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Riding rails in search of the Aurora

By on February 25, 2020 in Travel with 0 Comments
The Aurora Borealis is green shimmers of overhead light, like a shape-shifting green Milky Way. Photo by Carol Kleckner, Gondwana EcoTours. Taken March 15, 2018 near Fairbanks. F Stop 2.8, ISO 1250, exposure 4.0 seconds

She was there for the view; did the young Asian couples had something else in mind?

By Lisa Therrell

I must admit I had been feeling a bit sorry for myself. 

I flew in to slushy Anchorage, Alaska the same week many friends were posting glorious accounts of visiting Hawaii during winter break. 

Granted, I travelled to Alaska to be with cousins, one of whom was ailing, but I could have spent the same amount for a ticket to the Big Island. Sigh…

Upon arrival, my cousin was discharged from an Anchorage hospital back to Fairbanks via a medical flight. I needed to find my way to Fairbanks. 

I had heard that the train ride from Anchorage to Fairbanks is fabulous, and I love riding trains. Normally the train only departs Anchorage on Saturdays in winter, but by stopping by the railroad depot, I managed to finagle a ticket to board a special Aurora Winter Train on a Tuesday.

Imagine my surprise to arrive at a packed railroad depot, with many excited tourists waiting to board the gleaming blue and yellow train. I found myself chatting with a woman from China, now living in L.A. “Most of these tourists are Japanese,” she whispered in my ear. “In Japan it is very auspicious to conceive a child under the Northern Lights.” 

By riding a train, Lisa had unobstructed views of the Alaskan wilds.

The demographic was mostly young couples. Could this be true?

Our 12-hour journey travelled through the Alaskan outback from the warmth and comfort of the train. Two passenger cars were full of Asian travelers, and my car was full of North American tourists that had also travelled long distances just to see the Aurora Borealis. 

This was to be a good week to see the Northern Lights, I learned. Passengers were giddy with excitement. I laid my Hawaii-envy to rest, and got in the spirit for an Alaskan adventure.

The train glided up snowy valleys, sometimes passing through spruce or aspen forest, following partially frozen rivers. Sometimes we viewed expansive peaks and valleys across snowy plains. 

The conductor would announce moose to our right or left, mostly running through deep snow to get away from the train. Bald eagles and ravens feasted on occasional kill. 

North of Wasilla, we were prompted to look for our first glimpse of Denali, North America’s highest peak. We only had a 30 percent chance of seeing Denali; the 20,320-foot elevation peak is most often veiled in clouds. Luck was with us. We had sun breaks three times affording views of Denali along our 356 mile journey.

The Alaskan scenery is reflected in rail cars as the train rounds a bend.

At some point I realized the shiny train mirrored the passing scenery. We could open the windows in the space between cars, and hang out to take mirror image photos. Despite the cold blast of inland Alaska air, this was a popular activity with fellow travelers. 

“This has to be one of the most beautiful rail trips on the planet,” I thought. 

As we glided into Fairbanks at 8 p.m., I wished my fellow travelers good luck in seeing the purpose of their trip, the Aurora Borealis.

I knew that seeing the Aurora Borealis might be illusive. I had visited one other time in February, with hopes of seeing the Northern Lights, only to be disappointed. 

But Fairbanks offers other winter delights, like the Fairbanks Ice Park, which hosts an International Ice Art Competition, attracting the finest ice carvers from around the world. Or a trip out to Chena Hot Springs for a soak and a meal. Or even a hike in a bear-free forest —the bruins remain asleep when the temperatures hover near zero. 

Or visiting the Museum of the North on the University of Alaska campus. Or taking in arts and cultural events, such as the gospel choir concert we enjoyed.

I was rewarded on two nights of my trip with green shimmers of overhead light, like a shape-shifting green Milky Way. I was staying about five miles out of town, not far enough to escape the light pollution of metropolitan Fairbanks. I was still thrilled to enjoy the silence of the night under dancing green light.

I arrived home to learn that a local friend journeyed to Fairbanks to see the Aurora Borealis the same week I did. 

They did it up right, staying in a lodge away from the lights of Fairbanks. They were treated to the intense veils of dancing green and red light. 

I came to realize that perhaps a little RESEARCH, instead of just winging it and hoping for the best, could ensure a more successful Northern Lights experience. 

Lisa’s cousin, Nancy, peers from an ice cabin at the International Ice Art Competition in Fairbanks.

What you should know about the Aurora Borealis

What: The name, Aurora Borealis, was coined by Galileo, inspired by the goddess of dawn “Aurora” and “borealis” pertaining to the north. 

The Aurora can also be seen in the Southern Hemisphere, where it is called the Aurora Australis. The Aurora Borealis occurs when electrical energy from the sun (born on solar winds) enter the Earth’s atmosphere and energize oxygen molecules (releasing green and red light,) or nitrogen molecules (creating purple light.)

When: The Aurora viewing season is Aug. 21 – April 21 when the night sky is dark enough. In general, skies are cloudier in the summer and fall, and less cloudy in winter and spring. 

Timing a trip during a new moon results in a darker sky and better viewing, and March is likely time for success. 

Aurora viewing is also better during periods of increased sun activity such as sunspots, coronal mass ejection, filaments, or a prominence. 

These phenomena can repeat on 27-day cycles due to the Carrington Rotation of the sun. To see how forecasting works, the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska explains the details at https://www.gi.alaska.edu/monitors/aurora-forecast 

Where: The Fairbanks area is considered to be the best place for Aurora viewing in the United States because skies are clear most nights and Fairbanks is under the Auroral Oval. 

The Northern Lights aren’t necessarily seen to the north, but might be in any direction. You don’t want to be in a closed valley like I was.

How: Either stay at a lodge at least 15 miles out of town, sign up for a tour, or plan a DYI stake-out from a rental car. 

When shopping for reservations, ask if the lodge wakes up visitors when the Northern Lights are visible. 

Take lots of warm layers, and plan for emergencies. Temperatures can be well below zero. Lodges that specialize as Aurora viewing locations will provide an optimal experience for their guests. Allow at least three nights for your stay in case it is cloudy.

Local Aurora Viewing: Occasionally the Northern Lights can be seen here in north central Washington. For a daily model showing the probability of seeing the Aurora Borealis globally go to https://www.swpc.noaa.gov/ 

Myths: And what about the whispered words of my fellow traveler, attributing good looks and good luck with being conceived under the Northern Lights? This appears to be an urban legend based on my internet research, which accelerated like wildfire following a Northern Exposure TV episode. 

The general agreement is that Aurora Borealis viewing is difficult in Japan, that Japanese appreciate the natural world, and that flights to Fairbanks are relatively affordable from Japan (as they also are from Seattle.)

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