Chasing Aurora in the Last Frontier

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Setting foot in a place with a street named “at your own risk” and a community with a population of 1, you just gotta be ready for an awesome adventure. Originally, we were planning to spend our 3 weeks off work in Europe covering most of the United Kingdom and Norway. One of the trip’s main goals was to see the Aurora Borealis in action. But bad timing due to visa application and a tight work schedule came in the way. And the next thing I know, we were booking a flight to Alaska.

Visiting Fairbanks, Alaska in the frigid winters wasn’t really a well-thought out plan. But it turned into a life-changing experience. See, we didn’t really think much of what winter in the last frontier meant until we’ve already gotten our tickets. The freezing winter of Fairbanks wasn’t an adventure we sought out but it wasn’t a challenge that could make us back down either. So after a gruelling flight from Tokyo[1], in the winter solstice of 2012, this born-in-the-tropics adventure-seeker has reached the subarctic city of Fairbanks.

dusk from 30000 feet above
dusk from 30000 feet above
frozen rivers
frozen rivers

It was warm and toasty inside the airport. Looking outside from the windows, it didn’t seem any different from the winters of Japan (where I currently reside) save for the prevailing darkness as early as 4:30 pm. But boy was I wrong! Within seconds after stepping outside the airport, I immediately understood what the fuss towards Alaskan winter is all about. To think that I was wrapped in twice as many clothing as I would normally wear in Japan with only my face exposed! The cold seemed to have a mind of its own as it travelled from my only exposed flesh down to my spine, sending goose bumps anywhere and everywhere possible. If only the tip of my nose could explain just how cold ‘subarctic winter’ meant.

Despite the freezing cold, however, Fairbanks is probably one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to with its snow-covered trees and cabins, and star-filled clear skies. It is also arguably the quirkiest and most interesting. I mean, come on! “At your own risk” street?! That’s gotta mean something in the quirk scale! It’s also not often that I get to visit a place where the sun never fully rises. Sunlight in Fairbanks during winter could last only for about 4 hours. Imagine sleeping in late and waking up at 11 am and still get to see the sun rise! That’s perfection for people who aren’t early risers like me!

12:00 noon in Fairbanks
noon in Fairbanks

Most of our nights were spent chasing after the northern lights. Our days begin late and would end well after midnight (the lights usually appear from 12 midnight to 2 am). But all the hours spent keeping ourselves awake and just basically waiting amidst the freezing temperature was well worth it! The sight of the Aurora Borealis as it casts a green glow over the wintery landscape is an awe inspiring spectacle. Watching the sky sparkle and these celestial lights dance majestically gave me a new perspective on beauty. Never have I had such an enchanting and magical experience before this. Consider my mind blown.

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But apart from the Northern Lights, there are other things in Fairbanks worth taking the long trip for. Fairbanks is along the path that hosts the 2 biggest dog mushing race in Alaska- the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest- so it’s a pretty big thing in the city. A ride out with the dogs is another incredible experience. Being a neurotic with a bad case of cynophobia, I never expected to enjoy dog sledding as much as I did. The dogs were pretty damn scary- with their buzzing energy and those large jaws! But they were also surprisingly impressive! Wow could those dogs pull! And the intelligence of the sled dogs is also remarkable. I enjoyed it so much that I even tried petting one of the dogs! (yes, TRIED. I chickened out but hey! Give me some credit. I’m getting there)

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A dip in Chena Hot Springs’ Rock Lake is another cool Fairbanks experience (pun intended). From the 15 second sprint to the pool clad in a swimwear amidst subzero temperatures to the relaxing warmth of the spring water, the whole experience is so insane it’s awesome! It is just something else! Sure is a story to take home with you.

Rock Lake in Chena Hot Springs (image borrowed from the internet)
Rock Lake in Chena Hot Springs (image borrowed from the internet)
cabins in Chena
cabins in Chena
Chena Ice Museum: museum made entirely out of ice
Chena Ice Museum: museum made entirely out of ice

While those experiences were nothing but amazing, the beauty of Fairbanks alone is enough reason to visit. Daylight in Fairbanks is unbelievably breathtaking! The light from the sun is softly reflected by the powdery snow bringing a different colour to the surroundings. I expected the place to be blinding as it was blanketed by pure white snow. However, the position of the sun being so low in the horizon bathes the snow covered winterscapes in a stunning whimsical pinkish tinge. The snow adorned trees shimmering blue and pink line the highways providing a stunning backdrop during a cold afternoon drive. The beauty is just beyond words that one has to see it to understand.

View of Fairbanks from our room
View of Fairbanks from our room

Aside from those experiences, our adventure in Fairbanks has given us the chance to meet people of different sorts. In Chena we met a family from North Carolina with a daughter taking up Japanese studies, a woman who moved from Panama and married an Alaskan. We shared our drive to the Arctic with a Swiss who left his comfortable life to live an adventure in Alaska racing dogs, a mother and daughter from Johannesburg who travel a lot, a Korean family that now lives in California, and a couple from Virginia who has never really been anywhere outside the US. And in those meetings stories were exchanged about everyday life, travel experiences, dog racing, and even politics! There’s this story about an accident on the road to Anchorage due to black ice. Then another about the crime rate in Johannesburg. We also had a discussion about gun control in the US. And in those stories I’ve learned a thing or two about other cultures I wouldn’t have learned just by reading.

the alaskan pipeline
the alaskan pipeline
arctic circle
arctic circle
our ride to the arctic
our ride to the arctic
toilet!
toilet!

While this adventure is not without hitch, it is an adventure I would gladly partake in again without even thinking twice. A certain Mr. Darren Murph captured it best in words when he wrote in his travel blog, “It was hands-down one of the most moving experiences of my life, and I’d do it again tomorrow with nary a shred of clothing on me if that’s what it came to.”


[1] There is no direct flight from Tokyo to Fairbanks. We took a flight with a stopover in Seattle instead.

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2 thoughts on “Chasing Aurora in the Last Frontier

  1. I am glad you enjoyed your stay in Fairbanks…even in the winter! But we who live here know the winter’s cold is only there to keep the less adventurous out. Face it if everyone knew what a great place it was it would be like Vale in CO. and we locals could never afford to live here. Your writing painted a picture I enjoyed immensely.. Thank you

    1. thanks! i can only hope to capture the beauty i’ve seen in Fairbanks into words.

      i’m looking forward to another visit this year. perhaps in the warmer season. a drive to the villages further north would also be in the plan. there’s just too much to see that once is not enough!

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