Picking the destination
After doing a lot of research, I decided to go to Fairbanks, which is a popular destination for viewing aurora and offers a wide range of fun winter tours. There are various good alternatives in northern Canada as well for viewing aurora, but I decided on Alaska since travelling within the US/domestically would have been easier.
Preparing for the trip
After living in California for many years, I've lost my tolerance to cold weather. I spent many hours shopping for warm clothes and shoes suitable for the extreme temperature in Fairbanks (-30°C). It was a challenging task since not many shops in Los Angeles offered such heavy winter gears.
- Bring warm boots and socks! Keep your feet warm will help your body stay warm longer.
- Take vitamins (and medicines) on your trip to help boost your immune system.
Planning for the tours
I put in a lot of effort planning for this trip because it was a rare opportunity for me to visit such an exotic location. I wanted to make the most out of it. There are many companies offering a wide range of tours in the area, such as 1st Alaska Tours and Northern Alaska Tour Company. Some tours are only a few hours long, while others might take days. I decided to only book tours that are a few hours long, so I could get a chance to experience more of them. I had learned online that aurora activity differs everyday. To maximize my chance of seeing it, I booked 2 consecutive nights of aurora viewing tours, and kept the 3rd night open in case the first two fell through.
- There are many websites offering aurora forecasts, you can check them ahead of time. However, I was told that aurora activities are highly variant and unpredictable, so take the information with a grain of salt.
- It’s recommended that you plan for at least 2 nights of aurora viewing. I was told that some photographers might stay for weeks or months to capture beautiful shots.
Arriving in Fairbanks
After weeks of preparation, it was finally time to take off. I brought a full big luggage of winter gears to prepare for the extreme cold. There was no direct flight from Los Angeles to Fairbanks, so I made a stop in Seattle on the way there. When I arrived, it was already night. As I had expected, right after I walked out of the plane, I could feel the freezing cold surrounding my body. Even though it was already March, it was only -4°F (-20°C) outside. The airport was small, but it looked new and modern with various interesting decorations.
I took a taxi to my hotel, Hampton Inn & Suites Fairbanks. It was a short ride as the city is very small and empty at night.
Go to dog sledding
Dog sledding was one of the very first activities I booked for this trip. It was the one thing I wanted to do the most besides aurora viewing.
It was a half-hour shuttle ride before we arrived at a lodge located on a hilltop. Even before the shuttle stopped, I could hear all the dogs barking from a distance. When I stepped out, I saw a yard full of dogs, each tied and stood close to its own hut. They were super excited to see people arriving. A few of them even started howling. It was the first time I saw real sled dogs. I had always thought they were the same as pet Huskies, but the owner told me that real sled dogs are Alaskan Huskies. They are leaner and very athletic, making them effective sled dogs used in world-class sled racing.
Getting ready to sled
After a brief introduction, the mushers split us into groups and settled us in the sleds. Each sled could hold 3 people sitting in a line, like stacked dominoes. We were wrapped by a thick blanket that would keep us secure and warm. While we were settling into the sled, the huskies were getting really excited.
Once we were ready to go, our musher commanded the lead dogs to start our journey down the hill. It was definitely the most fun and exciting experience I had not had in a long time! As I enjoyed the thrill speeding down the hill and through the woods, I was also able to get a glimpse of the beautiful landscapes around the area. The huskies were super adorable and hardworking. I had never seen dogs so passionate and excited about carrying people around. Aside from their incredible strengths, they were also super clever. I saw them occasionally take a bite of the snow while running, so I asked the musher what they were doing. According to the musher, they bit the snow to cool down their bodies. By the end of the run, I could see icicles forming around their mouths. Throughout this trip, I learned a lot about dog sledding from our friendly and knowledgeable musher.
Chena Hot Springs Resort
After a great start at the dog sledding, I went on my first aurora viewing tour at Chena Hot Springs Resort, which is located 1.5 hours away from my hotel. The resort is a large complex with various facilities, including lodges and cabins, a hot spring, an ice museum, an aurora viewing room, and a restaurant etc. It also offered a range of winter activities such as dog sledding and snow machine tour.
The first thing we did after arriving at the resort was to visit its ice museum, which was built entirely using ice. To be honest, I was disappointed. The museum would have been interesting for someone who has never seen anything similar, but as someone who grew up seeing the Harbin Ice and Snow World, the ice museum was pale in comparison to the world’s largest ice and snow festival in Harbin.
The Hot Spring
One of the main reasons I came all the way to Chena Hot Springs Resort for aurora viewing was because I wanted to experience its hot spring. I had various memorable hot spring experiences in the past, like the one I had at Mt. Fuji, but none of them were outdoor in the freezing cold. This turned out to be a fun and exotic experience.
As I walked towards the pool with my swimwear outside, I could barely feel my freezing feet, but the moment I stepped into the water, an instantly pleasant and warm feeling started to flow through my body. I had always found hot springs too hot to stay for long, but the freezing temperature perfectly offset the steaming heat from the hot spring, allowing me to fully relax in the pool for quite some time. There were many people relaxing by the edges of the pool. It was interesting to see their heads become white as water droplets turned into icicles in their hairs. This is also a perfect place for couples as it was difficult to see "lovebirds" displaying affections in the water due to the steaming environment.
It was 9pm when people started to gather in the designated aurora viewing room. I was full of anticipation as I stared into the dark sky outside through the giant window. At the time, a faint cloud like a white streak was in the sky. I overheard people saying it was the aurora. I was surprised since it looked nothing like the glamorous photos I had seen. However, as time passed, I was able to see traces of green color lit up from the "cloud". It was indeed the aurora! I was super excited since it was the very first time I saw aurora. While the aurora did appear, it was weak and was mostly obstructed by the mountain. Its signature green color was only visible to the naked eye for a few minutes out of a few waiting hours we spent there. Our guide said it was not a good showing and it is usually unlikely to get any better passed 1am, so we had to head back with regret.
- Camera is better at capturing the color of an aurora on long exposure than the human eye. This is a useful way to differentiate aurora vs. cloud when the aurora is weak.
- If the aurora isn't strong enough around midnight, it will unlikely to get stronger.
Even though it wasn't a great aurora showing, but I learned an important lesson, I need a better lens and tripod to take good photos of the aurora. Therefore, I then carefully prepared for my next viewing! Stay tuned for the next part of my Alaska tour to see what happened. A sneak peak: I went to the Arctic Circle!:D