Chena. Sometimes there would be a forest clearing and once again you could regain something of a panoramic view, before entering back into the monotony of snow-dusted forest tracks.

It was time to warm up, and lunch in the Chena Resort restaurant was the group decision. I have to say I had strong reservations about dining in such an establishment following reports I had heard. Indeed, 'ripping off' was on the daily special board. A small plate of hot caramel apple pie cost $8 and a hot chocolate $2.75. (I haven't spent that much on a lunch for a long time on this scholarship, and it seemed my frugal ways these last couple of weeks had been cancelled out by one single experience at the resort restaurant. Having read that back, maybe I'm being a tad unfair. The building interior tried to incorperate an old look with the contemporary. There was a log fire, which started up and died by an electric timer; the tables were constructed out of large tree trunks, but had been glazed and coated with plastic. These features didn't withdraw from the comfort; indeed, after hiking in 20 degrees F, a cosy restaurant stop was well needed.

Next on our plan was the Ice Musuem; the largest all year round ice musuem in the world. It's about 100m long roughly and about 20m or so wide. It's need of being an 'all year round' musuem means it requires a special cooling system, which when I was looking at the diagram, looked like an impressive feat of engineering itself. The contents inside though- the actual ice sculptures- were even more impressive.

Ice is an amazing material, and the people who constructed many of the sculptures in this building, had deservedly won many gold medals in competitions. Although some of these creations look more effective with light, let me tell you, the detail that's gone into the ice carving is something to be admired.

Apart from getting married in, which is just one of the many uses of the musuem, visitors can opt to stay a night, in the specially designed sleeping quarters. I'm still not sure whether I would do it or not. I took a look into one of the quarters; there is no bed, just a carpet, although I'm reliably told that you can request sleeping bags and rugs. One of the dorms has a staircase under construction, which suggests it's a popular resort.

The last feature of the ice musuem I haven't yet mentioned is the bar. Oh yes, a bar made out of ice, with Martini on the menu, served in special ice-carved glasses. You can take these away with you, although I'm not sure how far you can get with them!

So, onto the Hot Springs then! Well, after going out the ice musuem, and plunging into outdoor 20 degree F temperatures once again, it seemed like a great way of warming up again. The Hot Springs- the focal attraction here- were less costly than the ice musuem; just $10 to get in, on unlimited access, with free swim suit rental.

The whole set up is quite ingenious because you have to run from the changing areas, about 15m to the hot springs, making the temperature difference higher and ultimately the springs first feel much hotter than they actually are. Ah, but how lovely they are! Seriously, I rank this as one of the top things I've done on this trip so far. The comfort is indescribable; you're soaking in 40 degree C water, staring out to the snow capped mountains, with only a dense steam column between you and the stars.

There were also a few chairs, scattered here and there, for bathers to relax in. Sitting in one, alone for probably the first time in the day, immersed in the warm tranquility that Chena Hot Springs offers so generously, I realised once again how lucky I was, not just to be in Chena, but to be in Alaska and ultimately, to have this scholarship.