Fairbanks, Alaska: The Northern Lights Experience Made (Kinda) Easy

Sunday, April 21, 2019 - by Scott S. Smith

As travel writers, my wife, Sandra Wells, and I have been to exotic locations around the world, but back home in Los Angeles we put on our heavy coats when the temperature drops to 50 degrees and we aren’t into winter sports as participants. So tramping around Iceland or northern Canada in the dead of winter did not quite seem like the ideal fit for our travel plans, even to see the spectacular Aurora Borealis—the Northern Lights, Nature’s own fireworks. Then we discovered an accessible and civilized alternative that is considered by many to be one of the best locations for this in the world: Fairbanks, Alaska (as opposed to going to places closer to the Arctic Circle with names like Deadhorse and Coldfoot).

The catch was that Nature doesn’t stick to a reliable schedule (just as, when going to see wildlife in Africa, the creatures are not in a zoo and what you will encounter is unpredictable). Even at this optimum location, the Lights tend to be visible only about one in three days during the “season” from end of August to end of April, due to cloudy skies and other factors. All the scientific projections based on the past really don’t mean much, we were told. Some aurora seekers recommend September or October, but generally, it seemed to us that our best chances might be greatest if we set aside at least three nights in January-March. We only had four days of vacation, so in mid-February 2019 we flew to Fairbanks for a three-night, four-day roundtrip (Alaska time is one hour earlier than Pacific).

In reading up online about how to photograph the aurora, it seemed daunting: the equipment needs due to the cold, taking long shots at night, the dress requirements, waiting hours to get the right pictures (see Details sidebar). Plenty of tours are available for hardy and dedicated souls who want to do all that, but relatively few travelers go to Alaska in winter just because of the weather, so the additional challenges add to the disincentives. Then it occurred to us that many could be interested in the best experience possible if it were without the enormous stress, hassle, and expense of the traditional approach.

Aurora Borealis for the Less Adventurous

We found an ingenious solution for those like us: the Aurora Pointe Activity Center (661 Funk Rd., Fairbanks AK 99712, 907/880-3314 info@aurorapointe.net).  A recently opened, spacious and comfortable event space on a hill, it is a short a drive away from the lights of the city. It is perfectly positioned to be a place to keep warm, socialize, read, play games, drink coffee or cocoa, and snack, while waiting for the Lights to appear, with a projection from a local telescope on a screen that provides a way to see what is developing on the horizon. You can reserve for $30 per night from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m., the peak time for aurora activity https://www.aurorapointe.net/reserve/. Kory and Julie can help with camera issues or, if you don’t want to bring your gear, they provide customers with their own shots from that night’s viewing. They also give guided tours to other locations for those who do want to be more adventurous and they run A Taste of Alaska Lodge.

Our plane arrived 1:30 p.m., and after renting a car (see Details), we rushed to get to the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum www.fountainheadmuseum.com, which had restricted winter hours. Local entrepreneur Tim Cerny began collecting the over-100 vintage vehicles in 2007, based on not only their outstanding design, but historical and technological significance. The museum often has to create parts to make their vehicles perfect. It’s a world-class collection and deserves a couple of hours even for those who think they might not be interested in the theme (and we say that having reviewed Los Angeles’ renowned Petersen Auto Museum).

The oldest car on display is the 1898 Hay Motor Vehicle Stanhope Phaeton, the newest the 1938 Southwest Chrome Special Elto Midget Racer. Among the most fascinating were the 1910 Stanley Steamer Model R, the 1917 Owen Magnetic Model M-25 Touring (an early hybrid with a gas, electric, and magnetic motor systems), and the stunning 1932 Chrysler Custom Imperial Series CL Convertible Sedan. The red 1927 Stutz Vertical Eight Custom Series Black Hawk Bottail Speedster (see photo) was accompanied by dresses of the period, another aspect of the museum, along with information about the often colorful original owners, which helps bring each era alive for visitors.

We checked into our Airbnb (see Details) and took a nap so that we could stay up for the Northern Lights (we’re not night owls). But before we left, we were alerted that the sky was too cloudy, so the viewing was cancelled and we were refunded our reservation.

More Impressive Museums

The next morning, we set off for the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center www.morristhompsoncenter.org, which also has one of the offices of the Explore Fairbanks tourism organization. The Morris Thompson is a free nonprofit museum that is a good place to start any visit, providing an overview of the history of the vast interior of Alaska, including exhibits on native arts and religion, gold rushes, oil pipelines, wildlife and wildflowers, how early settlers dealt with the extreme weather, dog sledding, the colorful characters among the pioneers, and many other topics. There are always crafts being demonstrated and an opportunity to have a photo taken of your family in traditional native festive costumes.

The University of Alaska Museum of the North www.uaf.edu/museum/ deserves its five-star reviews on TripAdvisor. The National Endowment for the Humanities called it, “A model for 21st century art and anthropological museums.” We started by watching “Dynamic Aurora,” a terrific combination of explaining the science behind why the auroras happen and glorious film of their movements (as opposed to the static picture that photos show). They are the result of electrically-charged particles that boil off from the sun and are propelled towards earth by the solar wind, which disturbs the magnetic field around the earth 50 to 400 miles up, near both North and South Poles, resulting in swirling celestial curtains of green, yellow, red, and violet.

The museum has 1.4 million objects. There are special exhibits on subjects like how carbon dating determines the age of objects are and the state’s history of powerful earthquakes. The Museum of the North has the world’s most complete collection of polar dinosaur fossils, including some from a previously unknown duck-billed hadrosaur, most of these taken from a deposit of rocks on a flood plain 69 million years ago.  The Rose Berry Alaska Art Gallery features examples going back two millennia.  Outside is a display of totem poles with explanatory signs.

At the entrance to the main gallery, visitors are confronted by a 1,400-pound brown bear standing to its full 8-foot-9-inch height. Inside are other critters, such as a 21,000-year-old woolly mammoth and the 36,000-year-old mummified step bison known as Blue Babe (see photo). The section on native culture (including that of what are popularly known as Eskimos) has items going back 10,000 years and discusses how they fit into their shamanistic vision of the universe, as well as examples of the potlatch celebrations of prosperous coastal tribes. The Russian influence on state history, a 425-pound quartz crystal, large chunks of gold and gorgeous gold jewelry, and ancient art caved into stone known as petroglyphs are among the other fascinating exhibits.

After a nap and home dinner (we are on special diets and don’t generally review restaurants), we drove up to the Aurora Pointe Activity Center for the first time at 9 p.m. and socialized, snacked, and watched the picture of the horizon. According to the science of aurora forecasting, conditions were perfect, but Nature refused to cooperate, only providing the crowd of 50 with small bits of its artistry.

Specialty Shops

The next morning we decided to spend some time at local specialty shops. The first was Expressions In Glass www.expressionsinglass.net, a gallery that creates stained, blown, and fused glass art of all kinds, including windows, vases, jewelry, and custom pieces. It also teaches classes in its studio to help anyone learn the skills.  

Blue Door Antiques https://www.facebook.com/BlueDoorAntiquities/ came highly recommended by our Airbnb hosts, Lisa and Tiffany. It is a mini-Disneyland for collectors of not only real antiques, but everything from books and vintage clothes to toys and Hollywood memorabilia, crammed into three floors, where you could get lost for hours.

The highly-rated Alaska House Art Gallery turned out to be closed for the season for a few more weeks. We decided not to drive the 15 miles on icy roads to the town of North Pole, where the Santa Claus House has been sending letters from the big man for 60 years and has an enormous holiday gift and décor shop, as well as reindeer to pet (if you go, be sure to check Santa’s appearance schedule).

After the nap and dinner, we decided that road conditions made it unwise to use our rental car to get back to the Activity Center, so we called experienced Uber drivers (our first time using any such service). We were very happy with Eric Joe’s drive there and Edwin Rinn, who picked us up for the return.

Alas, despite perfect conditions, we only saw minimal displays again, but the Center provided us with photos from other nights when the Lights did appear, like the one with this article.

What no one had told us was that brilliant sunsets are another of Alaska’s many natural spectacles (the picture with this story was taken from our Airbnb).

On our way to the airport the next morning, we dropped by the fairgrounds to see a bit of the World Ice Art Championships www.icealaska.com , an annual event since 1990. It has grown from a one-week competition with eight entries to one that draws 70 teams from around the world and lasts five weeks, drawing 45,000 visitors. The results are truly breathtaking—extraordinarily imaginative and sophisticated artistry. Lots of ancillary activities take place, including a winter festival.

(the photo, courtesy of Ice Alaska, is The Last Kiss by Todd Dawson)

Did our lack of encounter with the full-blown aurora borealis mean we failed? There is no adventure without risk and every trip we have ever taken has turned out differently than we imagined. We embrace adventure, but would advise other seekers of the Lights to spend more time in Fairbanks to increase the odds of experiencing them, since the area is an underappreciated destination at any season.

Other Winter Activities:

Fairbanks is, of course, a year-round destination and the visitors bureau publishes a beautiful magazine about the region and a calendar of events that you can request or explore online www.explorefairbanks.com. There is a reindeer ranch where you can get up close and personal, tours via skiing, snowshoes, dog sled, or plane, guided wildlife photo trips, a curling club, art galleries, bookstores, malls, dining for a wide variety of cuisines, festivals, other museums, ballroom dancing, theaters, hockey, a hot springs resort down the road, an much more.  

Details:

Where to Stay: We normally review 4-and-5 star hotels or boutique B&Bs, but Fairbanks’ weren’t receptive so we gave www.Airbnb.com another chance (we had a couple of unpleasant initial experiences in 2010). Lisa and Tiffany gave us a warm welcome when we booked their  “Cozy Room/Private Bath in the Golden Heart City” near Creamer’s Field (a good place to see the Northern Lights in winter and wildlife in other seasons). Their home was located in a quiet area near everything most visitors would want to do. They provided invaluable information on everything from clothing to wear to what to do, had healthy breakfast options, and kept a spotless house, with our room having a very comfortable bed and in the adjacent entertainment area there was a huge flat screen TV. The mirror in the bathroom was better-lighted than most 4-star hotels. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay there and it was very affordable.

Casual Dressing for the Inner Lights: If one hasn’t lived somewhere that experiences day and evening temperatures that often are 30 degrees above to 20 below zero (32 above is freezing), it is easy to get confused by books and online sources about how one should dress for various activities in Fairbanks. What we learned are the essentials if you mainly want to go outside to get from place to place and then take off the layers when you are inside: 1) Wear lined winter boots and two layers of sox that are synthetic, wool blend, or fleece (cotton traps moisture), a thin one against the foot that should be changed each day, a heavier one outside that doesn’t need changing for a short trip. 2) Top and bottom wool blend thermal underwear, as well as jeans or snow pants. 3) Insulated parka with hood and wool scarf or face cover or a balaclava with wool hat that covers the ears. 4) Insulated heavy gloves that allow you to easily use your fingers. This approach eliminates the need for special hand and foot warmers, a mid-layer, glove liners, and a coat under the parka. Also, bring a sturdy umbrella in case it snows (it only did briefly during our three days).

Photo Tips for More Time Outside: For those who want to take their own photos during longer excursions outside, bring a tripod, a non-film camera with a manual or long exposure setting, a wide angle lens set to infinity, with the aperture wide open (the smallest number--F/2.8 to F/3.5 are common), the ISO at 1600 and adjusted as needed, and 6-10 second exposure. You will also need several sets of batteries kept in chemical hand-warmers and cloth lens wipes to avoid condensation when you move from a warm room or car to cold outside, putting the cap on before you go back in. Bring a red light headlamp to avoid disturbing others when working with your equipment (this also minimizes your eye dilation). Practice before you go and get some training from your tour guide.

Airline: We’ve always found Delta to provide the overall best experience and easiest to deal with if there were any problems, so we appreciated its gift of tickets for this article.

Driving in Snow: We’ve generally relied on Enterprise Rent-A-Car because their franchisees are trained to literally go the extra miles to make sure customers remain loyal, so we used the one at the airport. Request that if the weather has been bad, snow be removed from the car and the windshield deiced. Every car will be equipped with a winterizing plug, a cord by the front license that has to be plugged into a power source by extension cord (provided by one’s host) overnight to keep motor elements from freezing. If you are not used to driving on icy roads, you will want either a front-wheel drive (which we had) or even four-wheel drive (Fairbanks in winter can often be less than 10° F above zero, which is the limit to the effectiveness of salt on melt snow on roads, so they are constantly plowed). It’s also prudent to rely on the insurance of the rental company, given the unusual conditions.

 


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