Alaska is notorious for winters that seem to last an eternity and that may be true but there is plenty of magic to embrace under the moon. From November-April Alaskans say goodnight to the bears, tourists, sunshine and summer clothes in what we would call a very even trade as we welcome our down parkas, wool layers and insulated boots. With the change of season comes a change of lifestyle. Boats and quads are replaced by snowmachines and running shoes are phased out by nordic and alpine skis, snowshoes and ice skates. And the midnight sun is forgotten under the starry skies and the dancing Aurora Borealis. Alaskans like to joke about how we go into hibernation with football, holiday parties, Netflix and tropical vacations, but many of us find ourselves howling with the wolves as we grab our cold weather gear and cameras and spend long nights chasing the northern lights.
The auroras have been dancing around the north and south poles since Earth’s beginning. Indigenous civilizations around the globe believed the auroras signified both good and evil. In some cultures the lights symbolized the spirits of their ancestors or the wild animals that had sacrificed their lives for food and hides. Other folklores depict the auroras as evil spirits and feared them. The long tradition of storytelling really lets us imagine the mystery of the lights before science was able to explain the phenomena.
The northern lights occur year round around the poles, but they are most visible in the winter in the more northern regions of Alaska where an irregularly shaped oval is centered over the North Pole. So when you’re out chasing the elusive aurora, head north and look up. If you’re lucky you can see them from your backdoor in Anchorage, but the chances of seeing them are better the further you go from Anchorage proper. The lights can be seen on the Kenai Peninsula in Turnagain Pass and from Point Woronzof in Anchorage. If you’re willing to really commit to chasing the aurora head up the Glenn Highway towards Hatcher Pass in Palmer. If you keep heading north you can generally pullover and set up your tripod along the Parks Highway. If you get a chance to get to Fairbanks you will have the best luck seeing the aurora put on a mind blowing show. Surprisingly, you can still view the aurora from the city. Popular viewing spots around Fairbanks include Cheney Lakes, Wickersham Dome trailhead, Ester Dome, Murphy Dome and Creamers Field. If you keep an eye on the aurora forecasts they will give you the best idea of when to expect a spectacular show. To make it the ultimate experience, you can head to Chena Hot Springs and view them while soaking in the geothermic pools in subzero temperatures.
The Aurora Borealis is a truly fascinating sight. Some call it one of the seven wonders of the natural world and we certainly agree. To give the lights a supernatural twist, researchers say that in the absence of all sound the lights are given a voice. So the next time you’re in Alaska and the forecasts are reporting high aroura activity, layer up, grab your camera and keep your ears open and eyes peeled as you chase the auroras north. You won’t be disappointed.