Nature’s Own Light Show: Aurora Borealis

I finally witnessed something awesome that you don’t get to see everyday, except maybe if you live in the Arctic Circle– the aurora borealis.

Photo by Adrian Alarilla

Photo by Adrian Alarilla

Also known as Northern Lights, the fantastic phenomenon occurs when plasma from the sun reacts with the Earth’s magnetic field. The aurora manifests in various colors and patterns of light across the sky: “dancing” or “curtaining” in, most commonly, red, blue, or green.

David, my two roommates and I traveled to Fairbanks for one of the roomies’ birthday weekend, on the hope that we would see this marvel at least once.

Why go in March? Well, it’s actually hard to see the aurora in Alaska during the summer, because the sun doesn’t really set. You need a clear, dark sky for best viewing, rather similar to viewing a meteor shower. Moonlight can obscure the aurora as well, so it’s best to go closer to new moon than full moon. Also, auroral activity has been shown to peak near the spring equinox.

Why Fairbanks? According to our research, it’s within the range where the aurora is easily visible, and it’s also fairly easy to reach from Seattle (unlike other cities like Kotzebue or Fort Yukon).

The Novice’s Guide to Surviving Winter Weather

Someone forgot his sunglasses...

Someone forgot his sunglasses…

I had been to Alaska before, but only on very short visits, and never during the winter. As I’ve stated previously, I am an island girl. I don’t do well in freezing temperatures. In fact, I’ve got some advice for people who are similarly on unfamiliar territory:

  • Bring lots of warm clothing! Alaska is cold. The kind of cold where it doesn’t even matter what the actual temperature is, because you’re too numb to feel it. Dress in layers so that if it happens to get a little warmer, you can shed one of those inner layers and still be OK. I kid you not, I was wearing three pairs of pants (runner’s tights and winter leggings under some loose jeans), two pairs of socks (one pair was the fuzzy kind), a shirt, a cashmere sweater, a waterproof shell and a poufy down jacket, and I was still cold after 15 minutes outside. David joked about how it was the longest strip show ever, because it took so freaking long just to get out of all our clothing when it was time to change into our pajamas.
  • Protect your extremities. Do not forget a hat, a scarf, gloves, and something to cover your face. Breathing actually hurts if it’s too cold out, so having something to breathe through is very important. Also, your gloves need to be the thickest you can find. Bring an extra pair in case you lose one glove, and bring earmuffs! Lastly, don’t forget that your eyes need protection too. Snow reflects a lot of light and can get pretty blinding. Don’t leave your sunglasses at home.
  • Plug your car in at night. Your car’s fluids can freeze when it gets too cold. Rental car companies will provide you with a cord to plug your car into a power outlet that can be found around many parking lots. Don’t walk away from your car without ensuring you can drive it again four hours later.

A Guide to Viewing the Aurora

Our weekend was an interesting learning experience on aurora viewing.

First Attempt — How to Not View the Aurora

On Friday afternoon, we checked out the World Ice Art Championships and stayed there until full dark. Then we headed over to the Pump House for dinner and drinks. I highly recommend this restaurant, by the way. They have a beer sampler of four beers for $6. Their island salad is the best salad I’ve ever had in my life — and I usually hate greens! The mango vinaigrette is divine and adding caramelized onions to salad is a brilliant touch. Portions are massive and can be shared, and are priced reasonably for the size.

For some reason, we thought that the aurora would be visible between midnight and dawn. So we left the Pump House around 22:00 and went back to the hotel to sleep. We set an alarm for 02:00, then drove about 20 minutes west of the city on Parks Highway to get away from the city lights. There’s a random turnoff about 15 miles from Fairbanks that would probably make a good aurora viewing spot.. if there were actually one, and if we were trying to see it at the right time.

We didn’t see anything. So we ended up back at our hotel at 03:30, had some beers and played cards and went back to sleep.

Second Attempt — Success!

The next day we drove out to the amazing Chena Hot Springs. We had decided that we shouldn’t hang our hopes on seeing the aurora and should just enjoy our weekend getaway. After relaxing in the spring and having dinner at the resort’s restaurant (expensive, but they cook their salmon perfectly and their clam chowder is excellent), we decided to head back to our hotel in Fairbanks.

As we were walking out to the car, David looked up at the sky, paused, and said, “Is that a cloud?”

There was a long pale streak of light in the sky. It looked almost like a night-time rainbow, only white-ish. We soon realized that this was it. We were seeing an aurora!

It was still too bright around the resort, and cars were coming and going, their headlights ruining the experience. So we decided to dash into the car and head back along Chena Hot Springs Road to Fairbanks, and stop somewhere along the way where it would be darker and we could see more clearly.

Photo by Silvain Alarilla

Photo by Silvain Alarilla

Recommended Site for Best Northern Lights Viewing

Chena Hot Springs Road is a two lane road, and it wasn’t plowed much during our visit. So, it was almost impossible to just turn off and park along the side of the road. You could try to go into one of the unmarked roads, but those are usually private property, and the one time we tried, a car came out and chased us off.

You’re basically looking for a couple of things:

  • A view unobstructed by trees.
  • A spot a little bit away from the road so you won’t be distracted or endangered by passing cars.

The best place if you’re closer to Chena Hot Springs Resort is the Angel Creek area. About 7 miles west of the resort, and before you come to the North Fork bridge, you’ll see a plowed road to your right. There’s a stop sign there. Turn into this road and drive a little ways in to see a clearing with a building on one end (these are restrooms). This is a trailhead for part of the Chena River State Recreation Area. You can park here with your car facing east and north, where there is less tree cover.

We sat in the car for about an hour and a half and just enjoyed the view. The lights were sometimes just a horizontal streak, and sometimes they blinked and danced. They were mostly greenish, with vague hints of blue.

A note on colors: The photos you see that have such brilliant colors are mostly thanks to photography. Leaving the camera shutter open for so long allows the camera to capture more light. Please don’t be disappointed if your eyes don’t see as much vivid color as you’ve seen in pictures. The experience is still amazing, and you should feel really lucky to witness this awesome phenomenon.

For aurora forecast and other tips, head over to the Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

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5 thoughts on “Nature’s Own Light Show: Aurora Borealis

    • I think some people may be disappointed by not seeing a brilliantly colored Aurora because the pictures have set up some expectations. I found it magical, color or no!

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