November 13th-19th, 2018
After spending a few days exploring Washington State, I continued north to Fairbanks, Alaska. I'm a native Californian and, prior to this trip, could count on one hand the number of times I'd seen it snowing. Visiting Alaska was a chance to break out of my temperature comfort zone, learn how to drive in the snow, and experience the Alaskan culture and landscape which was lauded as totally unique to the lower 48's. I was excited to explore in Alaska, but my biggest motivator for the trip was a chance to see the Northern Lights!
Earlier in the year, I visited Iceland and, while in the right location, didn't get a chance to see any aurora activity. After being so close and missing, it decided I would have to make another attempt as soon as I could.
I go back and forth between over-preparing and winging it when it comes to travel. For this trip, I did a fair amount of research and planning ahead of time. I wanted to stay somewhere slightly outside of the city so I could avoid light pollution and see the Northern Lights from where I stayed. That meant I needed to rent an AWD vehicle as opposed to relying on taxis (Lyft/Uber were just starting to operate in Fairbanks at the time of writing this and not 100% reliable).
I joined and started following a Fairbanks, Alaska Facebook group and subreddit. Lots of potential travelers have posted questions, so there was a wealth of helpful information. I rented a vehicle through one of the airport-based rental companies and I grabbed an Airbnb that was a few miles outside of town. In hindsight, I would have tried to find an Airbnb that was on the other side of the ridge as I didn't have a great view of the northern horizon.
Cold Weather Prep
I've been slowly accumulating cold-weather gear. I brought my waterproof hiking shoes, warm wool socks, a few long-sleeve base layers, a hoodie, scarf, synthetic down puff jacket, and a beanie. I also added a set of long johns to the mix for this trip. It got as low as -6°F and I didn't have any trouble staying warm.
Layering combined with really warm socks and a beanie+hood seemed to do the trick. Granted, I tend to run warm and, by Fairbanks standards, -6 isn't all that cold. If it were much colder, a pair of insulated boots and a more significant jacket probably would have been necessary.
First time driving in snow
I feel a little silly that, at 33 years old, I'd never driven in snow before. It was a little bit nerve wracking at first but, once I got comfortable, it was actually pretty fun. There was about a half foot of snow on the ground when I got into town.
Driving in the actual snow was a lot easier than driving a few days later when the snow melted and the roads iced up. To be honest, it reminded me a lot of the ice levels in Mario Kart. Once I made that connection, things got a lot easier. Anticipate the slide and hope your wheels catch when they need to.
I love tasting local flavors when I travel, so I did some research about Alaskan game meat. Restaurants can't serve “wild” meat like moose or bear, so I made a post in the Fairbanks Facebook Group offering to bring wine and snacks if any hunters wanted to invite me over for dinner. Unfortunately, there were no takers.
In a stroke of good luck, I was drinking and chatting with a few locals and mentioned I was scoping out the local dive bar scene. One of them suggested The Mecca which was a well-known hangout spot for Native Alaskans. I popped by and, again, got to chatting with a few of the regulars there. They suggested heading to the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center where there was a Gwich’in Fiddle Dance and potluck!
At the potluck, I got to try some moose stew and it was delicious! To be honest, the flavor of the meat was hard to distinguish from the rest of the stew, but it was a nice warm meal on a chilly evening and a check off the Alaskan experience list.
Chena Hot Springs
Just about everyone I talked to recommended making a visit out to Chena Hot Springs. It's about 60 miles outside of town through some serene and gorgeous Alaskan wilderness. I was told to keep an eye peeled when driving over bridges as the creeks and rivers are like highways for all the wildlife. I was hoping to catch a glimpse of a moose or a bear, but alas I didn't see any. I did see several mushers with their dog teams, though!
The road to Chena was relatively straight and flat, well maintained, and frequently travelled, although I understand it can get very slick and treacherous during winter storms. After arriving I grabbed lunch and a brew at their restaurant. I bought a sticker to add to my collection and then went exploring. They offered dog sled tours, but I found it way more fun to visit with all the dogs in their kennels. It's a great spot for animal lovers—they also have reindeer! After playing with the pups, I took a little hike through the surrounding valley.
After an hour or so of hiking in the cold, I popped into the hot springs to warm up. It was a sensational experience! The springs were surrounded by colorful lights that illuminated the steam and made for a super peaceful experience. It was below freezing out, but I only noticed when my hair would freeze up from being out of the warm water for too long.
Alaskan History Museum
Sometimes I wish I were more interested in museums and culture and stuff like that. Checking out the history museum was a bit of a novelty for me, but I had a half day to kill and it was close by.
That said, it was pretty sweet! The building was totally photogenic and there were some really impressive exhibits. One stand out was the giant grizzly bear taxidermy! I didn't appreciate how big grizzly's could get until I got to walk up face to face with this one.
Another interesting one was The Place Where you go to Listen, a “musical ecosystem [that] gives voice to the rhythms of daylight and darkness, the phases of the moon, the seismic vibrations of the earth, and the dance of the aurora borealis.” Pretty psychedelic!
I was excited to visit Alaska for more reasons than just seeing the Northern Lights, but it was definitely #1 on my wish list. After staying up late each night and waking up early each morning, it was my last night in AK and my last chance at seeing the lights.
It was overcast the whole day, but there was a window of clear skies predicted from 2-4 am. The clouds were so thick I was skeptical it would happen. The aurora predictions weren't great either, but they were better than the previous two days; a 17% chance. The trip had been amazing and I wasn't discouraged that I hadn't seen the auroras, but I was already thinking about how and when to make another trek north. 🙂
I was sitting in the car reading a book, under a dome of thick clouds, and noticed a strange glow peeking through. I couldn't tell if it was just the sky or the moonlight shining through the clouds. I whipped out the camera, took a long exposure and, sure enough, it was green! I saw the lights! I was super jazzed at that point just to see a faint green glow poking through the haze.
Then, the clouds started to clear and the real show started up! I've never seen anything like it. There were the most gorgeous natural gradients of all sorts of colors and a wild random dancing and fluttering of the lights.
Two other tourists showed up and we got to share our overwhelming awe of what was going on around us. The peak lasted almost an hour. I was running around in 6 inches of snow all night and, by the end, I couldn't feel a single toe, but I was totally unbothered. I couldn't have asked for a better way to cap off this life-changing adventure!