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Chasing the Aurora

by | Apr 3, 2019 | Magazine, Tourism

Tourism from a tourist’s perspective

The aurora borealis above Wiseman. (Photos taken by a Samsung Galaxy S9 with tripod.)

Vanessa Orr

Lying in my cozy bed inside the toasty, tastefully decorated room staring up at the star-filled night sky from a Borealis Basecamp igloo, it was hard to believe that, with all of these creature comforts, I was actually spending the night off-the-grid outside of Fairbanks waiting for the aurora to light up the sky.

I had planned on roughing it a little, having made plans to travel in February to Fairbanks and then up the Dalton Highway to above the Arctic Circle to chase the elusive Northern Lights. What I hadn’t expected was the level of quality, custom-tailored accommodations and tours that would take the trip to a higher level.

While I often write about Alaska businesses, I rarely get to experience them from a user’s perspective, especially when it comes to being a tourist in the 49th state. But my recent trip to Fairbanks and the Arctic Circle to witness the aurora gave me a first-hand look at why more and more travelers cite Alaska as one of the number one items on their bucket lists.

Seeing the Lights

During aurora season, generally August 21 through April 21, there’s always the chance to catch the Northern Lights in action. What many people don’t realize is that it doesn’t have to be winter to watch them dance—a fact of which I was naively unaware. And while other Alaska sites advertise themselves as Northern Lights locations, the aurora is especially impressive in Fairbanks and all the way north to Wiseman, as these cities sit under the Auroral Oval: a ring-shaped region that encompasses Fairbanks on the southern end and Wiseman to the north.

This has spawned an entire industry focused on helping tourists have an incredible aurora experience. A number of lodging companies, already decorated to the hilt with photos of authentic Alaska experiences such as dogsledding and gold-panning, have added special warming huts, called auroriums, to keep tourists toasty while witnessing the lights. In Fairbanks, for example, the Taste of Alaska Lodge not only has rooms with patio doors that open right out to a field where you can stand to view the immense sky but also a yurt on the property where aurora-watchers can get warm. The 280-acre property, homesteaded by Walter and Dorothy Eberhardt in 1947, is now run by their grandson, Kory Eberhardt, who is more than happy to share his knowledge and photo tips with his guests. The hotel itself is a mix of Alaska-themed items and antiques collected from all over the country, making it a unique destination for those who are looking for something far different than a franchise hotel.

The aurora borealis above Wiseman, Alaska.

Vanessa Orr

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Borealis Basecamp, located twenty-five miles outside of Fairbanks, is not what you’d expect to find in Alaska—or even on this planet. Massive acrylic-domed igloos dot the mountaintop to allow the widest angle of observation while still enabling guests to stay warm in their Toyo-heated rooms. The igloos’ custom-made, 16-foot windows were created by basecamp co-owner Adriel Butler, who based them on a helicopter window design as a way to increase visibility. And the rooms even feature dry-flush toilets so that you never have to go outside in an area where outhouses are not uncommon.

Meals are served in a massive yurt that looks over the mountain, and guests can choose from Chef George-prepared entrees that include salmon, crab, and flank steak, as well as a soup and salad course and desserts at a quality that you’d expect to find in a fine dining restaurant instead of an off-grid ecolodge. There are also numerous activities to keep visitors entertained, from dogsledding and walking tours to backcountry snow machine rides.

Chena Hot Springs Resort, about sixty miles outside Fairbanks, also provides an ideal location to see the aurora. Since a storm had blown in on the day I visited, I chose to stay instead in the 106 degree outdoor Rock Lake pool, which is naturally heated by water coming from 3,000 feet underground. There’s something really special about basking in the steaming water while being surrounded by ice and looking up into a starry Alaska sky; this one-of-a-kind experience can’t be found anywhere else.

Chena also offers a lot of other attractions, most notably the Aurora Ice Museum. This attraction, made of more than 1,000 tons of ice and snow, can be visited year-round as it’s kept at a balmy 25 degrees so the ice doesn’t melt. Inside, I was fascinated by the carvings created by Steve and Heather Brice, world-champion ice sculptors who have a workshop based within the museum. I was especially entranced by the frozen flowers within the ice, and of course, the massive ice bar, where our host served appletinis in glasses carved of ice. While I’ve never held a drink with mittens before, little touches like these really make the moment. And of course, the selfies were stupendous.

Two things that stand out about all of these accommodations are that they offer something uniquely Alaskan and they provide alternative entertainment opportunities, ranging from hiking to dog sledding, in case the aurora doesn’t make an appearance. It’s always good to have a Plan B when the main attraction depends on Mother Nature.

Borealis Basecamp, located twenty-five miles outside of Fairbanks.

Vanessa Orr

The Aurora Ice Bar in the Aurora Ice Museum at Chena Hot Springs. The museum is open year-round.

Vanessa Orr

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During the Day

While I practically made chasing the aurora a full-time career, there’s still a lot of daylight to get through before you get the chance to see the big show. Luckily, Fairbanks is full of unique offerings, including three world-class museums that you might expect to find in much larger cities.

The Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitor Center is a great way to get oriented—if you don’t know the history or the culture of the Fairbanks region, this is the perfect crash course. Having lived in Juneau for almost a decade, I thought I was fairly familiar with the state—turns out that I had a lot to learn about the northern climes. The museum includes everything from stories of Athabascan life to the animals that make Interior Alaska their home.

The Museum of the North, located on the University of Fairbanks campus, combines history and art in a jaw-dropping package. Just driving up to the massive, abstract iceberg-shaped building set against a panoramic vista gives one a feeling of just how large this area is—and how small humans really are when pitted against this backdrop. The art within the museum’s walls is spectacular and includes everything from sculptures to beadwork to paintings and carvings; there’s even a decorated outhouse made of found materials and historic objects. It is a fitting monument to showcase the talent of the people of the Last Frontier.

Arctic Shadows sculpture at The Museum of the North. (1996, Jacques and Mary Regat)

Vanessa Orr

The Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum hosts an astounding collection of vintage automobiles accompanied by vintage clothing—I can’t imagine anywhere else you could see a 1920s Assuit gown and shawl paired with a 1920 Argonne Model D two-passenger roadster. While the concept seems a little strange at first, this melding of motor-age fashion with the automobiles that inspired it is fascinating, and museum Manager Willy Vinton is more than happy to share stories of Fairbanks’ early auto history. This is the type of exhibition that you’d expect to find in Los Angeles or a much larger urban city—just another example of what makes a trip to Fairbanks special.

You can also take a run up to North Pole for a holiday (or any day) shopping opportunity. In addition to stocking up on everything you can imagine for Christmas, you can fill out postcards on the spot that they’ll send from the store so it even has a North Pole stamp. This is especially cool (pun intended) for kids and grandkids who might be waiting to hear from you back home. (I’ll note that my 89-year-old dad also got a kick out of it!)

If you’d prefer to get some exercise but still want a truly Alaska experience, visit the Running Reindeer Ranch. Owners Jane Atkinson and Doug Toelle started raising reindeer back in 2007 at the request of their daughter, Robin. They now have a herd that—while used to humans—is still pretty wild, which you can see when they get a little too close to each other and decide to make room with clashing horns. At the ranch, you can actually hike with the animals, who are loose; it’s is a little disconcerting if you’re used to hiking with a dog, or anything that weighs less than 300 pounds. The reindeer follow their own path and aren’t afraid to be a little pushy if you’re in the way.

What I really appreciated is that the staff takes the time to teach you about reindeer and share a wealth of fascinating facts about these animals. Far more than a petting zoo, you actually get to interact with them as well as watch them forage in the wild—a much better way to understand these beautiful animals compared to a zoo safari-type tour.

Athabascan handicrafts at the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitor Center in Fairbanks.

Vanessa Orr

The Museum of the North, located on the University of Fairbanks campus.

Vanessa Orr

A 1906 Compound light touring vehicle with a woman’s day dress (1901-03) at the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum in Fairbanks.

Vanessa Orr

Traveling the Dalton

While there are many reasons to stay in Fairbanks to wait for the lights, there are also opportunities to head even farther north. When I first signed up for the trip, I didn’t realize it would mean nine hours in a van on icy roads—yet when it ended, I was so sorry that it was over. You definitely feel like you’re in your own version of “Ice Road Truckers” as you watch massive semis careen down the highway in the opposite lane. We even came upon a jack-knifed semi at Mile 25; it was impressive to watch Alaskan ingenuity at work as a group of drivers figured out how to get the wreckage off the road—in such a remote area, there’s no point in waiting for AAA.

The view of the boreal forest was otherworldly, with huge amounts of snow still piled on the spruce trees, creating an almost-Seussical landscape. And a stop at the Yukon River Camp gave us a chance to stand on the frozen river, where our watering eyes caused our eyelashes to freeze. The big surprise here was that instead of standard trucker’s fare, we had our choice of delicious Asian entrees including fresh Banh Mi sandwiches or Alaska salmon noodle soup. Far from what I would expect at this far-flung location, it was the perfect road food for finishing our drive to the Arctic Circle.

Northern Alaska Tour Company went above and beyond to make sure that all of their guests were comfortable and knew what to expect from the van trip up and the flight back. Superior customer service and genuinely nice people made this experience special; not to mention that our driver, Ken Anderson, was a seventeen-time Iditarod musher and four-time Yukon Quest participant. He made our time in the van fly by, sharing stories and his immense knowledge of the state and the highway. And it gave us an extra bolster of confidence knowing that we were traveling with someone who was very familiar with ice roads and how to handle driving in Alaska.

At the Arctic Circle, Anderson even rolled out a red carpet to welcome us to our destination and took photos of us posing by the sign. We then headed up to Coldfoot Camp in a different van, while he headed back down the Dalton. I wasn’t sure what to expect since Coldfoot was built as accommodations for the transportation crews building the highway, and while it wasn’t fancy, it was clean and cozy and warm—important factors when you’re not used to 33 degrees below zero. The full-service restaurant and bar not only had excellent comfort food but friendly staff willing to share stories of what it’s like living and working so far from “civilization.”

That night, we took a van to Wiseman, where we met Jack Reakoff, a character right out of central casting for a Bush Alaskan—except it is really his life. He shared fascinating stories, and even better, he knew how to make a cell phone work to take pictures of the aurora. An added benefit was that the company provided tripods for everyone who wanted one, as well as a fire both outside and in the cabin to help us keep warm.

I didn’t stay inside for long, however, because that night the aurora came out in all her glory, and between taking pictures and trying to remember to breathe while watching such an awe-inspiring sight, the three hours we spent outside went by in a flash. Even without such a show, the experience would have been worth it—but to have that moment under the dancing lights was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

While these aurora tours are geared toward helping tourists see the Northern Lights, by their very design they give visitors a far greater experience—an authentic experience meeting real Alaskans, learning how they live, and understanding why so many love the Last Frontier.

Rich, warm Asian-inspired dishes are served at the Yukon River Camp, one of the stops along the Dalton Highway.

Vanessa Orr

Visitors to the Running Reindeer Ranch can take a hike through the woods with a reindeer herd.

Vanessa Orr

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