In Search of the Northern Lights in Alaska

By Travel Writers

January 5, 2014 8 min read

By Jim Farber

We've all seen the pictures of that amazing atmospheric sky show known as the Northern Lights — those shots of snowy mountain crags bathed in dancing bands of green, red and blue. So it's no wonder that seeing the Northern Lights makes its way onto so many people's bucket lists. It was certainly on mine.

In my hometown of Los Angeles the Northern Lights are about as exotic as surfing would be in Fairbanks, Alaska, which is exactly where I was going, my head filled with expectations of spectacular nights spent under a veritable of rainbow of exploding colors. Well ...

A bit of context.

Yes, it's true we do get snow high in the mountains that surround Los Angeles. But we also have the Rose Parade on New Year's Day to show people who live where it really is cold that we can bask in sunshine and festoon floats with fresh roses in what is suppose to be the dead of winter.

Fairbanks is a little different. The third day after I arrived the temperature dropped so far below zero it froze the glue holding the soles of my after-ski boots (which I assumed would be perfectly adequate) and caused them to fall off. The next day I equipped myself with a pair of real Alaskan snow boots.

Obviously to see the Northern Lights you have to be out at night — and not just anywhere. You need to be away from the lights of the city, preferably in a remote location high in the surrounding mountains. Typically the best viewing hours are from 10 p.m. until 2 a.m., so plan for a long night.

But even once you're there, luck plays a big part. As the brochure from the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau clearly states, "We can't make them (the Northern Lights) appear with the flip of a switch, but Fairbanks is the ultimate place for viewing the aurora borealis. Fairbanks' position under the Auroral Oval — a ring-shaped region around the North Pole — makes it one of the best places in the world to see the aurora borealis.

Fortunately for Fairbanks, viewing the Northern Lights has literally become a cottage industry, with little hostels such as the Aurora Borealis Lodge and the Chandalar Lodge within driving distance of Fairbanks. Once there, you enjoy a cup of hot cider or cocoa in warmth and comfort as you wait for the lights to arrive.

To explain.

The Northern Lights result when gaseous particles in the Earth's atmosphere collide with charged particles released from the sun's atmosphere: The more violent the solar activity, the more vibrant the lights. The most common color is a soft emerald green produced by oxygen molecules located about 60 miles above the Earth. Much more rare are the all-red auroras produced by high-altitude oxygen at heights of up to 200 miles or the iridescent blue and purplish-red auroras produced by an interaction with nitrogen.

Since solar activity can have an adverse effect on electronics, charting levels is crucial to the military and civilian air operations. It also means that Northern Lights viewers can use the same information to anticipate the level of activity, which is graded on a scale from one to 10. One Alaska Coast Guard pilot I met monitors solar flare activity from an app on his phone.

The range of color is directly related to the strength of the solar wind: more wind, more color. But the truth is that unless the activity reaches the higher end of the scale, say from seven to 10, the Northern Lights appear (to the human eye) as curtains of undulating white light. No color!

How can that be? What about all those amazing photographs? The answer is long exposures. The camera's "eye" can remain open for any length of time and continue to record visual data, whereas the human eye cannot. What our eyes see as white light can turn into brilliant shades of green, pink, red and blue inside the camera. So those amazing promotional shots are more than a tad deceptive. You might see something like that, but even for professional Northern Lights hunters, those encounters are few and far between.

Add to this the challenge of photographing (making complicated long exposures on a tripod) in subzero conditions. It is a specialized craft, and it really helps to have an expert to advise you. Our guide, Fairbanks native and ace Northern Lights photographer Sherman Hogue, was an enormous help.

You should also be prepared to be surrounded by throngs of Japanese tourists. The Japanese, it turns out, are superstitious about the power of the Northern Lights. It's a commonly held belief that to conceive a child under their radiant glow will bring good luck, so in the far-north truck-stop enclave of Coldfoot (north of the Arctic Circle and made famous in the reality TV show "Ice Road Truckers") there is a motel that caters to this specific demographic.

The Japanese are also avid photographers, so during the peak Northern Lights viewing period, from January to March, you may have a hard time booking viewing lodge and hotel space. The trick is to reserve well in advance and allow at least three days for viewing (preferably at different locations) to increase your chances of encountering a vibrant light show. You might even consider a flight to Coldfoot, which prides itself as a premier viewing spot. Just don't try to sit in the part of the cafe designated "Truckers only."

With its variety of hotels, eateries, brew pubs and museums, Fairbanks offers a plethora of activities. But the other main winter attraction is Ice Alaska, a monthlong event from Feb. 24 to March 30 at George Horner Park. This competitive event attracts more than 70 teams of ice-carvers from all over the world. It can be seen day and night, but at night these ice creations come alive under a stream of multicolored lights. The imagination of the carvers and their ability to execute the most intricate details — from the feathers of a swooping eagle to the fish scales of a mythological creature or the bulging eyes of a space alien — is unbelievable. It's an annual event, now in its 25th year, that attracts visitors by the thousands.

Getting to Fairbanks and viewing the Northern Lights was an experience I will never forget. It also shortened my bucket list by one item.

WHEN YOU GO

Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau: www.explorefairbanks.com or 800-327-5774

Aurora Borealis Lodge, Cleary Summit: www.auroracabin.com

Northern Lights Photography Tour (Chandalar Lodge): www.ronmurrayphoto.com

Bear Lodge at Wedgewood Resort, Fairbanks: www.fountainheadhotels.com

Ice Alaska: www.icealaska.com

Arctic Circle Air Adventure, Northern Alaska Tour Co.: www.northernalaska.com

 A dog waits for its owner in Coldfoot, Alaska, north of the Arctic Circle. Photo courtesy of Jim Farber.
A dog waits for its owner in Coldfoot, Alaska, north of the Arctic Circle. Photo courtesy of Jim Farber.
 A competitive ice-carver demonstrates his skill at Ice Alaska in Fairbanks. Photo courtesy of Jim Farber.
A competitive ice-carver demonstrates his skill at Ice Alaska in Fairbanks. Photo courtesy of Jim Farber.

Jim Farber is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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