Alaska's Northern Lights - 2018

Travel Arrangements


Author: Lois Gray Photos: Kay Gilmour

Video Journal: Vimeo Alaska

March 2018 Aurora Borealis outside Fairbanks Alaska

Contents AURORA FACTS ...........................................................................3 TRIP DETAILS...............................................................................4 TASTE OF ALASKA LODGE ...........................................................5 CHENA HOTSPRINGS RESORT ...................................................13 A REAL AURORA FINALLY..........................................................25 OUR MONEY SAVING STRATEGY...............................................28 BACK TO FAIRBANKS.................................................................28 FRIENDLY, GARRULOUS, & HELPFUL ALASKANS .......................34


TRIP DETAILS A trip to interior Alaska to see the fabled "northern lights" or aurora borealis, named & described by Galileo Galilei in the 16th century. Here's how we travelled. Escorted Trip with Adventure Photography, owned & operated by Gordon and Cathy Illg. We were with them from March 5 to March 12, 2018. There were 9 clients: five from Florida (Lois, Kay & Betsy, Robin & Regina), 2 from Arizona, 1 from Canada, and 1 from Denver. Cathy and Gordon also live in Denver. In addition to the guiding services, 2 meals per day (breakfast & dinner) were included along with the transportation within Alaska. We were responsible for our own plane fares to and from Fairbanks. Housing in Fairbanks on the last night and throughout the trip were also part of the package we purchased. We travelled from place to place in a very comfy & roomy van. Gordon and Cathy are both skilled photographers as well as friendly & outgoing folks to travel with. We highly recommend their company to anyone interested in travel with an emphasis on photography. On our trip, 3 of us were not photographers but enjoyed the trip probably as much as the photographers.

TASTE OF ALASKA LODGE FIRST STOP: After a short night in Fairbanks (because of red-eye flights from Florida), we were picked up at our Best Western Motel around noon and whisked away to "A Taste of Alaska," a B & B about 30 miles north of Fairbanks. Though people in the know said the roads were icy as well as snowy, we Floridians just trusted our experienced van driver and looked out the window at the winter wonderland around us.

Snow was piled 3 & 4 feet along the roadsides, trees were bowing under the weight of the snow adorning their branches and clinging to their trunks, and open spaces revealed the presence of frozen rivers

and creeks beneath that same snow blanket. The sky was Delft blue overhead and the sun was bright even though it didn’t seem warm enough to melt the heavy snow. Such a welcome and surprising change of scenery for us Southern folks who had gone from temps in the 80s to temps here in the teens!

"A Taste of Alaska" was our home for the next two nights, holding the promise of our first chance to view the Northern Lights. The Lodge is rustic but totally convenient & comfortable. Their website will provide you with the history of the 3 generations of family that have owned and operated this unique Alaska Wilderness oasis. Meals were delicious and included local fruits and veggies—like wild blueberries and asparagus. Views from the window of the dining room provided shots of the eye-catching Alaska Range with even Mt. Denali visible on clear days.

Paths were available from every outside door and there was plenty to see on the grounds of this special place. So many interesting shapes under the snow blankets included huge planters that will be filled with thousands of blooming plants when spring comes & woodpiles under several feet of snow as well. Amusing items could be spied as too—like almost covered parking meters and filling station pumps.

There was a "yurt" (or "ger" as the Mongolians now prefer to call them) down the hill which was labelled the warming station. We understood this concept better when we visited it and felt the heat the stove provided. Welcome retreat from very cold nights we spent outside looking for the aurora show. We all enjoyed walking around the compound listening for birds, enjoying the snowy beauty and feeling some exhilarating cold fresh air on our cheeks (on hands & feet, not so much). We all enjoyed seeing the loveliness all around us but we were blessed with only one wildlife sighting: a spruce grouse! Very fine bird but difficult to photograph because he was so well camouflaged in the leaf litter beneath the trees where he rested. When he flew up to a branch above our heads, he

was even more well- hidden but true photographers are never deterred from trying. See Kay's picture of this lovely creature!

When the skies darkened, we were all optimistic about the night show! We had all familiarized ourselves with the steep paths through the snowbanks that we would be negotiating in the dark when we were awakened to make our way down the hillside. Flashlights would be helpful but no photographer wanted to see those lights flashing into his camera lens, so care had to be taken to use that

light appropriately. After our tasty supper, we went to bed filled with visions of dancing green lights in our heads. SURPRISE! We slept through the whole night. Gordon and Cathy had been on the alert every hour to see if the aurora would reveal itself. No such luck for us first-timers! The next day we spent some time in seeing some of Gordon & Cathy's super pictures of their travels through the world. Then some of the guests had brought examples of their own work because Gordon had said he would be glad to give pointers about improving shots if we wanted to hear his ideas. Several folks did and we all liked seeing those as well. Kay showed her pictures of our recent gorilla trekking in Rwanda and they were well-received as were our stories about the experience!

Another night and more hope!? We went to bed early with optimism. And sure enough, Gordon knocked on our door to invite us out for the show around 10:30 p.m. Struggling into our cumbersome and heavy winter gear, we stumbled out with flashlights and cameras and tripods. Making our way down the steep hillside timorously, we reached the first area Gordon suggested for viewing. Well, then he tells us that what we will be seeing is what is called a "basic" aurora. No dancing lights, no light-filled sky.

Instead, what did we see with the naked eye? A band of white light along the horizon just above the tree-tops. Some light pollution from Fairbanks was also visible to our left. Only when we looked at the scene thru the camera lens did we see the broad band of green light with a narrower band of maroon light above that. Stars were bright and seemed maybe a bit more exciting than the glowing static bands.

Fairbanks light 50 miles away on left

We stayed out about an hour but then gave up. Gordon got us up a little later because he thought the display might be "charging" up but it stayed the same. We did take advantage of the warming hut (yurt) but were disappointed when the stove was not even warm. But inside we were out of the wind which was pretty cutting when it blew by! Gordon was not exactly jubilant with what we saw that 2 nd night, but it was clear that he was very much relieved. At least, he could remind us that we had actually seen the aurora borealis even if it was just "basic." Must be hard on a group leader if the clients never see any aurora display at all. CHENA HOTSPRINGS RESORT SECOND STOP: We were picked up by our van the next day for the drive to our home base for the next three nights—The Chena Hot Springs Lodge about another hour further northeast.

Again, we had spectacular scenery all around us and we were all surprised at the large size of this complex.

There were more varied things to keep us busy during the daylight hours than at our first base. And during the next few days, we participated in most of the activities available and added some of our own. It was during this part of the trip that we realized that we were having a strangely different sort of visit: we had entered an area where we needed to turn night into day. During the day, we stayed busy, but the real focus of the visit was the night's hoped for activity—viewing and photographing the aurora. Our first night at Chena was a repeat of the experience at the B&B, a "basic aurora." But we all tramped out into the snow and cold and took

in what was showing. None of us stayed very long because it was quite frigid and nothing much changed. Again, Gordon said he would awaken us if there was more activity later on in the night, but we slept peacefully through the dark hours. Some of the things we enjoyed during the daylight hours were walking around the expansive grounds in the crunchy show, just finding pleasure and fun in the different sights, sounds, smells, and people- watching since the other visitors were a multi-cultural bunch. Of course, we walked out to see the reindeer that are kept on property.

At present there are 5 in all and those caribou had better keep their numbers down since they are planned eventually for the table in the Aurora Café. However, none will appear on the menu until there at

least 15 in residence! The herd is not sustainable until it reaches that level. So these guys & gals (& the young calf) have a few years to go before anything dire happens. Do you know the difference between a reindeer and a caribou? If you don't know, then you may think this is a trick question when I reveal the answer. Actually, they are one and the same creature. The only difference is that the animal is called a "caribou" when it is wild and renamed a "reindeer" when it is domesticated! Other familiar animals live on the lodge acreage as well and we walked around to visit them all: a burro, two goats, chickens, horses and a young cow.

All of them have shelters for when the weather is too cold for them— but the mammals all seemed comfortable in their own shaggy winter coats. In the barn where the horses and the little cow can be stabled, we found fresh hay and fed the ones who would venture close enough to us. All the creatures looked healthy and well-cared for. Even the wild squirrels who snacked at the bird feeders, had long lustrous tails and looked quite fat and sassy themselves. Among the avian species we saw were black-capped chickadees, ravens, and Canadian cardinals. On the waters of the hot springs swam several species of ducks: northern pintails and mallards among the ones we could name. There was a pair of geese as well but we could never figure out just what species they represented. But it was comforting and happy for us to be among other creatures who can survive in this very cold climate! The Lodge offers free tours of their geothermal electricity generating plant and their greenhouses where their fresh veggies are grown. At the Generating Station, we learned that water is pumped from 3000 ft below the surface and brought up at a temperature of about 155 degrees—insufficient to create the steam necessary to run their two turbines. In a process still a bit of a mystery to me, a refrigerant is added which somehow heats the water to the temperature that can create steam. Through this scientific magic, the entire property is heated and electrified, thus giving the complex its own power source— off the grid.

We toured one of the several greenhouses on the property. At the time we were visiting, their only crop was lettuce and an experimental mushroom growing station. The same geothermal heating system also keeps the greenhouses a warm 75%. During the seasons, different crops are grown successfully in the greenhouses—tomatoes, celery, different lettuce types, beans and others.

The Ice House Museum is not free—we paid $15.00 dollars each to view the marvelous ice carvings created by two full-time employed master ice-carvers. This building is maintained at 20 degrees to keep the art work from melting. We could have also paid another $15.00 to enjoy an Apple-tini at the Aurora Bar inside the museum—but we passed on that opportunity. In addition to some pretty amazing ice statues, we saw the rooms which can be rented as places to spend the night—like hotel rooms except you sleep on blanket-covered ice beds— a bit hard as well as very chilling. Gordon told us he has never heard of anyone actually spending a whole night in one of those rooms.

The carvers (a man & woman team) make ice martini glasses all through the day since the Apple-tinis are served in them. We could watch them at work and then go further inside to see the intricately detailed statuary: two knights on horseback jousting, a young maiden in a pose suggesting she was about to dive into an icy pond, human faces, chandeliers, bottles, barstools and the bar itself, everything in ice. All the pieces were lit with LED lights which changed colors creating a magical setting. Wonderful place to visit!

There were two activities offered that included the sled dogs: a tour of the kennels with "meet & greets" with individual dogs and a dog sled ride. While we visited the kennel area a couple of times and got to pet a few dogs near the roadway, we opted not for the kennel tour but for the dog sled experience. Our time was 11:30 and we were prompt. We were surprised to find the three of us joined by a young man not in our group. However, it all turned out just fine. The 12-dog team that pulled us along through the woods for 15 minutes managed our weights quite easily. The snowy trail showed us the "paths" carved by the Chena River through the environment because the water is hot due to the contributions of the several hot springs that feed into it on the property. Those open spots made for picturesque scenes with steam

rising from the open water. The lead dogs were PacMan and Mr. Bennett and they knew their business. Enjoyable experience for sure!

Regina and Robin partook of another activity of the resort – the bathing hot springs pool. This was a very popular draw with the large numbers of Japanese tourists. But although one and all appeared to be enjoying themselves greatly, neither I, Betsy, nor Kay took the plunge.

A REAL AURORA FINALLY Our 2 nd night at Chena found us at last "in the money." That was quite rare since auroras usually appear late at night and/or early in the morning hours and we found ourselves called out at 8:30 p.m. How cooperative could we have hoped the aurora would be? Gordon had told us that such an early hour is most unusual and not to be expected. Struggling to get into our warm clothes as fast as possible, we rushed out into the night to find the sky ablaze with color above us! There were "fountains" of green rising from the horizon. There were long banners across the sky that twisted and turned and coiled around themselves. There were glows on the horizon as well with both green and reddish colors. The ribbons of color danced across the sky as we had so hoped to see. The show was spectacular and moving as well.

However, the cold kept creeping into our shoes and gloves and our toes and hands were freezing even though we had hand & foot warmers in place. They failed us completely. When we reluctantly left the scene and came inside, we discovered that those "warmers" were almost as cold as our digits. After they sat for a few minutes in the hotel room, they began to regain their heat! But what good was that! Such a disappointment with those pieces of cold weather gear! However, not even cold hands and feet could ruin our marvelous evening of dazzling sky lights! It was glorious!

The ironic thing about our "good" night of aurora concerns the methods of predicting such shows. In the Activity Center the daily weather report and aurora chances were written on a prominent blackboard. According to the sunspot activity report Saturday night was to give us our best chance. However, on Friday (our wonderful sky

show) our chances had been rated at 1 (lowest on a scale of 1-7) whereas Saturday was supposed to be a 4. Guess what?! Saturday proved to be nothing better than a "basic" aurora again. So much for the accuracy of aurora predicting. We were all so grateful for "Friday Night Lights!"

OUR MONEY SAVING STRATEGY We knew beforehand that only breakfast and supper would be provided under the package we had purchased for the trip. We also knew that food in Alaska is expensive, especially restaurant meals. Thus, on our first day in Fairbanks, we went to the grocery store and bought loaf of bread, peanut butter, blackberry jam and potato chips. Those supplies provided all our daily lunch meals. That probably saved the three of us at least $100.00 each for the trip.


The drive back to Fairbanks was made memorable by the beautiful scenery and the (distant) sighting of a female moose!

During our last night with the group, we had a farewell banquet dinner at the Pump House and then went to visit Fairbanks Ice Park with its outdoor display of ice carvings. This year, there was no international competition due to lack of sponsorship. Nonetheless, many of the single block and multiblock figures are still on display from previous contests. The main site is a large open field encircled with the statuary, but there is also a forest pathway adjoining the field where the art is placed under and among the trees. All the statuary is lit with LED lights of varying colors. Amazing artistry was demonstrated through figures from mythology, animals, spacemen, even a tiny submarine that you could enter and peer through the portholes.

There was a 10-slot ice slide for the children and parents which was being much enjoyed by all. No still pictures here – but visit Kay’s video site for the action shots. Again, the intense cold drove us back to the van for the ride home to the motel and our last goodbyes to Gordon, Cathy and our fellow travelers. Because our return flights started late on Monday (not until 5:40 p.m.), we had a day to spend in the city. We had read about a visitor center in a Fairbanks brochure and decided that sounded like an intriguing place to spend a couple of hours. We got a cab (lady driver who talked non- stop all the way) to take us into downtown to the Morris Thompson Visitor Center. Again, we were surprised at all the snow piled high along the roadways. Our driver said that problems will become more obvious during snow melt when the streets will flood. There has been nowhere to put all the snow that has fallen on Fairbanks this year since there has been a record amount.

The Visitor Center is named after an indigenous Native American chief of a local tribe who was instrumental in promoting his people's rights as well as integrating with the larger society.

It is a handsome place with wonderful exhibits, an ongoing program of relevant films, some shorter videos in and around the displays, dioramas of the countryside, detailing history, culture, environment, and wildlife. There was even a special photographic history of the Iditarod Race, with information and photos of former winners and multi-time participants in the iconic race. We spent about 3 hours absorbing as much as we could from this remarkable venue. There was no eatery in the center, so we struck out on the snow & ice- covered sidewalks to find some lunch—a few blocks away we entered the El Dorado Mexican restaurant and enjoyed an enormous taco salad—one could have been shared among the three of us. The kind waiter ordered a cab to take us back to the Best Western where we had to pick up our luggage and head for the airport.

FRIENDLY, GARRULOUS, & HELPFUL ALASKANS All the way through our short but totally satisfying trip in Alaska to see the Northern Lights, we met many Alaskans briefly on several different occasions. We found them to be invariably helpful, outgoing, and eager to talk. Cab drivers, waiters, docents, motel staff, people on the streets were talkative and friendly. When we were walking the treacherous route to the lunch spot, a young man saw me carefully picking my way along the icy sidewalk and stopped to say, "Be careful and watch your step, it's icy. Welcome to Alaska"! I took his friendly warning to heart, believe me. Cab drivers gave us commentary about the places we were passing on the way to somewhere else. But the best proof happened to us at the motel as we were trying to get to the airport! Robe Ellis was our knight in Shining Armor (not the icy kind) who worked for Chem-Dry and was at the motel working while we awaited a cab which was very slow in coming. We were becoming more and more agitated when the first phone call produced no cab nor did the second call made by the motel desk clerk. Mr. Ellis saw us standing around and he approached us to ask where we were from. When he learned we live in Florida, he smiled broadly and said he visits family there regularly in Milton, FL, and asked if we knew where that town is. And of course we answered in the affirmative. We talked on a bit about the differences between life in Alaska and Florida. He noticed that we seemed stressed and asked what was going on. We nervously answered that we were awaiting a cab to take us to the airport to catch a plane that boarded at 5:00 p.m. We had requested the cab to arrive at 3:30 but none was in sight, despite two phone calls. We frantically added that if we missed this first flight of the many flight

legs home, we would be in a world of anxiety and big flight-switching charges. He looked sorrowfully at us and his truck and said he would love to help us but his truck was just too full of his equipment. We thanked him for his thoughtfulness and kept on fretting. Becoming more desperate and more "nervy," we asked him again if he could possibly take us to the airport (actually a very short ride) if we could cram ourselves into his panel truck. Again, he looked dubious but then began to see what gear he could unpack and leave temporarily at Sthe motel. Then he showed Betsy the space he had made and asked if she could ride there in the back among the stuff. With a big grateful grin, Betsy hopped right in. Then he told Kay and I that we would have to share the one front passenger seat & we assured him we would make that squeeze work. And we did. So we drove off towards the airport and then saw two different cabs arriving at the motel. Oh well! They were late and they lost our fare. When Mr. Ellis let us out at the airport terminal, Betsy offered him some reimbursement but he politely refused and wished us a safe flight and happy arrival home. We told him to look us up in Jacksonville when he next visited his family in Milton (not that far from our home)! Hooray and many thanks to that gallant rescuer of 3 Florida damsels in distress. A perfect end to our Alaska photo trip and our Northern Lights Nights (and Days)! The flights home started in daylight so we could enjoy a look at the vastness of Alaska and marvel at the sunset. It is indeed a marvelous land of vast wilderness and grandeur. But the cold is not to be endured by one born and raised in the sunshine of South Florida!

Click Logo to View Kay's Photo Album of this Trip

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