My Search For The Northern Lights in Alaska

For as far back as my brain will allow me to remember, I've wanted to see the Aurora Borealis (or Northern Lights). For me, the draw is a combination of their elusive, unpredictable nature, the cold, extreme climates in which they are most visible and my own fascination with the universe. A fascination born out of a childhood spent sitting around a camp fire in the Kruger National Park in South Africa, where I grew up, and gazing up at the night sky with my Dad.

I've discussed my desire to see the Northern Lights with friends and family and I've discovered that it's an item common to bucket lists. Yet there are surprisingly few people who have ventured far enough outside of their geographical comfort zone to actually see them. Perhaps this is because the only conditions under which most people would choose to spend their single week of vacation in snowy, freezing locales would be if it were obligatory (aah Christmas...a time that now expands from October through to January for your shopping pleasure, and when the limited, repetitious Christmas hit playlist makes you wish your Mom had been right and that listening to your headphones that loudly really HAD made you deaf).

Anyway, the idea of icy landscapes and isolation really appealed to me, but I had yet to find a way to turn the dream into a reality. Until last month when, if I may run with the cosmos theme, the stars aligned. The timing was right (I needed to get out of my apartment for a week), I had some time off work (I'm unemployed) and my finances fell into place (I'd earned enough frequent flyer points). Thus, I ventured up to Alaska.

I chose Alaska for 2 reasons; firstly because it's far enough north that it regularly falls under the Auroral Oval (the band of atmosphere where the Northern Lights are active), and secondly because it's a destination that has always called to the explorer buried somewhere within me, beneath the bills, small talk, facebook, cafes, texting and all that other shit that accumulates and tries, but fails to make you forget that status quo is not actually making you happy.

It should now be pointed out that, as a general rule, most of my plans do not end up going according to plan. Sometimes things turn out better, sometimes things turn out worse. Because of this and in spite of it, I continue to make plans and hope for the best. And backing up that hope, I endeavour to lock down as many factors as I can control, so that the factors I cannot control do not swamp me.

Still closed for the winter in Joy, Alaska
On April 16th, I flew into Fairbanks, a place on the planet where there is an 8/10 chance of seeing the Northern Lights on any given night (weather permitting). Viewing chances increase further north, but above Fairbanks there isn't much left in terms of civilization (Look at a map. Zoom in. Still nothing). When I landed it was 22°F, a mild temperature for that latitude, and clear, which is somewhat typical for April when precipitation is at it's yearly low. If I'd gone any later in the year, it would have been warmer, but I would have faced a lack of night. In fact, there is no total darkness in Fairbanks from around mid May until the end of July. Just daylight and twilight. As some of the smarter readers among you might have guessed, you need dark in order to see the glow of the Northern Lights. Ironically, you also need light in order to see the Northern Lights - or more specifically, the Sun is required to create them.
For a viewing win, I was going to need the Sun to explode enough to send solar flares directly toward Earth, but not explode so much that it would bring mankind to an end. I trust that you comprehend the delicate balance.

On my first night in Fairbanks I left my hotel just after sunset, which is around 10pm at this time of year, and drove for an hour out into the middle of nowhere and away from any artificial lights. I parked, took out the recently purchased 'Alaska' thermos that I'd filled with bitter, hotel coffee and I waited. Two cars drove by in five hours and the outside temperature dropped steadily down to 1°F.  Frustratingly, I could not keep the heat on in the car, because a single turn of the key in the ignition would activate the headlights and illuminate every interior light Ford had ever built into their vehicle. And in the total darkness of my surroundings, this effectively transformed my car into the Sun. Instead, I bundled up with three jackets and used a fourth to cover my laptop so it wouldn't freeze. (Hindsight: should not have brought it along).

And then, after several hours in the cold and just as I'd begun talking to myself, something started happening in the sky. It began with a faint green display low on the horizon and then slowly, over the course of the night, progressed into a beautiful show of bright, green waves higher above me. The Aurora Lights! On my first night out! The freezing, silent air was punctuated by the calls of some wild animal that I couldn't see, but suspected was a wolf. It was magnificent. I stuck my hand out of the window to get a photo (hoping the wolf would not take my limb).

Refer back now, to the paragraph above re: controlling what you can. Unfortunately, I failed to learn how to properly use my camera before my trip and had never attempted night photography before. Hence, here is my 'best' picture of what was perhaps the greatest natural phenomenon I have witnessed in my life so far.

Bad Aurora Borealis picture
Worst Northern Lights Picture Ever 

This photo could also double as a shot of absolutely nothing or the colour black.

(For aurora forecasts, I used http://www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast and http://spaceweather.com/ )

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