Northern Lights in Alaska – Trip Report

Though NOLA’s been dry, it’s also been awfully hot this past week (just shy of record setting) so what better time than now to revisit our crazy cold trip to Fairbanks, AK in March.Incidentally, with the trouble booking that ticket economically, it might also be a good time to start looking at it if this tempts you. The booking process is covered here, including the gory details of attempting bumps and all sorts of geeky points and miles  fare.

Having done a quick mileage run up to Anchorage, AK last fall (on the edge of fall colors!), Mrs. NF loved it. In fact, she kept talking about moving up there. It might be an adverse reaction to a few years in NOLA. 😉 We’d burned up a lot of our vacation time on other trips and with all these miles, it was time to do some weekend trips. So in January I asked her to prepare a list of a half dozen or so weekend trips she was interested in. The top of the list was to see the northern lights (check out this tool for forecasting the Northern Lights). I grew up in Minnesota and Wisconsin and so I know cold weather. Nonetheless, Fairbanks is the interior of Alaska…not even buffered by the coastal weather patterns. After some grumbling, I remembered that I asked for this and packed up my George Costanza jacket (fashion be damned), ski gloves, long johns, wool socks and liners, boots, sweaters, under-sweaters, chemical hand warmers, scarf, emergency thermal blanket and, well you get the idea.

New Orleans to Anchorage to Fairbanks to New Orleans

New Orleans to Anchorage to Fairbanks to New Orleans

Our itinerary consisted of New Orleans to Anchorage via Minneapolis on Friday night (it’s still strange transiting our old home airport). We arrived around midnight, picked up a car, and headed to the Anchorage Sheraton on a cash + points stay.  It’s 7000 SPG points or 2800 SPG + $45 if you can find those. On a prior trip, we’d stayed at the Hilton Anchorage. They felt very comparable but I think we liked our Hilton stay better (which was paid as it was part of a promo). Both airports are near downtown and easy drives. I’d been worried about the parking costs on both trips but it turned out not to be an issue. I made a point of asking the bellman if Anchorage allowed parking on streets after plowing to the curb (as Minneapolis does) and they confirmed it’d be fine. Worked for me.

One thing that was a bit of surprise to both of us is that Alaska has its own time zone, 1 hour behind Pacific. Who knew!?! Keep that in mind. It made it pretty simple to get out on Friday after work and still get in early enough that we could get some sleep in (losing 3 hours heading east made the return tough though). We awoke at a reasonably early hour (perhaps 6-7 hours of sleep) and headed out to Snow City Cafe for brunch. Beware the lines! A 45 minute wait is not unusual at all based on our two trips. Nonetheless, good and it felt like home in MN/WI more than any place I can think of in New Orleans. Their web site indicates they accept reservations. Might be worthwhile.

We always like downtown Anchorage. It’s tough to describe…there’s not much to it relative to the other cities we visit but it’s comfortable. We checked out the Anchorage Museum but we were short on time and the fee was higher than we wanted. For what it’s worth, this is a good example of the distortion of cheap travel whereby we stretched a fixed cash budget across many, many “free” trips. A normal person going to Alaska who spent a fair bit on airfare and hotels would probably never balk at $12/person but we had just 90 minutes and this wasn’t the primary objective. On the other hand, it could be free courtesy of Bank of America! Dang! So, as usual, we found ourselves in a coffee shop for a while, just chilling out.

Remember how I’d packed everything I could need to stay warm and more. It didn’t take long before I realized forgot my hat. Your head loses more heat any other part of you and I forgot my hat!  So we bought a cheap one. I’d need it.

As late afternoon approached, we headed to the airport and caught our flight to Fairbanks on an Alaska Airlines 737 Combi. Boarding from the back of the plane, into the small back cabin which sits behind the cargo area was pretty neat for a plane geek like me. I hadn’t planned it that way but was excited when I saw we got that plane. Upgrades be damned! It’s an hour flight. I wish I’d taken a few photos from the plane but suffice to say mountains + snow + not much else was quite pretty. Easy to imagine going down in though.

We landed in Fairbanks and discovered, no surprise, a small airport. One concourse, 6-8 gates, and few facilities to offer. Not the smallest we’ve been to by far but still pretty basic though clean. Our friends from warmer climates may not recognize this next photo.

Fairbanks - Engine Block Heater

But for those of us that grew up where winter is cold, long, and dark, an engine block heater was no surprise.

And so we headed for the Best Western Chena River Lodge in Fairbanks. Sounds quaint! Not really… It was exactly what you’d expect but cleaner. Extreme Clean in fact probably something like this, complete with a sanitized remote in a plastic sleeve.  The bed was lumpy, the heater made a good bit of noise as it cycled on and off, but it was CLEAN. I gotta give ’em that. In all honesty though, it was exactly what we were looking for – inexpensive, free breakfast, free internet and even had a friendly staff that gave us great hand-written directions on where to go to see the northern lights. I don’t mean to be down on the BW. I’d go back…but the extreme clean treatment was pretty funny. Left me really wondering about their clientele. Is there a large market of extreme germophobes that go to Alaska and Edinburgh (see video) of which I’m not aware?

Just to see what was happening, we stopped by one Irish bar in town since it was St. Patrick’s day after all and found quite the scene underway. This felt like a frontier town in a way I can’t quite put my finger on while Anchorage felt like a (small) city. After a couple drinks, we had some very overpriced fast food and headed back to the hotel for a bit of shut-eye.

Tired but undaunted, we suited up around 10:30pm and headed about 30 minutes outside of town to a high point near a former air force radar station to see the northern lights. Here’s the thing… prime viewing is 11pm to 2 or 3am apparently. That’s 2am to 4-5 am central time and with all the travel, we were exhausted. Excited nonetheless, we sat in a cold car staring at the clouds, catching occasional fleeting glimpses of something that left us wondering. Finally, a bit disappointed, we headed back home after a couple of hours. On the way back though, we caught something and pulled over.

Northern Lights

Northern Lights

It was pretty amazing. I expected them to be cloud like but they weren’t at all. The moved quickly. It really was a reminder that this is an energy effect. Cool. Though brief, the disappointment of having seen nothing passed. There are many, many photos on the internet which are far, far better than this. None do it justice. So very cool to see in person!

As those drew to a close and we got too cold, it was back to the car and then the hotel.  Sunday morning consisted of a breakfast at the hotel, a quick stop for snacks from the grocery store, and a walk downtown only to discover the North American Sled Dog Races were on!

North American Sled Dog Races - Dogs

Of course, between them we needed to warm up so a visit to McCafferty’s was in order for a Pumpkin Pie Steamer. It might have been mid-day but it was still cold. We headed back out just in time to catch the finish line action.

North American Sled Dog Races

At the finishing line

How cool was that unexpected event! For a late lunch and excellent local beer, we stopped by Silver Gulch Brewing and Bottling Co. After some dinner, we headed back to the hotel and took a more determined nap which was easily accomplished after everything. Again, we ventured out Sunday night for another attempt at seeing the northern lights. It was a little slow to start leaving us plenty of time to contemplate  just what happens when the car doesn’t start and you find yourself at the end of a remote road, in the interior of Alaska at -30F, at night. Thankfully, we didn’t find out. It’s tough to capture without a tripod but Sunday night was much, much better.  You’ll have to take our word for it! One interesting thing is that the photos actually make them seem brighter than they are. They didn’t seem quite so green as the photos appear.

More Northern Lights

Back to the hotel, some sleep, and then killing time in the city on Monday. We weren’t too sure what to do but had some breakfast (while encountering the Ice Road Truckers crew) and, having heard about the World Ice Art Championship, figured we couldn’t we pass that up. We may make it back to Anchorage again but I’m not so sure we’ll be back to Fairbanks, let alone in the middle of winter. I had low expectations, I admit. They were exceeded in dramatic form. Just take a look at this…

Ice Art

“How in the world?!?” I asked myself that again and again. Then again, it might have been the shivering that was causing me to repeat myself. Nonetheless, a total surprise.

Fairbanks was one of my favorite weekend trips. Awesome, unexpected, other worldly.

All photo credits go to my gracious wife.

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