The northern lights are one of the most mesmerizing and unusual natural wonders in the world. People from all over the world flock to far north on 3 different continents. This, just to witness a light show that puts the trans-Siberian orchestra laser show to shame. How unfortunate that the coldest and darkest months are also some of the best months to see the northern lights! Recently I had the opportunity to see the “aurora borealis” northern lights with my father in Alaska.
One of the keys to getting the most vivid view of the northern lights is to isolate yourself from the “light pollution” of the world around you. With a little effort and the help of the Nothern Alaska Tour Company we made it 6hr by bus to Coldfoot Camp. This village is certainly named more appropriately than Philadelphia. Its’ winter temperatures are often between -30F and -40F (-34C and -40C). This village has a population of 10 according to the 2010 census. Better hope you get along with your neighbors. 🙂
The University of Alaska Fairbanks has a website dedicated to forecasting when the aurora will be most visible. This site (with hourly updates) provides a scale of auroral activity. You can see which cities in Alaska and Canada offer the best visibility for this amazing display of lights.
Our nights hunting for northern lights
Shortly after 11:00 pm I was woken up by my alarm. Peak viewing happens between 11:30 pm and 1:30 am in January at Coldfoot Camp in Alaska and unfortunately whoever is in charge of the lights is unwilling to schedule for earlier hours.
My first night out we took a short trip to the village of Wiseman. Wiseman got its name from the gold mining era. When “wise men” realized there was no gold to be found in Coldfoot and went 6 miles upstream to mine there instead of the barren Coldfoot.
We stayed warm in a cabin built by a miner in the 1930s, while our guide kept watching the sky outside.
He came in and announced optimistically that there was a narrow band of the lights starting to show on the horizon. We bundled up with our fur hats and leather gloves, eager to see the lights for the first time.
As we went out into the silent -27F air I was reminded of how many nights previous humans spent in this town, not for the fun of seeing the northern lights. Rather these men were focused on survival. Their main concerns were finding enough gold to buy food and supplies as well as preventing hypothermia. In spite of our different focus, myself and these former pioneers were standing on the same piece of ground able to witness this same natural wonder nearly 100 years apart.
The lights had begun making a small showing of light green on the horizon. Unfortunately, they did not develop beyond this on our first night out. We stayed out in Wiseman until nearly 2:00 am. Fortunately, they had a very nice homemade steel barrel outdoor furnace seen in the picture below so our time outside was not as painful.
Night 2 didn’t provide much additional viewing. This time we decided to stay in Coldfoot to view. Again I set my alarm for 11:30 pm and looked out my window for some indication of activity. Sure enough, across half of the midnight horizon, there was a light green glow. Although this night the aurora was more active, the sky was clouded and snowing. Disfigured, the lights only managed to eek out a dim and blurry green glow.
Night 3 (last night in Fairbanks)
Night 3 we had returned to Fairbanks (as our arctic circle tour had ended). We decided to ask some locals where a good place to see the Northern lights may be just outside the city. We were recommended to park at“Hot Springs Gas” which is found a few miles up the Chena Hot Springs road. This gas station is surrounded by hay fields and provides a decent (plowed) place to park away from most city lights. The University website showed high aurora activity expected this night. So again we set our alarms for just before midnight. Alarms rang, we got up, put on our layers and drove about 20 minutes outside of town. Once again we were able to see some pulsing light, but the clouds kept us from the full glory of the northern lights.
I kept hearing about “the raven” from almost every (tribal) native Alaskan. The raven can help you in the wilderness and other times hurt you. One particular quote came from an older native named “Grandpa Joe.” He said, sometimes success isn’t about the raven or his spirit, “It’s just luck. And some people have more luck than others.” I guess this time, I was part of the “others.”
Click here to watch a 30 min video from the 80s about changing times for Alaskan Natives including “Grandpa Joe.”
*The photo of the northern lights on the top of my blog post was not taken by me but was taken at Wiseman camp by another photographer who did manage a clear night with aurora activity.
Charles Driscoll is a writer/blogger, musician, entrepreneur and a human explorer. Learning to take the time to enjoy life, love, share and encourage others. You can follow his blog at theunsettledsettler.com and some musical musings at charliedmusic.com.