Alaska & the Aurora: pilgrimage to see the fabled Lights

Photo of the Aurora Borealis by Anjali Bermain.

I just returned from a weeklong lecture jaunt to a hot-spring resort in the middle of nowhere, 90 minutes east of Fairbanks. That’s right: Alaska in late winter. Set up by a science tour company, the four dozen participants joined a hundred Japanese obsessively hunting for the Northern Lights.

They came to the right place. The Auroral Oval – a green, glowing donut that sits right over that region – assures near-nightly displays of the fabled Lights. No skill required.

We always hold it during a moonless week in March, because this month usually has the year’s greatest displays. Also, the Alaskan winter is almost over, and the temperature’s merely unpleasant instead of deadly. Finally, like everywhere else, Alaska now has 12 hours of day and 12 of night.


Many people visit Alaska in the summer, perhaps on a cruise, and then wonder why they don’t recall seeing the Northern Lights. Did someone forget to inform them that Auroras require a dark sky – something that just doesn’t happen there in summer?

Worse still, summer brings out Alaska’s famed mosquitoes. The mosquito is Alaska’s official State Bird. Almost all regions outside of urban areas (in other words, virtually the entire state) are thick with constant, truly unbelievable swarms. If you slap your arm you’ll kill ten at a time. Face-netting is a must, or else you have to bathe in DEET.

It’s the same story in Lapland and everywhere else with permafrost. The ground remains frozen just a foot or two below the surface, so melted snow has nowhere to drain. These stagnant pools are ideal mosquito-breeding places, and they’re everywhere.

So mosquitoless March is nice. Back in 2000 – the first time I lectured there – the days got into the 30s and people went out in tee-shirts. This time, the daily high was around 6 degrees, with the nights 18 below zero. It didn’t matter. Our group of around 45 – including ten from the mid-Hudson area – dressed for the cold, and were rewarded with a single night where the Lights went berserk starting at 1:30 a.m. and lasted the rest of the night. It was truly awesome. People were shouting and gasping involuntarily every few minutes, whenever an especially animated series would erupt. The Japanese went nuts: They believe that the Lights confer some kind of blessing.

In Cheena Hot Springs you could even watch it from a heated lake fed continuously from the natural thermal spring. Your head would be sticking out in the icy air with the ears turning red and mustache freezing solid, but the body would be fine. White vapors would rise from the warm water with the glorious Lights flickering through the sky beyond. The vague smell of sulfur made it all seem like a comfortable version of Hell.

Each year I’d rent a plane and fly six hours or so. In 2001 I circled Mount McKinley (also known as Denali), the highest peak in North America at just over 20,000 feet, which is higher than the plane could top; I didn’t even attempt it. McKinley is an ugly mountain, the homeliest famous peak. It’s an enormous rounded anthill. But it’s surrounded by the countless gleaming pointy mountains of Denali National Park, and these were all low enough to overfly.

Three Alaska trips ago I flew myself to a village called Bettles, north of the Arctic Circle. The population was 100, with a single restaurant attended by flirty women and quiet, almost insane men. The single road was only usable in the winter, when streams and rivers were solid. In the warm months there was no way in or out except by small plane.

Right there, Alaska’s Brooks Range, the northernmost mountains, looms majestically. It’s the location of a strange but intriguing National Park called Gates of the Arctic – strange because it too has no road in or out. Imagine a park with no access – no airport, either.

Flying in Alaska is revelatory because you can go hours without passing over a single house, let alone village. It’s empty: total wilderness. Beautiful, really. But after a week of cross-country skiing and endless snowmobiling and those astonishing Lights and even the international ice-sculpting competition, it’s enough.

This trip, I did a live webcast of the Aurora on Slooh, the Internet observatory, with my daughter Anjali handling the camera. Her middle name is actually Arora (without the “u,” so it’s a palindrome like her Dad).

Maybe I’ll do it again next year, when the Lights should be at their most intense, since solar max is scheduled for May 2013. Will you join me then? Spring if you have the time and money, and if your soul yearns for a near-guaranteed immersion in the Aurora Borealis. Just don’t forget the long johns.


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