In Search of the Aurora

Introduction

Cally had long said how much she wanted to see the Southern Lights, the Aurora Australis, which can sometimes be seen from Southern Tasmania, if you’re in the right place at the right time. Unfortunately, despite 20 years living in Tassie, she’s never been in the right place at the right time. So, a couple of years ago, when she was despairing of ever seeing them, for Christmas I bought her a calendar with different shots of the Aurora Borealis displayed for each month. That way she could see an aurora, as seen by someone else, every day. She wasn’t impressed.

Not surprisingly, when talk came to planning a visit to Alaska, the possibility of seeing the real Aurora Borealis was at the top of the list of things we wanted to do. As luck would have it, March, when we would be there, is considered the best aurora viewing month. So, we booked a Northern Lights viewing trip with the Northern Alaskan Touring Company. There were no guarantees of seeing the lights but we could at least hope that we’d be in luck.

World Ice Art Championships

 downtown fairbanks

downtown fairbanks

We arrived in Fairbanks, the largest city in central Alaska with a day to spare before the trip. The temperature in mid-March, which was the end of winter, was warming up a bit (by local standards) ranging from around -5C (22F) in the late afternoon to a frosty overnight low of around -30C (-22F).  Needless to say, we rugged up as best we could.

 catholic church, fairbanks

catholic church, fairbanks

We spent the morning checking out the town before heading to the World Ice Art Championships in the afternoon. Fairbanks has hosted this event since 1989. Ice sculptors from many nations attend to demonstrate their ice carving skills.

And the results are truly amazing.

You find yourself constantly asking – how did they do that?

There is a kids’ playground made entirely of ice sculptures.

This includes several ice slides.

 peacock carved from a single block of ice

peacock carved from a single block of ice

Categories include carvings from a single block of ice.

 this work representing the mad hatter's tea party won a first in the multi-block section

this work representing the mad hatter's tea party won a first in the multi-block section

As well as from multiple blocks.

 the raw ice blocks

the raw ice blocks

When you see what the raw material is they work with, that is, the blocks of ice, you’re even more astounded at the skill of the sculptors.

Entry was $US15 and it was a great afternoon out – albeit cold.

The Arctic Circle and Northern Lights

Next morning, we headed over to the offices of the tour company for our trip. We left at 10.00 am and headed out of town, towards the Arctic Circle. It was a largish group of around 20, mostly Chinese tourists (the Chinese have apparently become the biggest market for these trips). The other big attraction for this tour is the reaching of the Arctic Circle, which is just under 200 miles/320 kilometres drive from Fairbanks.

Most of the drive is up the famous Dalton Highway, which goes all the way north to the Arctic Sea and the town of Deadhorse. The road was constructed in the 1970’s as part of the building of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline which pumps oil from Prudhoe Bay on the shores of the Arctic to the port of Valdez on the southern coast of Alaska a distance of 800 miles/1300 kms. We stopped at a marker point to celebrate our arrival on the highway.

 the dalton highway

the dalton highway

Further stops included viewing a section of the pipeline for a photo op.

 the trans alaska pipeline

the trans alaska pipeline

A spot of impromptu sledding to get everyone moving after several hours on the bus.

And the Yukon River, which was frozen so we could walk on it.

 the frozen yukon river

the frozen yukon river

We also stopped at the Yukon River Camp for lunch.

 our lunch stop

our lunch stop

Finally, late in the afternoon we arrived at the Arctic Circle marker. Another good photo op.

We then drove back for a dinner break at the Yukon River Camp before returning down the Dalton to a camp with shelter and warmth around 60 miles/ 95 kms north of Fairbanks just prior to 11pm.

The “show” kicked off just after we arrived. And got better over the next couple of hours.

The bitter cold, at around -15C/5F, meant that we could only stay outside for short 5 – 10 minute bursts.

But we still managed to get some great views of the aurora in all its glory. And armed with only our brave little Sony RX100 camera, hand held, we still got some ok shots. Though, they really don't do the scene we witnessed justice. You had to be there.

At around 2.00am the cold and fatigue got the better of us and we headed back to Fairbanks, arriving at 4.00am – tired but satisfied. A long, but most successful day (and night).

Next Christmas I’m getting Cally a calendar of zany cat shots.

Ken