Dispatches From the Road: Alaska Northern Lights

Northern lights. (Gary Schultz)

I’d just returned from the cemetery when I heard the bartender talking about watching the northern lights from hot springs.

Though I’d seen some vague colored lines from the snow-filled graveyard near downtown Fairbanks, I wanted more. I ordered a beer and inquired.

A man who looked like he’d been camped out at the hotel bar much of the day said the aurora borealis show more than justified the hour-long drive into the Alaska wilderness.

Auroras are the result of disturbances caused by solar winds in areas affected by the earth’s magnetic field. The disturbances are often strong enough to alter the trajectories of charged particles and cause them to emit light of varying colors and complexity.

At 64 degrees north of the equator, the sun stays out for 21 hours during the summer solstice but only a little more than four during the winter equivalent in and around Fairbanks. The combination makes the region ideal for northern lights shows.

The failed Mainer in me shivered at the notion of almost total dark, extreme cold, layers of snow and isolation.

During my visit in October the city got approximately nine hours of sunlight, two hours fewer than northern New England that time of year.

Maybe it was the disorientation from the bad cold that hit in earnest a couple days later, but the sun seemed little more than a cruel tease in Fairbanks. Appearing on the edge of the horizon, it would flit upwards a bit before diving back again.

The bartender said most new employees who arrived from outside the area would show up to work 12 hours earlier or later than scheduled at least once during their first summer or winter. When the sky looks the same at 6 a.m. as it does at 6 p.m. a person gets confused.

The road to Chena Hot Springs. (Chena Hot Springs Resort)

He asked me where I was from. I told him I lived near San Francisco but grew up in Maine. He said of my former home state, “You guys have worse weather there. We don’t get much wind here, and it’s a dry cold. There it’s a wet cold.” The leaves were just starting to fall off the trees in my former home state. Thinking of the howling wind and layers of snow outside I stared at him.

Later that night I watched a short film on the northern lights, then booked a room for Saturday night.

The Chena Hot Springs Resort grew from twelve cabins built in 1911 by two gold-mining brothers who sought out the area after learning a geological survey crew had seen steam rising out of a valley on the upper Chena River.

A greenhouse helps Chena Hot Springs Resort reach its goal of being self-sustaining. (Chena Hot Springs Resort)

At check-in I signed up to be alerted if the northern lights appeared that night, which could happen any time after dark, then joined an educational tour that included stops at a fledging greenhouse, a small pack of reindeer that the resort hoped to breed and grow into a larger herd to feed visitors, and the first low-temperature binary geothermal power plant in the state, all designed to help the resort become self-sustaining.

The project reminded me of a subarctic version of the Dharma Initiative from the TV show “Lost.”

Hungry and thirsty after a quick dip in the springs (too hot below, too cold above) I headed to the lodge. Festooned with game horns and built in log-cabin style, it didn’t disappoint.

I found an empty seat at the crowded bar. The man next to me made fun of a fellow customer who had ordered a grapefruit-flavored beer while he worked on his third Budweiser in quick succession.

He told me he was from “where no man had ever been.” Not sure if he was joking, I didn’t press. His girlfriend chuckled and said he was from Yukon Territory in neighboring Canada. She was from Fairbanks.

Over the din of an increasingly raucous crowd I heard one man yell at another, “I’ve got a brother in Fairbanks, but that’s not Alaska.”

He reminded me of the shuttle bus driver at the airport who said he used to live in Anchorage, but that too wasn’t Alaska. He moved to a cabin without running water outside Fairbanks.

Feeling more under the weather by the minute I headed back to my room, eventually fading into fitful slumber.

Aurora borealis over Chena Hot Springs Resort, 56 miles north east of Fairbanks Alaska, February 2007. (McClean Image Studio)

“Lights are out!” the voice yelled from the door. I looked at the clock. A bit after 1 a.m. Every fiber of my being wanted to go back to sleep, but I’d come for the show. Dragging myself out of bed, I put on the two sweatshirts I brought with me and my feeble coat barely suited for Bay Area winters and opened the door. A gust of wind pushed it back.

Trudging to the middle of a field I looked up where light green and blue lights shot across a sky filled with more stars than I’d ever seen. I shivered as the bitter wind blew through my layers. Approximately a dozen people stood in the field, staring up, many of them couples with interlocked arms, seemingly oblivious to the weather.

I looked longingly at my beat-up old rental jeep parked at the edge of the field. After a few more minutes of watching the dancing lights I headed to the car, fired it up and turned the heat to full blast. I tried to look at the show out the front window, but the well-lit parking lot and the angle meant all I could see were some stars.

After warming up I headed back to the field, now with more than 20 people in it. I lasted another 10 minutes.

Once in the room I regretted not spending more time looking at the show, but not enough to go back out.

The next morning I stopped by the gift shop, bought a magnet and headed out for the icy drive to Fairbanks to catch my flight back to Anchorage, but none of that is Alaska.

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