Aurora Borealis - The Northern Lights

As 1999 turned into Yr 2000, I wanted to do something special and memorable.  However, since I had procrastinated making arrangements until the last minute,  it was pretty obvious that I needed to do something a little off the beaten path.

OK, so how many people go to Alaska in the winter time?  Seemed like a perfect opportunity to escape the crowds.  And I always wanted to see the Northern Lights (which the techie-types call the Aurora Borealis.)  You can't see the Aurora very well during the normal tourist season (i.e., July) due to the 21 hours of daylight - so I was hooked on the idea.

Living in Dallas had not exactly prepared me with a wardrobe of suitable clothes, so I bought all the Expedition Gear that I could afford.   Alaskan weather can be unpredictable in the winter - research indicated that the temperatures could be anywhere between +40F and about -25F, which is a pretty broad range.  I'm such a baby about being cold - I bought, brought, and wore everything - multiple layers everywhere!

The trip started in Anchorage.  The first day was scheduled for dog -sledding in Talkeetna, followed by a bush plane ride.   Talkeetna is perhaps 60 miles north of Anchorage, and had received nearly 3 feet of snow on the couple days immediately preceeding my arrival.  It was a lovely, although somewhat treacherous drive up to Talkeetna, but the dogs couldn't go out, and of course the plane was grounded because of the 3 feet of snow on the "runway".  

 

  Click on the images for a larger view.   Warning - some of the images are Alaska-sized!
  River near Talkeetna Meadow near Talkeetna Mailboxes
  A river runs through it ...

Meadow near Talkeetna
with Denali (Mt. McKinley) visible in the background

Mailboxes along the way
  Anchorage is a good central location from which to make day trips.  A drive down the Kenai Peninsula to the town of Seward yielded spectacular scenery, followed by a very chilly harbor cruise.  Standing on the deck of the ship with 33 degree salt water splashing all over me (and freezing on me as soon as it hit) was quite an invigorating experience (and to think that I actually paid money for that privilege!)  I saw a playful sea otter playing among the boats in the harbor, and quite a few Orca whales (Ansel Adams I ain't!)  

 

  Chilkook Charlie's Mountains on Turnagain Arm Chris and the bear
 

Typical Alaskan saloon in Anchorage

Turnagain Arm
Grin and bear it
  Kenai Fjords Seward Harbor Sea Lion in Seward Harbor
  Cruising the Kenai Fjords area

 

Seward harbor

 

Sea Otter in harbor

 

  Orca whale Fjord Mountains in Denali
  The Orca that got away

 

Near the fjords

 

Mountains in Denali National Park

  Flying from Anchorage to Fairbanks was a highlight of the trip.  The plane flew right next to Denali - which is rarely visible from below due to cloud cover.  The view was breathtaking!

 

  Denali Summit Denali Bundled up!
  The summit of Mt. McKinley (Denali)
from the air
Denali
Fairbanks at -55 degrees F
(Sure am glad I brought the warm duds)
  And breathtaking was how Fairbanks was!!  Upon arrival, the temperature was -55F - and it proceeded to get colder from there!   The lowest I saw was -65F, but the locals admit that the thermometers are unreliable at that temperature.  My eyelashes froze to my face.  Fortunately, there was very little wind, so the absolute temperature and the wind chill were about the same.

People start their cars (or usually trucks) around October or November, and don't turn them off again until March or April due to the intense cold.  If you go to a restaurant, the entire parking lot will be full of running vehicles - and they will be out there running for several hours. Parking lots were a horrible fog of diesel fumes. You don't dare turn off your vehicle unless you are plugged into an oil pan heater - of course the battery would die, but the bigger concern is that the engine block will freeze and crack when the oil freezes.  

Fairbanks is down in a valley of sorts.  At those temperatures, there was ice fog.  Outside of Fairbanks it cleared off a little and there was actually daylight. And sunrise was around 11:00 a.m. - which was also a strange sensation - especially since sunset was around 3:30 (I think).

Sadly, I have no pictures of the aurora.    At midnight when the year 2000 began, I was standing on a hill outside Fairbanks, in -60F weather, watching an absolutely awesome display of the northern lights undulating over the hills like a curtain of multi-colored light.  I was lucky - the aurora activity was low to moderate for the surrounding days, but was high during the couple days I was there to see it.  What a way to see in the new century!

The final adventure was nearly hitting a huge bull moose on the way back from Chena Hot Springs!  I could see the underside of his belly from my seat in the Ford Explorer!  It was bigger than any creature I could have imagined.  

 

  -55F and ice fog Sunrise at 11:00 am Look Ma, no dogs!
  Fairbanks at -55 degrees F
with ice fog

 

Sunrise near North Pole, AK,
around 11:00 am 12/31/99

 

This sled near Alyeska was as close as I ever got to the dogs !

 

  A woman in North Pole, Alaska (outside of Fairbanks) rather sneered that "it doesn't get cold in Anchorage."  I thought she was daft - until I returned to Anchorage.  The 60 degree difference (between -65F and -5F) made Anchorage feel balmy - I went outside in a sweater!

A trip south of Anchorage to the ski resort of Alyeska allowed me to see the Portage Glacier.  The snow has been there so long that it has compressed into blue ice under its own weight.  

And of course you know that I skied at Alyeska ...  

 

Portage Glacier Glacier Close up Turnagain Spit
Portage Glacier
(look for the blue ice)
Glacier close up
Turnagain Spit (back near balmy Anchorage
at only - 10F)


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