Amazing Alaska – Viewing the Aurora Borealis


DSC_2344 [mike]

Our purpose of travelling to Alaska was primarily to view the Aurora Borealis. In our planning, we had considered either viewing from the Scandinavian region, Iceland or Alaska. When we sent out enquiries to our friends in these regions, our friend, Annie, originally from Utah, immediately sent us a parcel all about viewing the Aurora Borealis from Alaska. In the parcel was a book, a calendar and a video. We immediately made up our mind to go to Alaska to thank her.

The most commercialized place to view the Aurora Borealis is at Chena Hotspring Resort. Forget about all the tourist reports about viewing the lights at Anchorage or Fairbanks. Although the residents there we spoke to have seen the lights, chances of visitors viewing the lights in these cities are very rare. The best place to see the lights is at a deserted dark place. You could book private cabins or camp out in the mountains. But most tourists, including plane loads of Japanese during Jan-Mar period, chose to go to Chena.

When we arrived at Fairbanks, the hotel kindly asked us to include our names in a list for them to call in case they spot the Aurora Borealis. No such luck. The two nights (a few days apart) that we stayed there, there was no wake up calls.

At the Chena Hotspring Resort, we were told to put our names on a list too. The three nights that we were there, there was no wake up calls either. But we were awake every night we were there, as we joined a small group in a darkened room in the activity centre at 10pm to wait for the appearance of the Aurora Borealis.

On the first night (5 December 2012), We waited until 2 am when someone spotted some green in the sky. It was barely visible to the naked eyes although it showed up pretty nice on camera. An old man we met told us it was his bucket list to see this and he specially bought a new canon SLR to shoot the lights. Unfortunately, his camera couldn’t capture anything. Mike spent the night tutoring him and he was grateful when he managed to capture some green. Some students from China were leaving the next morning was just glad to see some green in the sky, their excitement was contagious and added an air of festivity in the dead of the night.

DSC_1962 [mike]

On the second night (6 Dec 2012), Mike decided to explore the aurorium in the hills behind the resort. I went along only after we were assured that it was only a ten-minute hike, plus I didn’t want Mike to go alone. In the end, after dinner, the three of us went, packed with a thermal flask of hot tea and loads of heat pads. We were weary about walking in total darkness into a deserted forest hill path. Aided by only a single torch, the path was brightly lit by the stars and the white of the snow. We arrived at the hut, heated by the hot spring but still chilly. We sat before a huge glass window and waited. Below the hills, white fumes from the hotspring rose up, forming clouds. Once in a while, a shooting star adds to the otherwise uneventful wait. Soon, we were joined by a couple from Seattle. We learned later that John and Robin once saw the Aurora Borealis all the way down south at Seattle and wanted a repeat experience.

At about 2am, the show started slowly. A little green cloud that rose higher gradually. It was brighter than the night before and the show ended as abruptly as it had begun twenty minutes later.

DSC_2109 [mike]

DSC_2114 [mike]

7 Dec 2012, Friday was our last night in Chena. I knew if we don’t see any that night, there would be no other opportunities of viewing. As there was no wifi, we tried asking the resort if there was an Aurora Borealis updates as Mike recalled a reading of 3 (out of a 10-point scale) that night. The unhelpful staff said they do not have such tracking. The staff at the activity centre was just as unhelpful, dashing our hope that the prediction is not accurate.

Mike decided that we should remain at the activity centre as the cloud from the hotspring at the aurorium was a distraction to his photos. That night, we had a crowd. Two bus loads of Japanese tourists arrived. They were all dressed in matching overalls, I guessed provided by the tour agency to protect against the cold. It was distracting in the viewing room as people marched in and out, and the reflection from external lights masked the mountain scene outside. On a number of occasions, I had to tell the group to turned off their handphones and cameras as the glare from the screens was interfering with my viewing.

At close to 2 am (always about this timing), I was reading in the outer room when Mike came in and said the lights had started. We all streamed out into the cold to view. It was the brightest we have seen so far, proving that the prediction was accurate. Behind me, I heard oohs and aahs from the Japanese, and comments like ‘cool’, ‘f#$@^*& awesome’ from some Americans. This emotionless Singaporean just looked, a little disappointed that this was it.

Taken on 7 Dec 2012 (Friday).

Taken on 7 Dec 2012 (Friday).

As I have mentioned previously, the camera captured the lights better than the naked eyes. It was disappointing for me as I expected curtains of red and green to wave above my head. Apparently others thought so too as a woman I met, Stephaine from Seattle, told me she spent the previous night, coming out of her room every hour to look at the sky, hoping to spot something. She didn’t know the lights only appear behind the mountains until the night we met.

I was told that the Japanese think it’s auspicious to view the Northern Lights, that’s why Chena is popular with Japanese. In the last week of December to March, JAL flies direct from Tokyo to Fairbanks. Viewing the lights are also on many people’s wish list (majority females), or bucket lists, although just a many of my peers have never heard of Aurora Borealis.

Although disappointed with the viewings, I am still thankful for the opportunity. After all, one can’t expect nature to go according to plan, and that’s the beauty and wonder of the lights.

Here are some facts: The auroras, both surrounding the north magnetic pole (aurora borealis) and south magnetic pole (aurora australis) occur when highly charged electrons from the solar wind interact with elements in the earth’s atmosphere. Solar winds stream away from the sun reach the earth. ­As the electrons enter the earth’s upper atmosphere, they will encounter atoms of oxygen and nitrogen at altitudes from 20 to 200 miles above the earth’s surface. The color of the aurora depends on which atom is struck, and the altitude of the meeting.

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About vickychong

Just an ordinary woman.
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2 Responses to Amazing Alaska – Viewing the Aurora Borealis

  1. Siew says:

    Enjoyed your candid account of your northern lights hunting experience. Given that 2012/13 is the peak of the Solar Cycle, my hubby and I are also thinking of going to catch the aurora borealis. Not much time left and we still cannot decide if we should fly all the way to Yellowknife in Canada (apparently it is in the aurora oval, and is less crowded with tourists than Fairbanks) for a chance sighting of nature’s most amazing cosmic show. Our main concern is the extreme night time temperature of -35C and below in Yellowknife. But your series on Alaska has certainly emboldened me to take a carpe diem attitude. We shall take our chances in March and hope for the best 🙂

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