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2018 Trip to Fairbanks Alaska, March 13-20 2018

by Jenny and Charlie Plesums

Jump to the 2013 Trip to Anchorage, Fairbanks and other places

Jump to the Anchorage, Alaska trip in 2015

Jump to the Juneau, Alaska trip in 2017


Why did we go to Fairbanks in 2018? To see the Northern Lights.

We took a trip to Iceland in November 2017, and had a great time but did not see the Northern Lights. (Knowing what we know now we might have seen them the first night, but we didn't do it right.) The trip to Fairbanks was originally planned for January, 2018, but the Fairbanks weather forecast for the entire period was overcast and super cold (in the minus 30 range), and the solar forecast was calm, so we canceled at the last minute.

What does it take to see the northern lights?

To get an idea of how dim the lights are, at the peak that we saw, neither my Nikon camera nor my iPhone could pick up the image in the viewfinder. People we saw taking pictures set their camera on a tripod for many-minute exposures, of whatever the camera happened to be pointing at. No aiming or zooming a camera in the traditional way.

This is the general type of northern lights we saw (I gave up trying to get my own pictures). At first it seemed like somebody had turned on a green porch light over the horizon. Gradually the light stretched across the sky to the opposite horizon. Then it slowly started to curve and twist. It is a very slow process - perhaps 30 minutes to create a sky like this, and you have to watch carefully to see the slowly churning movement. It is not like a flash of lightning. We watched for an hour or two, and finally smiled and left about 2-3 am because we were cold, happy, and tired.

A friend pointed out that northern lights are not always slow. He described that about 25 years ago he saw some that looked like a psychedelic strobe light show. He stood outside for several hours, freezing, but it was spectacular. He has never seen anything like it since. In Iceland people were wondering if it would be fast like lightning, over in a few seconds. Whether the churn is slow like we saw, or strobe like my friend saw, the show goes on for hours, not seconds.

How does it work? The sun is boiling at a mere 27 million degrees in the center. As the surface churns, particles escape from the surface at sunspots. This plasma takes about 40 hours to reach earth, diverted to the poles by the earth's magnetic field. When the plasma strikes oxygen, yellow and green are produced, interaction with nitrogen produces red, violet, and blue. Green is typically below 150 miles altitude, with red and blue above 150 miles. Since the International Space Station orbits about 250 miles above the earth, it passes through the upper part of the aurora show.

Many photo blogs on the web focus on showing more colors - though it appears to be based on photo technology (how to play with the invisible light spectrum) rather than science. The rapidly churning videos on the web are time lapse movies - as far as we can learn, the real show moves more slowly.

Trip Summary

We departed mid-day Tuesday March 13, from Austin to DFW to Seattle on American, then on Alaska Airlines to Fairbanks, arriving well after midnight. Since we wanted to drive well out of town to view the Aurora, we rented a car, which also allowed us to stay at a modest hotel (Wedgewood Resort, off season rental of a small apartment with maid service for about $75/night). We were very pleased that Avis substituted a simple 4 wheel drive car for our full size reservation. In the car was an extension cord to plug the block heater into the outlet provided at most parking spaces. (Practically every car in Fairbanks has an electric plug coming out of the hood but with no temperature below zero we did not need it.)

During our trip the weather ran from as low as 5 to a high one day of 34 - a veritable heat wave, but mostly 15 to 25. Return was Monday afternoon March 19 from Fairbanks, via Seattle and DFW and on to Austin, landing at 9:51 Tuesday morning.

We caught up on sleep, then drove around checking for good locations to see the Northern Lights. Imagine getting your mail from one of these mailboxes.

There had been a recent storm with heavy snow that bent many otherwise stiff trees to the ground

We came to the part of the Alaska Pipeline that is above ground just outside Fairbanks. We had visited this in the summer a few years ago. Note the bends in the pipe to handle expansion and shrinkage.

The 450 is the milepost visible to aircraft inspecting the 800 mile long pipeline.

Another type of pig, that was used when the pipeline was new, did a more aggressive scraping of the pipeline

We couldn't resist stopping at St. Nicholas Catholic Church at the North Pole, Alaska. (Yes there is a town named North Pole, outside Fairbanks, but not at the actual North Pole, and there is actually a St. Nicholas Church.) The people of the church had made an ice sculpture of Mary and the manger.

We visited a museum at the University of Alaska Fairbanks

Note the actual size bear paw prints next to Jenny

Outside the Morris Thompson Visitor Center is this archway. During the summer it is far more popular, with a web cam so you can wave to people at home.

The street signs were impacted by the snow as much as the trees.

Dog Races

On Saturday afternoon we learned about day two of three of the North American Championship of the Alaska Dog Mushers. Twenty-two teams of 9-15 dogs and one driver ran a 20+ mile course in 1:10 to 1:30. Every dog on a team the second or third day must also have run the previous day, so the number of dogs running can decrease, but there are no substitutions or additions. If any dog tires or is injured during the race the are put "in a bag" on the sled, and must be examined by an on-site vet before they can race again.

A side show at the races was the Alaska Trappers Association Fur Auction. I believe this is a fox pelt being sold, with a mink coming next.

Dogs arrived in mobile kennels, each holding 16-20 dogs.

As race time approached, they were individually hitched to a spot on the truck, waiting to be harnessed.

A team left the starting line every couple minutes, so as race time approached the dogs were placed in their position in the team.

Then, in turn, they were moved to the starting line. Often there was a handler to keep each pair of dogs calm until the race started. They really wanted to run.

Sometimes one of the dogs needed a little extra love to stay calm during the wait for the start.

Four men held the sled until the starting time, to keep the dogs from doing a false start. In some cases a snow machine was also hitched to the sled to keep it in place.

At the appointed instant all the handlers stepped away and the team was off.

Not long after the last team was started, the teams started completing the course.

The weather was pleasant, but there were also heated tents and huts if you got cold. I saw a lady with a newborn baby wrap the baby on her chest, like I have seen countless times, then over everything she put on the arctic type winter coat that everyone wears in Fairbanks. I made a wise crack about how expensive it must be to have such nice coats sized for with and without babies. No, she said, and showed me the zip in panel that expanded the diameter of the coat (zippers on both sides, that mated with the regular coat zipper). "We have one of these extenders that we share among friends, from late pregnancy until someone else needs it."

Later that evening we went to our selected northern lights viewing spot. I didn't struggle to take lots of my own northern lights photos, but still loved what we saw. On the way "up the mountain" someone had put orange reflectors on a flat surface, which caught the car headlights as they passed. Cute.

Both Jenny and I were raised "up North" so we have seen our share of snow. But we have lived in the South for about 50 years, so we took snow pictures - nice as long as someone else was responsible for clearing it.

This is Jenny in front of the entrance to our room/apartment/suite. Routine snow pile almost 5 feet high.

I doubt if housekeeping will be moving their cars soon.

The pile of packed snow where they had scraped the parking lot. For scale, note the pick-up on the right.

New snow on top of old. Notice the car on the right.

Typical snow along the edge of the highway. Crews were working 24/7 to clear the piles away from the edge of the road, to make room for new snow.

There was an ice sculpture exhibit. The Annual World Ice Art Championship was canceled for 2018 due to funding issues, but still there were hundreds of participants (but no prize money). A single admission allowed you to see it during the day (many were in the form of slides and games for kids). You could also return at night when many of the sculptures were illuminated. This is a small sample of the hundreds on display, with artists from all over the world.

Dog sled, with Jenny mushing. There were multiple seats on the sled for kids, and the dog would hold another kid.

At night the ice was lit, so pictures are better.

They even had a walk-in ice house, that is big enough to stand-up inside.

Note how big the sculpture is, compared to Jenny

Among the playground-type items was a set of ice kiddie slides.

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