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If you’re considering a trip to see the northern lights in Alaska, you should know that you’re going to be cold and sleep-deprived — and that every bit of discomfort you experience is more than worth it.
My husband and I flew to Fairbanks in November, eager to see the dazzling light display officially known as the aurora borealis. Fairbanks is located under the Aurora Oval, a ring-shaped region near the North Pole where aurora activity is at its highest. That fact, plus Fairbank’s generally clear winter skies and low levels of light pollution, make it one of the best places in the world to see the northern lights.
Staying in a cabin on the outskirts of Fairbanks, we relied on the city’s online Aurora Tracker for forecasts, which take into account the weather as well as aurora activity. On the nights when the forecast was good, we took turns waking up every half-hour to head outside to check the sky. On three out of our six nights in the area, we got lucky. Bundled up against the subzero cold, we gazed upward in awe, entranced by the lights swirling and dancing above us. They’d appear and disappear on their own mysterious schedule, shimmering curtains of yellow-green tinged with pink that rippled across the sky. Though we’d seen them in photos and videos, nothing can compare to viewing them in person.
After we caught up on our sleep, we learned more about the aurora at the Museum of the North, a beautifully designed building that’s on the University of Alaska-Fairbanks campus. The lights are the result of charged particles ejected from the sun, a solar wind that takes about three days to hit the earth’s atmosphere. There they are channeled to the polar regions by the earth’s magnetic fields. The charged particles light up the gases in the upper atmosphere 60 to 500 miles above the earth. Greenish-yellow is the aurora’s most common color, but shades of yellow, violet, red and blue are often seen as well. Because it takes the charged particles only two seconds to travel the length of the globe, the auroras form identical patterns at the northern and southern poles.
The museum also describes some of the beliefs and folklore associated with the aurora. Many native cultures around the Arctic region believe the lights are the spirits of ancestors. Some say the lights emit sounds, though there’s no scientific basis for the claim.
Other exhibits at the Museum of the North showcase the cultural and biological diversity of the region. Highlights include Alaska Native artwork spanning 2,000 years, a Gallery of Alaska representing the major ecological regions of the state, and the world’s only restored Ice Age steppe bison mummy, a massive, indigo-tinged beast known as Blue Babe.
After touring the museum, we could see why winter has traditionally been celebrated as a time of freedom in this region. In the summer traveling across spongy tundra is very difficult, but winter’s ice and snow open up the Alaskan landscape to those on snowshoes, snowmobiles and dog sleds.
We were fortunate to have our own chance to go dog sledding, which after the aurora is the biggest winter tourism draw in Fairbanks. On a sunny day when the temperature hovered at zero, my husband and I took a short drive out of Fairbanks to Frisky Pups Sled Dog Rides, which is owned by Bill and Sandy McKee. Both are veterans of many races, including the 1,000-mile Iditarod.
“Years ago we were living in Colorado when my wife met a woman from Fairbanks who was a dog musher,” Bill McKee said. “She came home and said that’s what she wanted to do, too. It took her two years to convince me, but in 1992 we moved to Alaska and started raising sled dogs.”
We watched in amusement as Bill harnessed his dogs, who were beside themselves with excitement. All their frenzied barking stopped, however, once we set off down the trail. The dogs pulled us with silent, single-minded intensity, clearly glorying in running through the winter landscape. For the next 30 minutes they took us up and down hills in a forest of spruce and birch, an experience nearly as magical as watching the northern lights.
The next day we enjoyed another classic Fairbanks experience: a visit to the North Pole. The town of North Pole, which is a 15-minute drive from Fairbanks, celebrates its connection to Christmas with streetlights decorated with candy cane motifs, resident reindeer (also known as caribou), a 42-foot statue of Santa Claus, and a Santa Claus House where the big guy and Mrs. Claus greet visitors. You can order personalized Santa letters from their store or else drop your letter off at the North Pole post office, which does a booming business each holiday season postmarking letters sent from around the country.
Back in Fairbanks, we enjoyed a brisk walk at Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge and then paid our respects to Bus 142, an abandoned bus that achieved fame as a result of the book and movie “Into the Wild.” After the backcountry bus became a destination for adventurers — who often put their lives at risk to reach it — the University of Fairbanks airlifted it out and is now preparing it for exhibition. The battered bus where Christopher McCandless died in 1992 is an evocative symbol of Alaska’s powerful, and sometimes dangerous, allure.
We flew out of Fairbanks in the middle of the night, peering out the plane’s windows in a vain effort to see the aurora one last time. Though disappointed, we knew the northern lights keep to their own schedule and that we were fortunate to have seen them at all.
What: The aurora borealis or northern lights
When: The northern lights can be seen between mid-September and early April, with peak viewing from January through March.
Where: The Fairbanks, Alaska, area has many options for seeing the lights, including heated “aurorium” cabins with windows on the ceiling, flights to the Arctic Circle, overnight dog sledding adventures, photography classes, and tour companies that will pick you up at your place of lodging and take you to remote areas for prime viewing. Most hotels offer wake-up calls when the northern lights are out. It’s estimated that visitors who spend three winter nights in Fairbanks have a 90 percent chance of seeing the aurora.
What to see: In downtown Fairbanks, the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitor Center provides an orientation to the people, wildlife, landscapes, and seasons of the region.
Where to eat: For dining, try one of the many Thai restaurants for which the city is famous (Lemon Grass is particularly good), as well as those that serve Alaskan specialties such as reindeer sausage and salmon. For local brews and food truck dining, visit HooDoo Brewing Company.
For more information: Visit explorefairbanks.com and travelalaska.com.