Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Alaska Aurora Adventure: Day 4

Another great day in Alaska!  Morning was at leisure--good thing, since most of our group was pretty tired from all our previous travel. But all were excited about our trip to Chena Hot Springs about 62 miles east of Fairbanks. 

We left on our 1.5 hour drive on ice covered roads hoping to see some wildlife out there, but no luck on this day.  Weather was beautiful, though: sunny and in the upper 20s.  I know it seems strange to speak of temperatures like this as beautiful, but the Alaska interior is a desert and is relatively dry.  And, just as people say desert heat is comfortable because it's a "dry heat," this is a "dry cold."  20 degrees here feels (at least to me) much more comfortable than 20 degrees on the U.S. East Coast.

While some of our guests spent the day doing things like dog sled rides or soaking in the hot springs, I hiked around the area to check it out. I hadn't been there for a few years and wanted to refresh my memory of the area.  I hiked up a hill to a small wooden building--the Aurorium--a warming hut with a glass wall to the north for comfortable viewing of the aurora.  It was so peaceful and quiet up there overlooking the snow-covered hills that I fell asleep and napped for half an hour!

After this relaxing time I walked over to the restaurant where I bellied up to the bar for a nice glass of Alaska White on draft.  The corner stool I sat on felt rather strange; the floor had a strange depression in it and I felt like I was going to tip over--even before having the beer.  I suspect this must have been the spot that Norm Peterson sat on all those years on "Cheers!"  I did find a more comfortable spot, and ordered up some lunch and talked with friends.  One of the servers was from San Diego and, of course, that got us talking as well.  A really nice time, but after lunch a couple of us headed over to the coffee shop to continue talking.  I tried to check the weather online; the internet connection was so slow that I never really succeeded.  I was concerned that cirrus clouds were moving in from the southwest but, as is often the case in this area, they dissipated and, when dinnertime came along, the sky was clear as it was earlier in the day.

There are a number of places at Chena to view the aurora; one is, of course the Aurorium. Another is the airfield behind much of the lodging there.  A third--and my choice for the first time since visiting there first years ago--was a hillside about 1,400 feet above the main resort.  To do this we needed to take the "Snow Cat"--an odd looking tractor device that could navigate the snowy landscape up to the top.  It was a bone jarring ride of about 22 minutes; I think all the fillings in my teeth rattled loose!  But once at the top we found a warming yurt and some magnificent scenery--AND a wonderfully clear and starry sky.

Walking around was a bit tough, though, unless one stayed on the already-formed paths.  Virgin snow is still a few feet deep and I found myself several times up to my knees in the white stuff!  But I didn't walk around much because, shortly after arriving the lights began as an arc.  When they do this early in the evening this typically means a good evening of aurora viewing--and that's exactly what we had.

I did get a chance to try out my new camera; I held off until I could shoot the aurora as the "first light" to be captured by it.  And my "first light" was the very beginnings of an arc; I just couldn't wait any longer. I had to get shooting!  The camera joins my Canon 20D as my primary night sky cameras; they will dovetail beautifully together and allow me to do many shots I've not been able to do before.

After experimenting with various settings on the moving lights I met up with one of our group and talking and shooting together.  I set my relatively light carbon fiber tripod down but one of the legs was on soft (virgin) snow and sunk into it, tipping over.  My brand new expensive camera did a header right into the Alaskan landscape!  Thankfully two things saved it; the snow is relatively dry, I had the lens cap on, and I've had this happen before so I knew how to deal with it.  I first took out the battery, then spent the next half hour outside brushing the entire camera and lens down with a camel-hair brush.  No harm, no foul, and the camera is now ready for another night of lights.

Tonight (Wednesday, March 23) we head out to Mt. Aurora--one of my favorite places--for a terrific dinner followed by some "stellar" viewing.  But now it's almost lunchtime, so it's off and running once again.  Wouldn't want to miss a meal!

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