Chasing the Northern Lights

There are few things as magical in nature as the Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights.

Neon ribbons of light snake and whip through the night sky, otherworldly and fascinating.

With the global announcement that 2017 would be the “last winter to see the Aurora,” I quickly researched the best places to seek the lights. (By the way, it wasn’t as apocalyptic as news outlets made it sound – the aurora’s strength is cyclical, based on the Solar Cycle. The more solar flares, the more aurora sightings.  So every 11 years, it becomes stronger or weaker for the following cycle).

There are no cheap options from Texas. I’d have to fly to Scandinavia, Iceland or Alaska.

Over and over again, Fairbanks was listed as the most reliable spot, because it’s within the “aurora oval,” a geographical area in Alaska that has the most frequent showings.

Despite that, 3 of my friends who visited Fairbanks in the two months prior to my trip,  never once saw the aurora. It’s simply a game of chance, where the aurora has to have a strong showing and Fairbanks needs to have clear skies.

Our trip coincided with April 1st, the very last day to do…just about everything winter related in Fairbanks, including dog sledding and aurora tours. Leading up to our flights, we obsessively watched different Aurora webcams (like this one or this one) and the Aurora forecast (an online predictor of how strong the Aurora will show and where).

We booked a Northern Lights Tour with Ben Boyd for our first night in Fairbanks, to learn more about the lights and where to go to spot them. While contacting him is a little clunky, only through email and no online checkout cart to reserve the tour… he was extremely prompt in picking us up for the tour.

He droves us out to a cabin, perhaps 40 minutes outside of Fairbanks, that is designed for Aurora viewing. The upstairs has a film running on loop about the aurora, with chairs for all the people who come on a tour, cookies & hot chocolate. Downstairs they have a few rooms rented as a hostel.

Outside there are only red lights, to preserve your night vision as you search the sky. Many guests brought tripods and DSLR cameras to capture the Aurora. We only had our phones (if you have an iPhone, this $0.99 app will help you take photos of the aurora – it was the only thing that worked for me). We used our head lamps with the red light setting to walk around.

Ben pointed out the Aurora as it began to show that night. It was a low visibility night and, disappointingly, looked exactly like an oddly moving grey cloud. To this day, clouds at night remind me of the aurora. But, when we took photos of it, it looked bright green.

As it turns out, what you expect to see (based on amazing photos), isn’t really how the aurora appears in person. This blog post does a great job explaining why. While it was still cool… it didn’t really feel like I’d formally checked off my life list item. Did it really count if it wasn’t even bright green?

We kept staying up until 2-3 AM each night, driving out of Fairbanks, searching for the aurora, but never saw it again. I was pretty disappointed.

Determined as ever, I vowed to stay awake for the first two hours of our flight home – it left Fairbanks at midnight, so I figured, there’s a shot to see the lights one last time. Exhausted from staying up every night, I was nodding off pretty violently, when the lights appeared outside our window.

And this time, they were stunning.

Bright green and pink, oscillating like a dragon, it was a sight I’ll never forget. The photos simply don’t do it justice (also, trying to photographer through airplane windows at night is…challenging.)

While there is a completely scientific explanation for this phenomenon, it’s hard to not think about higher powers, magic, and all the other mysteries of life while staring at the sky.

And so, at the very last moment of our trip, my dream came true.

Aurora chasing isn’t easy and is a bit like gambling – but if you hit the jackpot, it’s simply unforgettable.

P.S. We didn’t have the time (or budget), but The Aurora Chasers offer a Northern Lights Photo Tour, where they teach you how to take photos with your DSLR of the aurora, and also can take incredible shots of you with the aurora. If I ever return, I will absolutely book that, to capture this unique experience.

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