Chasing the elusive aurora borealis

Posted Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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If you go

Solar activity is peaking now, and it may not be as strong again for decades, making this an excellent time to (try to) see the aurora borealis. In Alaska, basing yourself in Fairbanks is probably your best bet.

• Consider taking the train to Fairbanks from Anchorage. Alaska Railroad (alaskarailroad.com) offers one such train a week, on Saturdays, for $169.

• In Fairbanks, Chena Hot Springs Resort (chenahotsprings.com) makes a good base. It generates its own light pollution but makes up for it with activities to distract you from your aurora hunt, like swimming in the spring, cross-country skiing and more. The owners grow their own vegetables in a greenhouse, making the salads surprisingly fresh. Rooms from $200.

• For aurora borealis predictions, we found the University of Alaska Geophysical Institute (gi.alaska.edu/auroraforecast) and NOAA’s Ovation model (helios.swpc.noaa.gov/ovation) to be the best and most comprehensible websites.

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We hurtled across the tundra in the dark. The old train chugged, rattled, occasionally whined. As the sun came up around 10 a.m., the world faded from black to cobalt to white and every shade between. All was snow; it was just a matter of how much, where, what shape. Black spruce trees draped in white rose up from the ground like crystals of hoarfrost.

“If you walked in that direction,” I heard my father say, “you would die.” I could not see in what direction he was pointing, but it didn’t matter. In temperatures that hovered around zero, it would take several days to hike to the nearest town.

We were traveling north from Anchorage, which in early January has more than six hours of daylight, to Fairbanks, which has fewer than five. The Aurora Express, run by the Alaska Railroad, takes 12 hours to traverse the more than 300 miles of forest, mountains and tundra. One can fly from Anchorage to Fairbanks. One can drive. But there is no better way to wrap your head around Alaska in winter than by train — especially a three-car train that averages about 30 mph.

My family’s reason for visiting Alaska last winter was typical: We came to the dark in search of the northern lights, the aurora borealis. Our backstory, though, was not: My father, a retired programmer, earned his Ph.D. in astronomy in the early ’70s under Carl Sagan but never worked in the field. When I was a child, on clear nights when the magnetic activity was projected to be strong, my father would bundle us into the car and drive to Franklin D. Roosevelt State Park north of New York City on the off chance the aurora would be visible. These trips were tests of faith in the idea that if we stood in a dark-enough spot at the right time, the heavens would open up and show us their contents. But the heavens remained closed.

That was two solar cycles ago — two nine- to 14-year periods in which the solar flares responsible for auroras wax and wane. The last solar maximum was in 2000. The next is happening now.

This time, my father and I were equipped with iPads with bookmarks for five websites that project the aurora in real time. My sister had two cameras. My mother had hope.

The quest begins

In Fairbanks, we rented a car and drove to Chena Hot Springs, 60 miles east. The resort lies in the curve of a small valley surrounded by 3,000-foot hills. While we were waiting to check in, two couples slipped out of the hotel bar, and soon the bar’s entertainment, a grizzled guitarist, appeared. He asked what sort of music we liked. “Y’see,” he said, “I’ve got no one else to play for.”

But we were more interested in looking for the aurora and went outside. The steam of the hot springs and the clouds above shielded the sky from view.

The next morning, we awoke in a panic. When we booked the trip, we were told that spending three nights in Fairbanks in the winter gives you an 80 percent chance of seeing the aurora, so we planned for four. But the weather report called for more of the same: clouds and fog.

Hunting the aurora can take you to places you would not normally visit and lead you to do things you would not normally do. At least, that is my explanation for how I wound up that night in a yurt on a hilltop above Chena, standing in a circle, chanting a Sanskrit prayer taught to us by another tourist.

The prayer seemed a suitable end to a short day spent bathing outside in zero-degree air. In the hot springs, everyone and everything is cloaked in thick, gauzy steam. Much of the resort has a similarly dreamlike feel — its snow-dipped trees and colorful lights evoking a frozen Candyland. There is an ice museum built from giant blocks of frozen water taken from the beaver pond down the road. There, appletinis are sold in ice glasses carved on a lathe.

I spent most of the evening outside, staring north. Somewhere around 2 a.m., I convinced myself that a faint light was shining behind the clouds.

There was no moon to the north. No cities or industry. And yet the light grew. A mote of sky opened up. I had a hard time coaxing the others from the hut, but finally my sister appeared with her camera and tripod. The rest followed. We stood motionless as the camera absorbed the light. When the shutter clicked, we gathered to see the result: a faint arc of green light. We looked again to the north, as if proof of the thing could make it more visible, but the patch of sky sealed up.

That night as we slept, a mass of warm, wet air broke through the Alaska Range. It seemed innocent at first, pleasant even, until we walked outside the next morning and realized we could do with about five fewer layers of clothing. The mercury hovered just above freezing, up nearly 40 degrees from the night before. The sun even came out.

But pleasure became trepidation as it began to rain, then terror as the rain turned to sleet on the road to Fairbanks. Downtown Fairbanks was a sheet of ice.

Last chance

Our destination was Dale and Jo View Suites, in the hills west of Fairbanks, where we would spend two nights in an apartment with good views of the sky. The proprietors, Dale and Jo Skinner, predicted doom for our dog-sledding plans the next day. We got takeout Thai food and bought provisions at a gas station: cans of tuna, white bread, eggs.

The next morning brought more sun, a pat of butter on the horizon to go with our eggs and toast. Despite Dale and Jo’s warnings about the roads, we decided to chance it, driving on the snow and ice to a cabin about 25 miles west of town.

There we met Nita Rae, who along with her partner, Josh, runs Sirius Sled Dogs. Nita is from North Carolina but moved to Alaska after falling in love with the state twice: once in summer and again in winter. She met Josh when she hired him to build a house, a cabin they eventually moved into together.

Nita introduced us to her barking mass of huskies that, over the course of the day, displayed distinct personalities. White-furred, blue-eyed Spud took his work seriously and taught the younger dogs to do the same. Delicate Spook chewed himself if he was tied up, so he roamed free. Zeppelin was a proud old dog who still loved to be out pulling the sled but rarely had the strength anymore.

After 10 minutes on the trail, Nita let us drive. We sailed through the woods for hours as the sky warmed from blue to yellow, and then to pink.

In the car on the way back to Dale and Jo’s, we didn’t speak much. I don’t think words would have added much to a day spent a few degrees south of the Arctic Circle, driving a team of eager huskies through canyons of black spruce.

That night, our last in Fairbanks, I crashed around 11. The forecast was for more clouds and low auroral activity. As I drifted off, instead of disappointment, I felt satisfaction. We had come to a dark-enough place at the right time, and this time the heavens had opened. They did not show us the northern lights, but instead the ethereal snowscape of Alaska in winter.

At 2 a.m., my father shook me awake. Dale, he said, had been out and seen the lights, but they weren’t visible from the house. We threw on long johns, pants, snow pants, sweaters, jackets. I felt like a child again, bundled up in the car to hunt the aurora, except now I was the driver. I followed Dale’s truck to a field at the base of the valley.

There was a soft glow over the hill now. Were we seeing an aurora, I wondered? Did it matter? My sister set up her camera. I put my arms around my parents, pulled them as close as our layers of clothing would allow. As the mystery of creation wheeled overhead, we looked up at the sky, watching, waiting, hoping.

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