Sunday, December 21, 2008

Winter Solstice at Horner Hot Springs

Sunrise: 11:28 AM, Sunset: 3:13 PM, Total Sunlight: 3hrs 45min

The tarp-lined pool at Horner Hot Springs is a winter oasis.

We boarded the small fixed-wing aircraft fully draped in our ski clothes and boots on a flight headed about 250 miles west of Fairbanks. Dan and I were traveling out to the remote village of Ruby on the banks of the Yukon River. As with most Alaskan villages, Ruby can only be reached by plane or by a lengthy trip down the Yukon River via boat, snowmachine, dogsled, or skis. Our plan was to arrive in Ruby, strap on our skis right on the airport tarmac, and then travel up-river to spend winter solstice soaking in the warm waters which percolate to the surface at the oasis known as Horner Hot Springs.

Horner Hot Springs is located about 25 miles up-river from Ruby. Information online was sparse about this springs perched above a small creek about a mile north of the Yukon River. Back in its heyday in the early 1900's, Horner Hot Springs was a popular stop for miners, trappers, and natives traveling the Yukon River -- which during the pre-aviation era the river was essentially a superhighway bisecting Alaska.

Dan skis from the airport down into Ruby. Gold was discovered near Ruby in the early 1900's but the settlement was officially founded in 1912 and at it's peak had a population close to 3000. Red garnets in the area were confused as "rubies" and the town was mistakenly named. Ruby has remained a native village since the gold rush ended.

We worked for food during our ski to Horner Hot Springs. Sam and Tamara are building the remote Yukon River Lodge about 15 miles upriver from Ruby. We were treated like kings in their "under construction" but warm home during our trip to/from the springs. These super friendly folks hope to have it open for year-round business sometime the next year or so--please visit them!

We encountered a mixture of conditions while skiing up the Yukon River. Large sections of the channel were impassable due to vertical knife-like blades of jumbled ice which formed during freeze-up. There was a nice snowmachine trail for a portion of the trip but strong winds in this area result in deep drifts, wind scoured glare ice, and slab crust which would frequently collapse from our weight. There were also a few stretches of overflow water hiding silently under the snowpack which would wet our boots and lock up our ski bindings.

Horner Hot Springs is situated about a mile from the Yukon River on the south flanks of the mountains known as the Kokrines in the background. We broke trail through thigh deep snow to get up to the springs.

The hot water in this area seeps from the surrounding hillside. A small collection pond dug into the embankment above provides water to a pipe which feeds the springs below. The temperature was a comfortable 103F(39C)degrees. There wasn't much flat real estate adjacent to the springs but we were able to find just enough space to set up our tent.

Dan crashes at the luxury accommodations at the Ruby airport while we wait for our plane back to Fairbanks. Fortunately for us it was a warm +10F (-12C)...

Here is a link to an old photograph of Horner Hot Springs: old photo. A pipe carrying hot water from the hillside is visible behind the cabin. Notice how the the faint caption appropriately says, "A sure cure for grouch, rheumatism, and the blues." The remains of this log structure appear to have completely dissolved into the soil of the surrounding boreal forest.

Here is also a link to some fascinating historical shots from the Ruby area when it was a bustling goldrush town: Ruby in the past.