04.02.2014 - 07.02.2014 -25 °C
Alaska is often referred to as the final frontier and no wonder, it is one of the northern most extremities on earth. For a traveller, what you see and experience is greatly determined by the time of year you go. In the summer it's green with blue skies, very long days and it can even be warm. Winter on the other hand is completely different, short days, ice, snow and it's cold - very cold! The main draw card for winter travel to Alaska is the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights. A natural light display in the sky caused by the collision of energetic charged particles with atoms in the high altitude atmosphere.
The Aurora was the main driver for this trip. A trip that took some deciding on where to go and even whether to go. There are quite a few options in North America, Yellowknife and Whitehorse are both renowned viewing points in Canada. Anchorage in southern Alaska is also a good base as is Fairbanks further north. To see the northern lights, you ideally need to go between September and March, when the sky is darker. The moon position is also important, a full moon can be too bright meaning the aurora may not be seen. Therefore it's best to go when the it's a new moon. Whether or not you will see the northern lights depends on a few factors, the Aurora Borealis can vary greatly in strength. This changes dailiy, sometimes it is weak meaning it cannot be seen, and other times it's strong and therefore very bright lighting up the sky with shades of green, yellow and even red. The other factor is the weather. If there is heavy cloud, you won't see anything.
So, it's dark, extremely cold and you may not see anything. Plus the flights are expensive. Will it be worth it? There's only one way to find out! Fairbanks was decided due to it's superior position compared with Whitehorse and Anchorage and it's affordable accommodation options compared with Yellowknife. Plus the flights were on sale, I therefore booked the flight and flew from Seattle.
Was it worth it? Wow, yes. I couch-surfed at the University of Alaska which was convenient as it's the best area in Faribanks to view the lights due to the light pollution throughout the town. The university is set on top of a hill away from the city. After landing at midnight, I quickly disappeared into the night of the forest in hope to get a sight. The Aurora forecast was low however I was able to view an amazing green glow far away on the horizon, a fascinating sight. It constantly moves and can disappear at any moment.
Day 2 was spend exploring the town, including the Chena River and Pioneer Park which is a wonderful open air museum. This was followed by a trip to the Chena Hot Springs. The natural hot springs are 60 miles away and are home to an ice museum, restaurant, aurora viewing point and the hot springs. As the Aurora wasn't out, the hot springs were the highlight, soaking in the warmth, surrounded by icy trees and rocks, staring at the ultra clear skies all with frozen hair!
The next 3 days and nights were all cloudy with loads of snow, however there was still plenty to see and do. The Animal Research Farm was great, with Elk and the huge arctic animal - the muskox! The nearby town of North Pole was also good to see. This is where Santa Claus lives, he was busy but I was able to say hello to the reindeer.
On the final night the forecast was cloudy and the Aurora strength low...so I was now thinking that that first night was going to be the only sighting I'd have. On the walk back to the University at about 11pm however, I saw the moon. If there's cloud, I shouldn't be able to see the moon...there was only one thing for it, layer up, go for a hike, stare up into the sky and wait.
After looking for about 3 hours, the cloud started to clear and there it was. The show started. It wasn't super bright but it darted from far on the horizon to above my head and dazzled for hours. Utter silence, no wind and -25 Celsius. A captivating experience, it was breathtaking. I had to drag myself away to be back at the University by 6am, to pack and walk 1 hour to the bus, to ensure I got to the airport on time. Walking fast with a loaded pack, on ice, without sleep wasn't easy but I smiled every step of the way. What an experience.