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Alaska's Northern Lights

The aurora borealis can be witnessed in Fairbanks more than 200 nights a year.

Alaska's aurora borealis
Photo credit
Photo courtesy of Senior Airman Joshua Strang/Wikipedia
Photo caption
The aurora borealis, or northern lights, shimmers above Bear Lake in Alaska.

On a clear February night I am huddled in a car parked on a deserted hillside just outside Fairbanks, Alaska. Because it is 47 degrees below zero, I’ve left the motor running and the heater roaring. All around, little twiggy trees poke out of the snow and the sky is a vast charcoal expanse overhead.

I’ve come to Fairbanks to see the aurora borealis, or northern lights. “Imagine the most colorful sunset you’ve ever seen, then send it swirling and pulsing across an otherwise clear and starry sky,” proclaims Smithsonian magazine in its January 2008 life list of 28 places to see before you die. The aurora isn’t a place, of course, but a phenomenon—the interaction of Earth’s atmosphere with charged particles, largely from the sun. Based on the sun’s position and recent magnetic activity, the University of Alaska’s Geophysical Institute forecasts a high likelihood of an aurora tonight. I have the radio for company, and—as suggested by experts—a notepad to record observations.

12:10 a.m. Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide.” 12:55. “Sexual Healing.” What does he mean by that, exactly? 1:27. “It’s a Heartache.” So true.
1:30. Sky inky black. Navy blue. No: “a vast charcoal expanse.” 1:48. A truck drives by. 1:49. This is like a scene from that movie Zodiac. 2:01. Nervous. 2:15. Lonely. 2:17. “Dust in the Wind.” 2:18. I drive back to the hotel.

“The aurora was out at about 3 a.m.,” aurora forecaster Charles Deehr emails me the next morning.

“I saw it when I got up at 5.”

My first shot at the northern lights and I blew it.

Humans have been captivated by auroras for millennia, and they appear in the folklore of peoples from the Danes to the Eskimos, whose legends tell that the lights are caused by spirits playing ball with a walrus skull. In fact, an aurora occurs when high-energy particles slam into atmospheric gases. Oxygen and nitrogen in various forms yield the yellowish green and less common red and purple shows. As a rule, Earth’s magnetic field diverts the charged particles to the polar regions, which is where you’ll see the most vibrant auroras.

But some solar winds have such tremendous force that they set off crimson displays visible around the world, which happened in 1859 and again in 1941—an event Neil Davis, author of The Aurora Watcher’s Handbook, saw as a child in West Virginia. “There’ll be another like that,” says Davis, an emeritus professor of geophysics at the University of Alaska–Fairbanks. “But it could be in 100 years.”

Nonetheless, auroras are recorded regularly in Fairbanks fall through spring, on average 243 nights a year. A day later, I’m zipping down the highway toward Chena Hot Springs Resort 60 miles outside town—a world-renowned aurora-watching destination that advertises a heated “aurorium” for comfortable late-night viewing—when I am abruptly confronted with two moose lumbering across the road. I take a photograph—half-ton animals are impressive—then drive on to the 100-year-old resort built on the banks of a natural 106-degree lake.

There’s nothing like the crazy pleasure of stepping off a snowy boulder into a hot lake on a minus-40-degree day. Damp from steam, your hair freezes instantly into crunchy white strands just as the chill melts from your bones. People paddle by, faces appearing suddenly in the thick mist. It is one of the strangest, most beautiful places I have ever been.

Later I tour the resort’s ice museum, constructed entirely from ice and furnished with ice chairs, ice sculptures—even a spiral staircase carved from ice. Formerly a hotel where guests could sleep on ice beds, it was converted to a museum after regulators insisted the owners install sprinklers. Prudently, I decide not to belly up to the bar (carved from ice) and throw back an apple martini (served in an ice glass), as I am determined to stay up all night.

It turns out that the aurorium, a small cabin with large windows, is temporarily closed. So at 10 p.m. I claim a seat in the resort’s activity center, along with 100 or so Japanese tourists. Aside from me, everyone is Japanese. I ask the woman behind the information desk how I will know if the lights appear. “Because everyone will . . .” She struggles for the right word, then flutters her hands excitedly and gives me a meaningful look.

11 p.m. I read up on auroras. Early Scandinavians envisioned reflections off large schools of herring. The Mandan people saw the fires of warriors cooking their enemies in giant pots. 11:30. I go outside. Bundled figures stand peering hopefully north like characters in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. 11:34. I come back in. 1:30 a.m. I go outside. 1:33. I come back in. 4:11. I go outside. 4:18. I go to my room and crash, fully clothed, on the bed. 9:00. I drive back to Fairbanks.

In February, Fairbanks enjoys eight plus hours of daylight, which feels pretty normal even to an outlander. What does not feel even slightly normal is the extreme cold. You need to spend 15 minutes draping yourself in wool and down every time you set foot outdoors. After that, it is perfectly possible to stroll comfortably around downtown, a mix of modern office buildings and century-old log cabins that look ready to subside into the earth. There are a handful of distinctive shops: Gold Rush Fine Jewelry, a source of earrings and pendants from locally mined gold, and Alaska Rare Coins, which sells coins, of course, but also Native ulu knives for skinning game and fish, and antiquarian books, such as a first edition of May Kellogg Sullivan’s 1910 Trail of a Sourdough.

After a fortifying lunch of reindeer sausage at the Bakery, a popular diner, I head to the outskirts of town for a dogsled ride. Eight howling hounds and huskies pull the tiny sled through a spruce forest, whipping around curves, stopping and starting at the word of the guide, Dede. I have never been colder in my life, and seldom more exhilarated.

For my last attempt to see the aurora, I reserve a spot at the Aurora Borealis Lodge 20 miles outside Fairbanks. If you don’t book an overnight room, co-owner Mok Kumagai will escort you from your hotel and take you back before dawn. The lodge is warm and lofty with enormous windows, a dozen sofas, subdued lighting, and bossa nova on the stereo. Once again, I am in the company of dozens of Japanese travelers.

“It’s one of those things you have to see, like the Pyramids,” says Kumagai, who was born in Japan. “And not to stereotype, but it’s a patience game and visitors from Japan are often a little more patient.” The soul of patience, I pour myself some coffee and open my notepad.

10:50 p.m. I pet Sugi, the resident husky pup. 11:45. I pour more coffee. 12:30 a.m. Suddenly, a rustling. I missed the signal, but everyone is silently snapping up parkas and filing onto the deck. Many boots crunch on snow as we gaze in silence at a pale smudge on the sky. 12:40. The light fades. We file back inside. 1:00. Another smudge. We hurry out. People photograph the colorless glow. “Is this a really good aurora or a pretty good one?” I ask Kumagai. A long pause. “Pretty good,” he says. “When it’s really good you see your shadow.” 1:40. The aurora forms a thin curtain across the sky, like a large cirrus cloud. I detect no green or red. I decide to stand outside for 20 minutes, what Davis recommends to “dark adapt” your eyes. 2:00. Dark-adapted, my eyes still perceive only white. It is very chilly. I go inside.

Kumagai has uploaded photos of this aurora on the television. Strangely, they all show a lovely emerald light. “If the aurora is very faint, it will appear white because your eye doesn’t detect the color,” Davis explains later. “It was probably green and cameras picked up the true color.”

Am I frustrated? Sure. I came to Fairbanks to check the aurora off my life list and saw a vaporous blur. I also swam in a hot lake, mushed through a spruce forest at 20 below, faced down two moose, and toured a museum made of ice. None of those experiences were on my life list.

But they should have been.

This article was first published in November 2010. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.