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In 2014 Yvonne started dreading her 75th birthday in March, 2015. For her the only way to deal with this is to create a distraction. As we had never witnessed an Aurora Borealis and had always wanted to, we decided to research how to maximize seeing it and go.

It turns out we could plan as carefully as we wanted but it would be largely due to luck. Above is one of the photos we took exactly on Yvonne’s birthday and shows how lucky we turned out to be.

The purpose of the trip was to see auroras, but we enjoyed other things as well and it’s best to have some other plans in case auroras can’t be seen.

After our aurora photos there are photos of the rustic lodge, the ice museum, the dog sled ride and our great flight to the Arctic Circle and Beaver Village on the Yukon River.

 

We found one of the best places in Alaska for aurora-watching is the Chena Hot Springs resort about 60 miles NE of Fairbanks. It’s dark there because no electricity is provided in the 30 miles closest to the resort (they generate electricity using the hot springs). The green GPS track shows the road from Fairbanks to Chena and also our flight to the Arctic Circle and visit of Beaver on the Yukon river (more on that below).

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Put simply, eruptions on the sun cause the solar wind. If the solar wind is weak the ring (see next photo) is very narrow; if the solar wind is strong the ring is very wide. It’s in the wide times that auroras are visible in New York and England, for example. The center of the ring is where the aurora will be overhead; the “line” to the south of the ring shows where the aurora could be expected to be on the horizon. As the sun rotates, known sunspots become visible and forecasts are made based on the expected solar wind. These forecasts are made for 28 days (rotational period of the sun).

We reserved the last available room in the resort in October, 2014, so luck was involved as the one-month forecast couldn’t be used so far in advance.

 

http://gi.alaska.edu/sites/www.gi.alaska.edu/modules/local/auroraforecast/images/Alaska_3.png

Auroras exist every day of the year but usually can’t be seen, even from the areas under the “ring,” due to it not being dark enough: city lights, sunlight, moonlight or clouds interfere.

On the left is a picture from the Geophysical Institute of Alaska showing the ring indicating moderate auroral activity. Fall, winter and spring are roughly equal for opportunities, but in winter under the ring in Alaska it can be  -20 to -40 degrees F and it’s impossible to stay out long at those temperatures.  Spring is the (statistically) best time because it is generally less cloudy than in fall.

The second consideration is that for a good chance of seeing it, the visit date has to be around new moon. And third, it is recommended to stay a minimum of three days for a chance to see it. Yvonne’s birthday fell at the spring equinox on a new moon! So the trip was on. We decided to stay five days to up our chances.

So we’d nailed down the two necessary, but not sufficient, requirements (spring and new moon) and reserved five days there.

Not controllable is the necessity for clear skies (perfect weather) and unexpected eruptions on the sun ejecting plasma that reaches the earth.

YAHOO! Did we luck out! The night we arrived was the biggest solar flare in eleven years!

 

 

From the following URL:

http://www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast/TravelersGuide

“Clear skies are a requirement. At the continental locations in Russia, Alaska and western Canada, shown to have the clearest skies under the auroral zone in the figure, will also be at their clearest around the spring equinox. So the dark of the moon in March is the best time of year to travel to the auroral zone since the yearly variation of auroral activity also peaks around the equinox.”

image: average cloudiness

 

 

On 17 March we flew to Fairbanks, arriving before midnight and drove 1.5 hours NE to Chena Hot Springs. It is roughly 2500 miles from San Diego, much farther than we thought before we planned the trip.

A large solar flare occurred on 17 March while we were flying and the pilot alerted everyone of an aurora visible from the plane (it wasn’t much compared to what we saw later from the ground).

About half way to the lodge Robin (our driver to Chena) pointed out auroral activity. It was far in the west and looked like gray steam. He said that’s the typical way auroras look and we were quite disappointed.

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About an hour from Fairbanks the auroras started to have some color and it was especially beautiful near the horizon. We stopped at a pullout and we all got outside in the cold and stood on the snow for about 45 minutes (we wore what we had flown in - our down “sweaters” and travel shoes). The temperature was about 10 degrees F.

 

 

 

The pictures above and below taken shortly after midnight on the 18th of March.

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The display was SO amazing - we were all frozen when we got back in the car but it was worth it!

 

The aurora was visible continuously for about an hour (including before/after our stop) and the green glow was intense from horizon to horizon. Overhead the aurora assumed curls and twisted back on itself making amazing patterns.

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The photographs turned out even though we didn’t have a chance to set up our tripods, which are necessary for aurora photographs as each exposure usually requires 10-30 seconds.

 

This first night the aurora was so intense and bright that even 7 second exposures and hand-held ones were beautiful.

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We arrived at Chena Hot Springs about 2 am on the 18th of March, two very tired but happy travelers. It turned out that the eruptions on the sun were the strongest since 2004 (11 YEARS) causing a geomagnetic storm of strength 4 (the highest is a 5).

Happy Birthday Yvonne!

 

 

 

 

The Chena Resort has an aurora viewing hill called Charlie Dome which is 2.5 miles to the south and has a 360 degree unobstructed view. They provide four military-style SUS-V snow cats with trailers to take folks there.

Our second night at the resort we went to Charlie Dome with this vehicle around 10 pm on the 18th and returned at 3:30 am on the 19th.

We stood in the snow for all of that time but this time we wore our ski outfits.

 

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For a while after arriving at Charlie Dome there was only white haze where the auroras were. Very gradually they started to have a green cast; it was only after midnight that the interesting shapes and colors appeared.

There were about 100 people up there. Thirteen people (10 in trailer; 3 in cab) in each snow cat. There are so many people going on this that they added a second time, so the four snow cats took groups up twice. About half the people sat in the heated yurt waiting to be told when there were auroras. When Yvonne went in for a few minutes about midnight to warm her hands and feet the place was full. The yurt is full of chairs and canvas stools are provided for outside.

There are heated outhouses by the yurt! 

We moved down a snowy road to get away from the others because we didn’t want photos with people in them. We weren’t the only ones with this idea so we occasionally had “company.”  Every aurora was quite different from what we observed the previous night; much more colorful but fainter; therefore more difficult to photograph.

 

There were times when the aurora went overhead from horizon to horizon. Most of the activity was around north and south.

 

Yvonne got a picture with Juergen and his tripod. This was a 30 second exposure (f=3.3, ISO 800) and Juergen’s movements during that time give the impression of shadows.

 

The aurora gave off enough light that with the long exposure some other photographers are visible standing between the trees in the distance. There was the nice mood on the dome.

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All but the last aurora photo after this point were taken on our second night’s observing.

 

The different colors are interactions of the charged particles coming from the sun with different upper atmospheric constituents (primarily nitrogen and oxygen).

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Most of the aurora events are changing slowly allowing still exposures for tens of seconds without too much blur. Occasionally a fast motion event happens with rapidly changing positions, colors and shapes. For one such event Yvonne grabbed the camera still attached to the tripod and took a movie. While the movie is not capable of capturing the beauty of the color display, it does give a feel of the dynamics. On the left is a Photoshop enhanced single frame of the movie which can be seen by clicking on aurora movie.

The aurora movie is best seen with little ambient light (the room should be dark when watched).

 

 

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We skipped aurora viewing on our second night  there because we were too tired after two days staying up until 4 am, and as it was Yvonne’s birthday we had a special dinner.

 

We took the snow cat tour once more the next night. The forecast was for minimal activity (index 2). We observed constant auroral activity but we now realized how very lucky we had been as the auroras were VERY faint and the color only showed up in photographs (at left)! That’s probably more typical but we were spoiled and wanted to see more “fireworks.”

 

Chena Hot Springs is a rustic resort (it seems more like a guest ranch) which we enjoyed. This is a Google earth picture showing the resort in summer.

 

The Moose Lodge is a two story building that contains the new rooms. We were in an older building as indicated. The power building contains the machinery to convert the hot water from the springs to electricity. The Ice Museum is open year-round. The hot springs are the main year-round draw. The Activity Center is where everything gets planned: just walk out the back door and you’re even at the landing strip.

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All meals are served in the resort’s one cozy restaurant. We enjoyed the walrus tusks mounted over the bar: that was a first for us!

 

One of the restaurant’s two dining rooms.

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A view of Moose Pond. Even though there are two moose that frequent that pond and our four-plex was on it, we still didn’t see one!

 

The ground floor room (balcony shown) to the left in the reddish building was ours and under the plastic cover in front of it was one of the green houses.

 

View out of a restaurant’s window to the moose-antler sculpture.

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Birthday “celebration” with Alaskan King Crab Legs. Yum!

 

The resort offers a free tour of the power plant and a green house.

 

They say it’s difficult to get good produce in Alaska in winter so they grow their own, hydroponically (no dirt).

 

They pick 85 heads of lettuce for the restaurant each day (there are three kinds) and use their own tomatoes (again three kinds) and other veggies. The salads were wonderful!

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Of course, Chena Hot Springs gets its name from its hot springs.

 

It has been a destination for hot spring lovers since 1906 when it was popular with prospectors. This outdoor pool (107 degrees) has a covered, heated walkway to it from the indoor pool. There are also indoor and outdoor hot tubs.

 

Not everyone comes here for the auroras.

 

There is a very large pen with three reindeer. These reindeer seemed much larger than the ones we “met” in Mongolia.

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The Ice Museum is maintained at 20 degrees F all year round. The entire building and its decorative contents are made of ice. The outside is insulation.

 

A couple that has won world prizes with their ice carving is responsible for the Ice Museum.

 

The resort initially named this building the Ice Hotel but the fire department made them change the name from hotel as there are no sprinklers inside! (That’s really true!)

 

There are four “rooms” in the museum that can be rented for $650/night. This room price includes a lodge room because no one has made it through the night.

 

The lighting inside is very nice and shows off the ice.

 

We were told that building that two-story tall ice wall at the end of this room was the biggest challenge for the ice carvers.

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This is hard to photograph because the ice is so clear. It consists of two horses with their knights in a jousting contest.

 

The second knight is barely visible and is lighted in blue.

 

This is one of the rooms available for an overnight stay.

 

We assume the ice bed (made like a bear) would be covered in furs at such a time.

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In the entry to the museum is the sculpture workshop.

 

This sea horse looked almost finished.

 

A feature of the Ice Museum is its Ice Bar where the only drink offered is called appletini.

 

These drinks are a mixture of vodka and an apple juice mix.

 

When the “trays” need renewed they just add a little bit of water that freezes to make a new surface.

 

The ice stool was covered with a little bit of beaver fur which definitely made sitting on ice comfortable.

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This shows the mixing of the appletini.

 

WE had to show our driver licences in order to drink one. The law is that strict there.

 

How many 75 year-olds have to be carded in order to drink?

 

They make the ice glasses too. It was nice drinking from them.

 

Some of the photos are flashed as it was very hard to photograph in the museum.

 

This photo was taken with no flash and is far more like being there.

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The appletini was a pretty green color.

 

 

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This is how they make the ice glasses; we watched her make one in about 20 seconds!

 

After it is made she torches it to get rid of the snow and it turns out clear.

 

Another activity the Chena Hot Springs Resort offers is dog sled rides (micro Iditarods).

 

These are obviously not the big-time dog champs but they have the personality. Their hyper activity is a riot to watch. The kennel’s dogs are kept on both sides of this “track” where the ride starts. Each dog is chained to a pole above their dog house – rear of photo. These dogs race around and around reminding us of hamsters! The lead dog here is ready to go and continually LEAPS into its harness so it’s off the second it gets the instruction to go. The other dogs leap randomly as well. Some of the dogs at their dog houses leap too. It’s like popcorn popping!

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 There are several “tracks” the tours use. Some people complain that the ride is only a few minutes long, but it’s long enough to get the impression.

 

When we were out of sight of the kennel we were given the opportunity to “drive” and we jumped at the chance! We were told we couldn’t tell we did it.

 

We stood on the rails. To slow down we were instructed to put our inside foot on a piece of wood that was drug between the rails. To stop we had to push on a “brake” that drove a piece of metal into the snow.

 

Before we started “driving” the guide ran ahead of the sled and took photos for us.

 

He got the dogs running and then he jumped on as we passed. It was great fun for us.

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These dogs bark excitedly the entire time. They really appear to be having a great time.

 

Just a comment: This snow is not like our Sierra Concrete. Even though Chena only gets about 4’ of snow a year and we were there in March, the snow squeaks when walked on. We kicked the side of the trail and the snow texture was fresh.

 

A good impression of riding in the sled is in the:

 

 movie of the dog sled ride.

 

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 On our last day we decided to take a 4-hour tour in a Navajo twin. We flew over the White Mountains and the Yukon River to the Arctic Circle, then flew south a bit and spent some time in Beaver Village.

 

We really enjoyed this experience.

 

 

Our Navajo twin before the flight at Chena’s air strip.

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Yvonne got to fly “right seat” on the way to Beaver Village.

 

 

 

Flying over the White Mountains was very similar to flying over a rough sea. We really got a feeling of the vast amount of uninhabited land.

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A surprise was seeing the Yukon River.

 

The area is wide and flat, sloping only gradually to the ocean far away, so the river meanders and pools.

 

In March, all is still frozen.

 

We descended to less than a thousand feet above the ground and looked for moose. We saw one but didn’t manage to photograph it.

 

The frozen river/lakes were crisscrossed with Moose tracks. It was fun to see.

 

The indentation in the snow at the left end of the trail is most likely made by a moose lying down.

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Beaver Village airstrip. The only way in/out in winter is by plane.

 

The village is along the Yukon River. This photo looks west.

 

From the website: Beaver was founded in 1910 by a Japanese man, Yasuda, who arrived in Barrow, Alaska. He found the Eskimos decimated by white man’s diseases and by their depletion of the marine mammals.

 

For two years, Yasudo led an expedition of Eskimos south from Barrow to the Yukon River where they established Beaver Village.

 

 

 

 

Turning final at Beaver. Yvonne took a movie of the landing.

 

This movie is likely only of nostalgic interest to us (we miss flying).

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Welcome to Beaver! It has 50 inhabitants. Eight children attend school and it has a post office.

 

This cabin was built 90 years ago and is maintained as a tourist attraction.

 

It didn’t seem like it would be very warm during their winters when the temperatures can

be -60 to -40 degrees F.

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Inside the old cabin.

 

Inside the smoke house of the Japanese lady (more on her later) who gave us the tour in Beaver.

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Outside the smokehouse.

 

Note the bear claw on the middle shelf.

 

The king salmon is outside and is solidly frozen as daytime temps rarely get above freezing this time of year.

 

Yvonne is standing in the middle of the Yukon River, Beaver Village is in the background.

 

We walked onto the river on the hard-packed skidoo tracks.

 

Yvonne stepped away from the “road” and immediately sank this deep in what felt like “fresh” powder that was piled on the ice.

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This is ai Adams. (She spells her name this way) She was born in Kyoto and lived in Tokyo until five years ago when she came to Beaver on a tourist flight and fell for Cliff Adams, a lifelong citizen of Beaver. He works as a trapper, hunter, and guide.

She has been married to Cliff for four years and lives here. She loves it!

She now eats moose meat “three times a day.” We had some and it was good but chewy.

 

She’s holding a jar of king salmon she canned. We got one and enjoyed it later in San Diego.

 

She helps with everything that needs to be done. She is charming and enthusiastic!

 

This shows two pelts they’re stretching: a beaver and a lynx.

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This is Main Street, Beaver.

 

In 2000 there were 80 people living here, now there are 50.

 

The frozen Yukon River.

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Miles and miles of our flight were over this sort of scenery.

 

So different than our personal flights over the US south-west.

 

A prominent feature for navigating.

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The pilot owns a Cessna 172.

 

This is one of his favorite places to fish. He lands on a sandbank by the river.

 

The mountains have eroded so much that sometimes they leave “features” like these exposed rocks on the peaks.

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We loved the flight.

 

 

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Landing at Chena’s airstrip involves descending several canyons before arriving here on “base.”

 

The airstrip can be seen in the photo. It is in the valley on this side of the Chena Hot Springs resort.

 

It runs from center right to upper left just beyond the trees.

 

 

This little trip was so much more than we expected and we enjoyed everything very much.

 

AND, for sure, we’ll always be grateful we were SO lucky with seeing the first night’s aurora!

 

 

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