Friday, February 8, 2019

Fairbanks and the Northern Lights

Right off the bat I'll say today is going to be hard to beat. Fewer near death experiences, but more awe-inspiring ones. In fact, I think if we came to Alaska only to enjoy today, it would have been worth it.

Going to be hard to decide on my favorite picture from the trip
First things first, remember the rumble we discovered with our rental car? We tried to resolve it with the Avis location in Fairbanks this morning, but, unfortunately, they were fresh out of SUVs. We decided, instead, to see if we could solve this problem on our own. Seth had noticed some snow/mud/rock accumulation on the inside of the rear tires, and wondered if that could be the cause of the rumbling. He found a screwdriver and started chipping away at it - soon involving Tanner, Adam, and Jocelyn to move the vehicle forward in small increments and spray hot water onto the deposits to thaw them out a little and make them easier to chip away. Katy and I got frequent status updates and samples. Sure enough, when we left the cabin, we discovered this had indeed fixed the issue! Perhaps some of the pioneering, self-sufficient Alaskan attitude is rubbing off on us.

Adam shows Tanner the whale baleen
Our first stop of the day was the Morris Thompson Cultural & Visitors Center. They had some cool displays depicting life in interior Alaska. We also got helpful information and recommendations from a couple of National Park Service rangers and a school teacher volunteering his time. In particular, one of the rangers confirmed that the local lakes would have at least 12 inches of ice on them - meaning a two ton vehicle could be driven out onto the ice without issue.

Ice skating path on the Tanana Lakes
Based on the recommendations we received, we headed out to Tanana Lakes Recreation Area to do some hiking on and around the lakes. When we arrived, we made an unexpected and amazing discovery. An ice skating path (think of it like a massive rink with no center ice) had been cleared on the surface of the lake. As we walked out onto it, we could see just how thick the ice really was - likely between 24 - 36 inches of solid, crystal clear ice. We could see bubbles and tendrils of ice frozen solid deep below us. We skated our way around the loop in our snow boots, periodically encountering the lone local man who was also there, skating laps with his two dogs.

Pioneer Park
Next, we stopped at Pioneer Park, which was fairly deserted at this time of the year. During the summer tourist season, it seemed like it could be the Busch Gardens of interior Alaska - with a model of the historic town of Fairbanks, several associated museums (all closed for the season), and an art and performance venue in the center. Again, with the exception of a few locals, we had the place to ourselves, and particularly enjoyed the kids playground.

This suits our maturity level
After wrapping up our visit to the park, we headed out towards Chena Hot Springs for a dip in the natural thermal pools - hoping to see the Northern Lights from there. After a brief altercation with a couple of lockers (they outsmarted Adam and I and took our quarters) we jumped in the pool. With a water temperature of 106°F and an air temperature of about 15°F, it reminded me a lot Iceland. However (as has been our experience with a lot of things in Alaska), this pool was less crowded, and maybe even a little bigger. It also had a nice fountain in the middle (the drops from which would cool you off quickly), but this fountain also produced quite a bit of steam. The steam, combined with the lights around the pool, made for a less than ideal aurora viewing location.

We kept our eyes peeled on the drive home, as one of the interpreters at the visitors center that morning had told us the drive to Chena and back would be a great place to see the lights. We didn't see anything of note, so after we arrived back at the cabin, we had dinner and prepared for bed. Just as everyone was getting ready to crash, Seth checked the NOAA space weather prediction one last time and saw an increased chance of solar activity. I rechecked the UAF aurora forecast and saw that their predictions had become more favorable since I last checked. With some prompting from Jocelyn, we decided to return to the Chena Lake Recreation Area for a last ditch effort to catch the lights before we left Fairbanks.

I sure am glad we did! When we arrived, it looked pretty unpromising, and, I admit, I thought the cloud cover was going to ruin our chances once again. However, as our eyes began to adjust to the darkness, we saw a thin band of what looked like lighter colored clouds near the horizon. As we debated whether that could be it, I set up a GoPro to do long exposure (30 seconds). Just as it finished taking the photo, someone asked, "What would you have to see to make you think it is the Northern Lights?" I looked down at my phone and said, "Exactly this. Guys, it's green!"

Our first aurora
From there, the lights continued to spread across the sky and increase in strength for the next half hour or so. Eventually, they settled back down, and, although they hadn't gone completely away, we decided to call it a night to avoid losing any toes. There were definitely some euphoric moments while we watched, as well as on the drive home, as this was the culmination of a multi-year mission and two trips spent chasing this beautiful part of God's creation.

The Northern Lights
Cumulative Moose Count: 21 (Jocelyn spotted one going across the lake outside our cabin this morning)
Cumulative Bear Count: 0
Moose Involved Incidents: 0

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