Thursday, March 24, 2011

Alaska Aurora Adventure: Day 5

Our final full day in Alaska ended yesterday with a trip to Mt. Aurora Lodge about 20 miles northeast of Fairbanks for a spectacular home-cooked dinner.  Brenda and Steve Birdsall and their family have owned the lodge for years and, as always, put on quite a spread. Normally our dinners consist of Alaskan salmon with all the fixins', but last night we were treated to great salad, prime rib, roasted potatoes and green beans with almonds.  For desert, some raspberry ice cream made me want to slip away for a nap.  But, alas, it was becoming dark and we had to head over to the ski lodge where we would set up for aurora viewing.

The lights, of course, originate when electrically charged particles from the sun bombard our atmosphere and make it glow, so I spent time during dinner monitoring conditions in the atmosphere as well as between the Earth and sun.  I was quite excited because we were expecting a "cloud" of material to impact sometime during the night--an almost sure sign of active auroral conditions.

The Skiland lodge--also owned by the Birdsalls--sits on a ridge above the Poker Flat Research Range and, during much of the year entertains skiers from all over. And at night it hosts aurora watchers in its upper building--which has tables and chairs, a snack bar and a wide-screen TV screen showing a live aurora webcam--all in subdued lighting to protect our night vision.  The lower building is much the same; instead of the snack bar and live webcam, its northern side is all glass, so aurora viewers can watch the show without even getting cold.  This isn't for me, however, since I usually wander all over the grounds looking for photographs. And besides, there's really no such thing as cold... just poor clothing choices.

Unfortunately the heavens last night displayed more clouds than auroral light.  The cirrus clouds began rolling in late in the afternoon and, while Skiland and points to the northeast of Fairbanks often escape these clouds, it wasn't to be last night.  They got thicker and thinner as time went on obscuring and revealing stars all around the sky.  And so we sat inside, talked and watched the webcam trying to imagine every speck of light there was the beginnings of the lights.

It wasn't until around 1 a.m. that an arc appeared in the northeast, a sign that something was about to begin.  And it did. Within a few minutes it had undergone its "breakup" phase and began to move around. But it wasn't nearly as spectacular as what we had the previous night, and remained rather subtle.  Sure I'd love to see more active conditions, but sometimes subtle lights are equally impressive, such as this wispy display above the ski lift. The quiet cold air combined with the heavens dancing softly is a sight that invokes feelings that words cannot convey.

It was our last night under the Alaskan stars; always sad to say goodbye to the lights for another year.  But on Thursday we have a few things yet to do; this afternoon we'll visit Pioneer Park and after our farewell dinner at the Pump House, we'll conclude our Alaskan Aurora Adventure by viewing another form of colored lights... the 2011 World Ice Art Championships... before heading to the airport.

Always sad to bid adieu to Fairbanks.  Over the past decade it's become sort of a winter home-away-from-home to me. The weather's cold, but the people are warm.  And the terrestrial scenery and celestial lights are beyond description. While I exert great effort trying to capture them with a camera, there is no photo that can possibly do them justice.  So I'll be back next winter... and every winter after.

You can count on THAT!

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