The snowmobiling session got over at 5 p.m. and we had to rush to Fairbanks since the Aurora activity peaked between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. A quick dinner (where I am sure I got on everyone’s nerves asking them to rush) and an auxiliary cable for the car stereo later, we set off. The aux cable is always critical when I drive because now I know the exact songs to play to get rid of my sleep.
The drive was largely uneventful apart from one bad skid on an ice patch and half a dozen moose in the middle of the road in Denali National Park. It was around 1.30 a.m. and we were still about 70 miles from Fairbanks when we saw something that initially looked like clouds but kept changing shapes. That was when we pulled over and saw the spectacle for the first time. The Aurora Borealis ! I failed miserably at taking snaps since I did not carry a tripod and wasn’t sure what the best settings were. It was breathtaking and I had goosebumps as I was watching with awe completely surrendering all rational thought to nature. To be fair, the goosebumps could also be due to the lonely spot, dark sky and the fact that the lights do look like dancing spirits. It was spooky and beautiful. Weird combination.
I did not feel bad at all for driving over 8 hours to get there ! After the spectacle was over, we proceeded to Fairbanks and checked into a hotel, which by the way had WiFi. Fairbanks is surrounded by hills and there you get a sudden drop in temperature when you enter the valley, to the point where the car temperature display went off. Seriously. The temperature at Fairbanks was -45 deg F (approx. -42 deg Celsius), which is fine if you stay indoors but it hurts to even breathe once you get out. The only good thing is that you cannot have a running nose there. A good guide for low temperatures can be found here.
While on wikipedia, I also discovered that Fairbanks and Pune were sister cities, which absolutely made no sense to me. There isn’t even anything in common to talk about !!
The next morning was the 31st. We drove to the downtown where the group was getting harassed by the extreme cold. That was when the group decided to back out of the plan to drive outside the city later that night to see the Aurora; something that I gladly welcomed for 2 reasons – I wasn’t sure it was safe for everyone to be out for so long in the extreme cold since they were already having problems and of course, I was getting to be alone.
After the New Years’ eve dinner, the group was suddenly infused with a renewed spirit to come along. We decided to drive to a resort about 30 miles outside Fairbanks where quite a few Aurora watchers gather daily. It has a lodge and a room for people to watch the lights comfortably. The lodge was completely filled with Japanese tourists (all of them wearing the exact same clothing for unknown reasons).
My new years was spent outside in the cold trying to get some good snaps of the Aurora, which I think I finally did (snaps link below). Special thanks to Varun C for helping me out with the settings of the camera.
We returned at 4 a.m. and crashed into bed. This was when I finally remembered to wish everyone.
The next morning, we discovered the car brakes had deteriorated badly, probably due to the cold, and the car rental at Fairbanks was closed for new years. So I took the opportunity to trick everyone into letting me drive back till Anchorage [;)].
It was just before dark when we reached the mountain range of Mt. Mckinley. We couldn’t get a clear view due to the overcast weather. That was the only disappointment of the trip. You have to be a hiker to know the excitement of seeing the highest peak of a continent. I hope to be back attempting Mt. Mckinley someday, but that day is not even close.
On the last leg of the drive, we saw an amazing sunset which was a fitting ending to the trip and the beauty of Alaska.
The best part of the trip apart from the Aurora was snowmobiling and of course, the 8 1/2 hour long drives to and from Fairbanks. You have to be really passionate about driving to enjoy such long drives on icy roads.
At the end, one thing was for sure. This wasn’t my last trip to Alaska.
(Snaps here. All of the Aurora snaps are as is from the camera, partly because I didn’t know how to process them !)