Born and raised in the tropics, I never know winter nor snow until last year.
Studying in Dallas, doesn’t allow me to experience the winter I saw on TV or movies either. So since I came to the U.S. last year I had been dreaming to experience the real winter. Thus, my winter hunt began. This winter I finally go to Alaska.
Another thing that attract me to Alaska is the aurora borealis/northern light. I read about it in Golden Compass and totally fascinated by the natural phenomenon. Thus I have two sole goal in this winter Alaska trip: experience Alaskan winter and see aurora with my own eyes.
The trip itself was a complete mess, this was the most unprepared yet prepared (if that makes sense) in my travelling history. I was (as usual) agonized between go or not go because the flight to Alaska is sooo expensive. Also I was applying to some schools to continue my study. So I didn’t want to go, but in the last minute, I decided to go. (noteself: make a goal, set you mind and just go for it. it works lol). My itinerary was completed literally a few hours before I started my winter trip.
My itinerary was Dallas – San Francisco – Yosemite – LA (only for 11 hours) – Fairbanks – Dallas.
I went alone, since my schedule was made at the very last minute. Anyway, in Fairbanks, Alaska, I stayed in a hostel. That was actually my first experience staying in a hostel. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t expect much either, my only concern at that time was I need a place to sleep and put my bags. That’s it.
I had a pleasant surprise, I made new friends there. First of all, I love Fairbanks, the people are just so friendly and helpful. Its a small city, so it seems like everyone knows what everyone do. I love that kind of city. They treat you like a family (at least the people I met). The taxi driver that drove me from airport talked to me with kindness and genuinely gave me ideas where and what to look in Fairbanks (He told me that I have to see Santa’s house, with a lot of enthusiasm). Then my hostel owner, Billie (from Billie’s Backpack hostel, totally recommended if you want to visit Fairbanks), is such a lovely lady. I called her one day before I started my winter trip and she said there was a room for one person, no need to pay first, I could pay when I arrived there. So much trust. And when I finally came to the hostel, it was still dark at around 8 am. She took me to the room I was in, told me stuff like the bathroom, door and etc. She blew a kiss to me and bid good day. She reminds me of my grandma. Such a sweet lady. She also gave us candy, food, coffee, and anything she had at the moment. I felt like welcomed as a part of a family.
The people in the hostel was really nice too. I met a lot of Japanese there, there were a group of Japanese (6 people that came from Japan), two exchange students, one guy that came from Japan to see raindeer and an Japanese teacher that currently teach in the U.S. Being a Japan fan, I was thrilled.
Anyway, my goal was to see aurora borealis. It is best to see aurora around 11pm-5am. I could see it from my hostel because Fairbanks is in the ‘aurora path’ provided that the sky is clear, not cloudy. Alas, when I was there, the weather forecast was cloudy. It is also best to see it far from city light, such as from lodge or go with a tour. Knowing that I only had 3 days to spend in Fairbanks, I went with tour. I used 2 tour from outdoor alaska: the artic tour and nothern light viewing (because the other tour package was so damn expensive that I could not afford lol). The alaska artic tour was basically you were picked up by a van and along with other 7 people you got to see some of Fairbank’s special places that you could not reach by car. I couldn’t drive in snow and I don’t have US driver license so this work well with me to see around Fairbanks. The tour started from 12pm to 1-2 am with stops at: Alaskan pipeline, a hill to saw sunset, Yukon river, and artic circle. With the hope to see aurora lights during trip home, but since it was cloudy, I had no luck to see aurora.
The next tour that I booked was northern light, again with the same tour agent. The tour took the passenger to a viewing lodge, around 20 miles from Fairbanks. The lodge basically is a villa (called Chandellier lodge), surrounded by forest, just near Chena hotspring area, provided a compfy place to look and wait for aurora. It is dark, far from city light and a nice shelter for cold during my aurora hunt trip lol. In the lodge, they provided hot drink and cookies. The lodge, apparently owned by Japanese, accept a lot of different tour. Aside from our tour agent, there was another big group of Japanese. When we sat in our seat, there were around 20-30 Japanese that came with a (I suspect) tour guide in rapid Japanese. It seems like Alaska is famous in Japan and aurora viewing is quite popular in Japan, because there are so many Japanese in Fairbanks, some of the lodge are owned by Japanese and there is direct flight from Japan. Knowing from other people in my group, she told me that the tourism in supported a lot by Japanese.
As the weather prediction said it was going to be cloudy again, I was not expecting much again, it would be a miracle to have the sky clear for me to see aurora. I cross my fingers and hope that I could see aurora, because the next day was my last day. There were another two girls from Columbia who said that that was their last night in Fairbanks so if they didn’t see aurora then no light for them. But then the sky suddenly cleared up and we could see the aurora dancing in the night sky. It is so breathtaking, I could not properly describe my feeling when I saw aurora. It seems…magical.
Alaska winter tips:
Clothing : basically LAYERS. You can shed/remove jacket if you’re too hot but you can’t add one if you’re too cold. Basic layering: longjohn (preferably merino wool), usual clothes, inner jacket (down jacket), then hardshell jacket. If you want you can wear ski pants. Gore tex are said to be the best against cold, maybe, I didn’t had one when I went there.
Gloves: if you can find inner gloves that allow you to use your smartphone without taking it off, take it. then cover again with a thicker gloves outside.
Shoes: artic boots would serve well, or something goretex. I use a hiking boot with goretex something and its didn’t get too cold when I was out.
As for the aurora, if you could drive and go with some friends there, it is better to go around by renting a car and go wherever you want. There are several places where you could go to and see aurora, it is basically going away from the city lights (20 miles away) such as around Cheena or hill or go to lodge. You can actually see the aurora in the city when the sky is clear, I could see aurora from my hostel (Billie’s hostel) in Fairbanks, but it is more intense further away. It is up to you. The Taxi driver sometime offer you for an aurora tour, for around $75/85, they will take you to a hill and let you see aurora. I think it is best to see aurora from a lodge or somewhere where you are still. Because sometime, the aurora doesn’t look as green as the pictures, its more like a faint cloud at first, then when you look at it closely, then it changed color to slightly green.
Hope it helps,
ps: picture will be uploaded later
Happy aurora hunt!