Aurora Chasing – A Lesson in Patience and Tenacity in Fairbanks
By Donnie Sexton
GoNOMAD Senior Writer
Alaska Airlines touched down in Fairbanks in the wee hours of the morning, long past my bedtime. It was 2:30 am before I checked into Pike’s Waterfront Lodge and crawled into bed. Little did I know this was only the start of three days of sleep deprivation, due to seeking out those elusive northern lights, also known as the aurora borealis!
It was my first visit to Fairbanks to attend a travel writer’s conference. I had my heart set on photographing this aurora phenomenon.
Odds are that if you stay three or more nights in this snowy, often frigid city, you have more than a 90 percent chance of seeing the northern lights.
I was hopeful, given I had just three days to explore Fairbanks.
Alaska Aurora Adventures
The town was packed with aurora seekers, as this is big business for Fairbanks. There was no shortage of local companies offering aurora tours. It was possible to chase the lights via dog sled or by snow coaches.
Several providers offered a heated lodge, cabin, or yurt to wait in comfort until the lights appeared. This was definitely my style, as I had no desire to freeze my butt off, waiting for hours in the cold.
My first excursion was with Jason and Heather, owners of Alaska Aurora Adventures. Jason picked up our small group at 10 pm and drove us out to his cozy log lodge, roughly 25 miles from Fairbanks. He talked nonstop about Alaska while assuring us we would see the northern lights.
He qualified that prediction by saying he didn’t know how strong they might be or when they might appear. After all, it was a bit cloudy, the primary deterrent for seeing the lights.
Jason might have been a drill sergeant in another life. Once at the lodge, Jason wasted no time calling the shots in a very commanding voice for how the evening would unfold. “I’m going to set everyone’s camera up, so bring them to me. No matter what you’ve read, forget about it. I know the settings to use. If you need a tripod, you can use one of ours.”
Truth be told, he was doing everything in his power to make sure we were adequately prepared to photograph the lights the minute they appeared.
We waited, sipped on coffee and hot chocolate, munched on chips, and watched aurora videos till around midnight. Jason had been out monitoring the skies and came in proclaiming that he couldn’t see the aurora with his naked eye, but the camera was picking it up.
We flew into action, bundled up, and headed out with camera/tripod in hand.
A pale green brushstroke of color in the starry sky was in full view and intensified into a brilliant lime green as I watched. The aurora lasted a good 15 minutes before fading, and then we retreated back to the lodge.
We waited, munched, napped, and finally gave up on any more sightings due to the cloud cover. Around 1:30 am, Jason, drove us back to the hotel.In hindsight, this viewing was merely a teaser for what was to come.
The second night of viewing happened at Aurora Pointe, a new facility designed to host events and provide a warm spot for light seekers to wait in comfort. Our group had a catered dinner, followed by a “waiting for the aurora” game. Around 11 pm, the northern lights made a spectacular appearance, two-stepping across the sky in bans of various shades of greens with an occasional touch of pink.
The show went on for 45 minutes. I found myself less concerned about getting photos than just being in that moment when the universe let loose with her magic. I was giddy with excitement at seeing this powerful display.
There is plenty of in-depth science on the aurora borealis, most of which is over my head. I boiled it down to this. Electrically charged particles from the sun collide with the earth’s gases, such as oxygen and nitrogen, producing curtains of colored light. The key is a clear, dark sky. If there are clouds, or if it’s snowing, the aurora will be there, but you can’t see it. The aurora season runs from August 21 to April 21 in Fairbanks.
Beyond the Aurora: Chena Hot Springs Resort
While the aurora search occupied my late nights, there was plenty to explore in and around Fairbanks during the day. Local guides can easily arrange for dog sledding, ice fishing, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling. Our group headed to the very popular Chena Hot Springs Resort, 60 miles from Fairbanks.
Options for soaking included an outdoor natural hot springs lake and an indoor pool. The first stop at Chena was a tour of the Aurora Ice Museum, where we indulged in a martini served in an ice glass. We were instructed to take the glass outside and throw it into a snowbank when finished. With heavy cloud cover and sporadic snow, chances of seeing the lights were zero at Chena.
World Ice Art Championships
My trip coincided with the World Ice Art Championships, an extraordinary event. Ice Alaska, a nonprofit entity, hosts this ice-sculpting contest, the largest of its kind in the world. I’m talking Paul Bunyan-sized creations. Categories are single block, double block, multi-block, youth, and amateur. Each block of ice is approximately 6 ft x 4 ft x 3 ft, and weighs 4,118 lbs.
In the multi-block classic, the team sculpts a minimum of 36,000 pounds of ice. The blocks are moved into place per the artists’ instructions via heavy equipment operated by volunteers. Then the artists go to work with chain saws, picks, drills, chisels, knives, etc. There is a time limit of 62 hours to complete each sculpture, and teams can work around the clock if they desire.
This competition requires endurance, strength, and a tolerance for cold temps. The results are mind-boggling. The contest brings in more than 100 sculptors from 30 countries every year.
During my time in Fairbanks, I took a walk with reindeer. Yes, you’re reading this right! The Running Reindeer Ranch outside of Fairbanks raises a small herd of reindeer and offers visitors the opportunity to mingle with these docile creatures. Owner Jane Atkinson gave us a safety briefing and a very informative talk about reindeer.
Then we hit the trail through a birch forest where the reindeer frolicked about in the deep snow, nibbling on lichen, and chewing bark. The reindeer graciously shared the trail with us and took kindly to being petted. Reindeer and caribou are the same species. The difference is caribou are large, elk-like animals that run wild and have never been domesticated. Reindeer are slightly smaller and were domesticated over 2000 years ago in northern Eurasia.
Sleep Deprivation Is Worth It!
Fairbanks turned out to be an exceptional visit with many firsts – seeing the aurora, walking with reindeer, sipping on a drink served in an ice glass inside an ice museum, and getting to witness unbelievable ice sculptures.
The sleep deprivation required to cram all these unique experiences into three days was worth it.
Alaska Airlines put the frosting on the cake of late nights, with my flight leaving at 2:50 am out of Fairbanks. It’s the price I pay for being a curious explorer.