The Aurora Borealis have enchanted and frightened humankind for eons, and for most of those years we could only guess their origin. The ancient Chinese thought them to be dragons roaring through the heavens. The frightened sinners of the Middle Ages saw them as foreboding omens of impending doom. One indigenous group believed the lights were the happy souls of departed loved ones. Knowing the true source of the lights—charged particles traveling 93 million miles through twisted bundles of magnetic fields connecting Earth’s atmosphere to the sun’s—doesn’t make them any less miraculous.
Our quest this holiday season is to welcome in the New Year beneath their magical, mystical glow. Catching the lights is about location and luck. To better our chances, our journey will ultimately take us to Chena Hot Springs, a small, off-the-grid resort, 57 miles northeast of Fairbanks, deep in the Alaska Interior. Described as “rustic,” its remoteness and its latitude make it the perfect location for viewing the celestial show. While the 441-acre resort boasts an onsite ice museum, and is said to be the “furthest northern year-round production greenhouse in the world,” its biggest attraction, next to the lights, is Rock Lake, an outdoor, mineral hot springs pool, open year-round despite temperatures that dip to 40 degrees below zero or lower.
It is dark when we land at the Fairbanks airport, daylight being scarce in late December. Sun up occurs near 11 a.m., and never rising far above the horizon, the sun sets a scant four hours later. The Chena resort driver meets us in front. Not unexpectedly, we find the landscape blanketed in foot-deep snow, and the temperature registering one degree Fahrenheit. No worry, we are dressed for the arctic—long johns, jeans, snow pants, t-shirt, flannel shirt, fleece jacket, parka, two pairs of socks, bunny boots (good to 30 below), neck scarf, gloves, and hat. It becomes our Chena uniform.
The resort is a collection of unpretentious buildings amid a small valley surrounded by hills (mountains, by Houston standards). The staff was friendly, and our accommodations comfortable. We learned the resort was nearly full, the bulk of the guests being Japanese tourists whose culture is steeped in appreciation and awe for nature’s wonders—viewing the auroras, a particularly cherished sight.
We lucked out our first night. Shortly before retiring an “aurora wakeup call” alerted us that the lights were out. We threw on our arctic uniform and dashed outside, but the lights were faint, quickly dissipated and disappeared. Still, we were thrilled. There would be two more opportunities to catch the show before departing.
Winter activities abounded including cross-country skiing, ice skating, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, dog sledding, and horse-drawn sleigh rides. We hiked the Monument Creek Trail which runs alongside its namesake, and reveled in the quiet beauty of the snow-draped surroundings. The creek’s dark, flowing waters offered a stark contrast to its icy, snow white banks. An occasional dogsled with visitors in tow rocketed pass, momentarily shattering the frozen silence.
Later, the ice museum provided a fun diversion with its intricately carved depictions of jousting knights, gigantic polar bear, wedding altar, igloo, ice bar, lounge and more. We toasted to our winter adventure, sipping “Appletinis” from ice-carved martini glasses.
The geothermal energy tour, explaining how the resort is powered by energy from its hot springs, featured a visit to the year-round greenhouse, whose delicious, fresh lettuce and produce we had sampled at the restaurant the night before.
Weather conditions can change quickly in Alaska. Our second evening we signed up for the late night snow coach ride to the top of nearby Charley Dome, a 2600 foot hill offering an unobstructed view of the auroras. Shortly before our scheduled departure, clouds rolled in. Undeterred, we boarded the big Snow-Cat transporter for a painstakingly slow, 1500 foot, seemingly vertical crawl to the top. Our traveling companions were Japanese, and since we didn’t speak their language we shared smiles and nods of greetings, along with a common quest.
It was pitch dark at the top; the temperature close to 20 below with a light wind that intensified the cold. A narrow, unlit path led to a huge yurt. The dimly-lit, oversized, tent-like structure provided a warm, welcomed shelter. For the next four hours, sitting in scattered groups near gas heaters, we talked, sipped hot liquids, and napped, occasionally venturing into the bone-chilling cold to check the progress of the skies.
The clouds refused to budge, and at the appointed 2 a.m. we climbed back aboard the coach for a brain-rattling, one-way roller coaster ride straight down to the bottom. The
weather won that night, but there was still one more chance on New Year’s Eve.
We woke late to the same stubborn clouds, and light falling snow.
Our agenda included a second visit to Rock Lake. The hot springs that feeds the four-foot deep, man-made “lake” was first discovered by gold miners in 1904. At its source, the spring’s waters are a scalding 163 degrees, but the waters in the pool are cooled to a comfortable 105 degrees—a particularly inviting temperature following a 40-foot dash from the locker room to the lake in sub-zero temperatures clothed only in a swim suit.
The adults-only Rock Lake proved a serene dreamscape. Steam, engulfing the heated waters sometimes so thick you couldn’t see the other side, drifted whimsically about. The large boulders ringing the lake’s edge were transformed beneath drifts of fallen snow, and colored lights of red and blue buried beneath the snow provided a festive accent.
We floated neck deep in the warm, relaxing waters and moved in slow motion around the pool. The falling snowflakes landed on our exposed, heated flesh stinging like tiny needles; our steam-dampened hair, encrusted with white hoarfrost, offered a hint at what we might look like in years to come. Thought we didn’t want to leave the soothing waters, our shriveled skin demanded it.
The snow did not stop that day, or in to the night. We were resigned; it had been a wondrous, winter adventure, but our ultimate goal had remained elusive. Still, we were grateful we had seen the lights on our first night.
It was 11:30 p.m. We were in our room packing for an early morning departure, when the aurora alert came in. The clouds had vanished as quickly as they had arrived; the lights were out. We hurried pulled on our arctic gear, dashing out into the frosty night.
To the left, a bright, green glow filled the heavens – a double row of lights stretching for miles through the sky like a freight train rolling overhead. The iridescent green swayed like curtains blown by a gentle celestial wind.
The resort was electric; dark, except for low lights illuminating paths; giggles, squeals and laughter erupted spontaneously from everywhere. Indistinguishable figures bundled in heavy coats scurried about with cameras and tripods, speaking excitedly. We didn’t recognize the words, but we knew what they were saying. That night we shared the universal language of humanity, and a joyous appreciation of the wondrous gifts of nature.
In the darkness of the Alaskan night with a magic-filled sky we partied, celebrating the New Year.
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