Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Northern Lights March 2013 - The Northern Lights

***This post is part 5 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

During my last night in Fairbanks, I had one of the most surreal experiences of my life while trying to see the northern lights. But before I get into the details, let me go through the two previous nights, the first of which was a disappointment, and the second of which was somewhat more successful.

I got into Fairbanks around 5:40 pm on the first day, and after getting settled in at the hostel and grabbing a quick dinner, I set out on the Steese Highway. My thought was to get out of the city limits so light pollution would be at a minimum. The Steese Highway extends 161 miles from Fairbanks to the town of Circle on the Yukon River, roughly 50 miles south of the Arctic Circle. After the 81-mile marker, much of the road becomes unpaved, but even in the paved sections, it can be a rather treacherous journey during the winter.

The highway traverses several passes, including Cleary Summit, approximately half an hour outside of Fairbanks, and Twelvemile Summit, at around the 86-mile marker. After doing a bit of research online, I decided to try and see the northern lights at both summits, although I was a bit hesitant on making the nearly two-hour drive out to Twelvemile with the road still covered in snow.

Map of the Steese Highway (slightly out of date)

As I mentioned in my previous post, the weather wasn't cooperating on the first night I arrived. Overcast skies gave way to light snow as I ventured out onto the Steese Highway. I have to admit, I was somewhat scared to be driving alone on the winding, ice-covered road in complete darkness with a rental car. Going at a maximum of maybe 40 mph, I slowly made my way up, hoping I wouldn't slide off the road at any moment.

I had heard Cleary Summit was a popular tourist spot to see the lights, but when I arrived, there were no other cars there. At around 10:30 pm, a small bus pulled up to the turnout and turned off its engines. I saw a number of people sitting inside, and I felt at least a bit more certain that I was in the right spot. No other cars showed up that night.

Unfortunately, the snow started coming down harder, and as I much as I peered into the dark sky, I couldn't make out even a tiny trace of the green glow. After another hour and half of waiting in the freezing car, I decided that was enough, and I turned the car around and headed back down the summit. I suppose the smarter tourists had all seen the weather reports that night and stayed indoors! Stubbornly, I thought I would try my luck anyways and came up empty.

On the second night, I once again drove up to Cleary Summit along with some hostel-mates. The weather had been beautiful all afternoon, with barely a cloud in the sky, so I had high hopes of finally seeing the lights. When we arrived, I was surprised to see a virtual parking lot full of cars and tourists. I guess this was indeed a very popular spot!

The temperature was even colder than the night before, but at least there was no snow coming down. At around 11:00 pm, people began to notice a very faint glow in the eastern sky. This glow slowly intensified, and I smiled, relieved and excited that my goal of seeing the northern lights was actually happening right before my eyes. The glow gradually became a curtain of light that would undulate and sweep across the horizon. Sections would quietly fade, but new regions would suddenly light up, connect and disconnect, and fade again. It was simply breathtaking.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Northern Lights March 2013 - Exploring Fairbanks

***This post is part 4 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

With only two days in Fairbanks, I didn't have a whole lot of time to see the city and surrounding area, but I did have a few definite things on my checklist. While enjoying nature and outdoor activities are a huge part of the Alaskan pastime, winter weather is typically not conducive to either. And as much as I would have loved to visit Denali, I am definitely not hardcore enough to snowshoe, cross-country ski, or camp in the snow. Someday, I hope to visit Alaska in the summer and do the famous drive up the George Parks Highway.

In the meantime, I narrowed my options down to a few local activities. As touristy as it sounded, I really wanted to try out dog-sledding. There were a number of outfitters doing shorter tours, and I ultimately decided on Paws For Adventure, which had amazing reviews on TripAdvisor and a very informative website. Out of the six tours they offered, the two that sounded most appealing to me were the one-hour adventure for $95 or the three-hour mushing school for $275. Taking into account my budget constraints, I went with the one-hour adventure.

The location is about six miles outside of downtown Fairbanks, and the roads were cleared the whole way, until you pass the actual entrance. From there, it may be a little difficult to drive down to the parking area without a 4x4, but my Ford Fusion survived without any issues. The owner, Leslie, had a heated yurt set up with extra parkas and hot tea for guests. From there, you can go down and interact with the dogs and watch as they prepared the sleds for the ride.

For the one-hour tour, you don't actually ride the runners, but you get to sit in the front basket, which was somewhat comfortable and relaxing. If you like, about halfway through, you can stand in the back with the musher and ride the runners for a bit. It was a little nerve-wracking, since it was easy to lose your balance with the sled going up and down and side to side. But watching the eagerness and energy of the huskies while flying through the open snow fields and spruce forest was absolutely exhilarating. I would highly recommend trying out dog-sledding while in Fairbanks.

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Northern Lights March 2013 - Billie's Backpackers Hostel Fairbanks

***This post is part 3 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

Hotels in Fairbanks are actually very reasonably priced. For example, I found availability at the highly rated Hampton Inn for approximately $100 per night on the dates that I needed, and they even allow occupancy of up to four people per room. Best of all, they offer free breakfast, free high speed internet, and free airport shuttles. There are also many beautiful bed and breakfasts in town if you are willing to pay a bit more.

Unfortunately, when traveling alone on a budget, it is sometimes difficult to justify paying for a hotel room all by yourself. In these situations, I tend to look for local options like backpackers lodges or hostels. While perusing TripAdvisor, I ran across Billie's Backpackers Hostel and noticed that it had stellar reviews. It was also very affordable. I emailed Billie and reserved a bed in the shared sleeping area for only $30 per night.

When I arrived, I was happy to see that everything looked exactly like it had been presented on the website. The house was on a quiet street, but still fairly close to downtown as long as you have a car. During the summer, Billie actually rents out an unheated gazebo and space in the yard for tents. But in the winter, only beds in the house are available.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Northern Lights March 2013 - Alaska Airlines 317/99/51 Economy Class (SJC-SEA-ANC-FAI)

***This post is part 2 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

Ticket prices to Fairbanks from the contiguous United States routinely top $700-$800 during the high season. As such, it remains one of the most lucrative award redemptions within North America. At only 25,000 miles round-trip, it is possible to get more than $0.03 per mile, which is about as good as it gets in economy.

While many U.S. airlines fly to Anchorage, most operate only during the summer months, with the exceptions being Delta from MSP, United from DEN and SEA, and US Airways from PHX. Your best bet is still Alaska Airlines, which flies year-round from ORD, PDX, SEA, and HNL. Getting into Fairbanks is somewhat more difficult, since only Alaska Airlines maintains a regular year-round service to the contiguous United States via SEA. Otherwise, there are plenty of daily non-stops from ANC.

Award seats were difficult to find for the dates I wanted in March, most likely due to the large number of tourists who flock there to see the northern lights during that month. Eventually, I was able to secure my booking from SJC to FAI via SEA and ANC. Not quite the ideal routing, but I was just glad I was able to travel to Fairbanks for only $10.00 in taxes and fees total!

Alaska Airlines departs from Terminal B at San Jose International Airport. I love traveling through this terminal as it is still fairly new and has many of the latest airport amenities for travelers, like power ports at virtually all the departure gate seats. Security always seems to be a breeze, and there are plenty of restaurants and shops for travelers airside.

Terminal B at SJC

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Northern Lights March 2013 - Introduction

***This post is part 1 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

The northern lights is an often-referred-to item on people's bucket lists. The idea of seeing a canvas of glowing lights dance across the Arctic sky certainly stirs the imagination, and a quick image search on Google shows exactly why just about everyone wants to witness the phenomenon at least once in their lives.

If you really want to see the lights at its peak, you should wait until the 11-year solar cycle hits a maximum amplitude. The good news is that we are currently in the midst of a maximum this very year. The bad news, however, is that even with everything we know about our sun, it is still impossible to accurately predict beyond a few days when a solar flare will occur, triggering a brilliant display of aurora activity. Mix in weather uncertainties, and it is never a guarantee that you will actually see the lights.

With that in mind, there are a few general guidelines that should persuade you to book your itinerary on certain dates. Historical data suggests that March and September are the best months to see aurora activity, at least in Alaska. Those months combine the dark skies of winter with milder temperatures that are slightly more comfortable for travelers. In addition, check a lunar phase calendar to see when a new moon will occur, as the darker the sky, the better.

Taking all of the above into account, I decided on March 9-12 as my travel dates, and checked award seat availability on Alaska Airlines. I did this more than seven months in advance, knowing that it would be a very popular time for tourists. Unfortunately, even that far in advance, the best flights (one-stop from the Bay Area via PDX or SEA) were mostly unavailable.

I eventually settled on a two-stop itinerary from SJC to FAI and back via SEA and ANC. It was a bit of a trek, but thankfully the times were good and the layovers short. Total taxes and fees came out to only $10, along with 25,000 American Airlines miles. One of the great things about the AAdvantage program is the ability to make date and time changes without incurring any fees (as long as you keep the same origin and destination). Over the next few months, I tweaked my itinerary slightly as award seats on more convenient flights opened up.

For lodging, I initially focused on the usual chain hotels. There is a very highly rated Hampton Inn in Fairbanks, as well as a Holiday Inn Express and SpringHill Suites. However, since I was traveling on my own, I couldn't justify the expense of booking a room all to myself, even using points. Luckily, I came across Billie's Backpackers Hostel on TripAdvisor, which turned out to be one of the best parts of the entire trip. I will discuss all the details in a full review later in this report.

If you really want to see the northern lights without the light pollution and tourists, you should definitely rent a car and get out of the Fairbanks city limits. It may be a little scary driving along a frozen road in complete darkness, but trust me, the reward of having the entire aurora to yourself out in the middle of nowhere is more than worth it. Despite a relatively low amount of solar activity while I was there, the dancing lights still put on a spectacular show in the horizon. It was a sight I will never forget.

Aurora Borealis from the Steese Highway - March 12, 2013

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Northern Lights March 2013 Trip Report

In mid-March, I took a quick three-day trip to Fairbanks, Alaska. The entire purpose of going there was to catch the northern lights. Despite lower than expected solar activity during the beginning of the month, I was lucky enough to see some amazing displays two out of the three nights. I will share more details about planning and booking the trip in the introduction, but needless to say, it took a bit of flying to get into central Alaska. It also took a little extra preparation to face the below-freezing temperatures, especially for a California guy like me! Read on for all the details: