DANCING WITH THE STARS
Jerry Garrett investigates an out-of-this-world phenomenon in the land of the noon moon
CHENA Hot Springs, Alaska. It is nearly midnight; the temperature is close to zero, maybe even below. But we are soaking in soothing natural hot springs, close to 46C. Our skin is a comfortably warm bubblegum pink, our damp hair frozen to our heads.
The black sky is barely visible through the clouds of steam, billowing into the starry night. But then it appears: an eerie, neongreen cloud, rolling silently across the eastern sky, like the long, beckoning finger of the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz.
It seems to pause, directly overhead. Huskies up and down the narrow valley begin to bark and bay at the apparition.
It is the aurora borealis, a cosmic electrical storm, charged by the sun, driven by solar winds. The aurora borealis circles the Earth’s magnetic pole, near the Arctic Circle. The aurora australis does the same around the Antarctic Circle, but there are fewer prime viewing places, other than boats, for the best of the Southern Lights.
The ever-changing Northern Lights show occurs an estimated 200 nights a year at this latitude, weather permitting. On the evening we view it, the smoky-green cloud brightly explodes into three parallel streams and flows across the sky like a river for two hours. Then it evaporates.
Seeing the Northern Lights is the visual equivalent of bagging big game for tourists here. It is the reason we’ve braved winter’s bleakest hours, when the Land of the Midnight Sun becomes the Land of the Noon Moon. But we are not alone. Though this remote resort is located down a long, lonely, dark and icy two-lane road, many kilometres from the nearest town, it is packed with international tourists.
Most inns, hotels and bed-and-breakfast lodgings in and around Fairbanks, 90km away, are full of visitors, too, despite the frigid temperatures. The tourists embrace, rather than recoil from, the sub-zero cold. They play outside, bundled up like Michelin men.
The mood is festive, despite the sky being dark nearly 20 hours a day. Ice and snow covers everything: the ground, the roads, the buildings, the cars, the trees.
In summer, hundreds of thousands of tourists from other states of the US circulate central Alaska like patrons of a giant amusement park, rafting, fishing, hiking, biking. In winter, however, they vanish.
(A spokesman for Gray Line of Alaska, which organises hundreds of summer tours, says the company is intrigued by the possibilities of four-season touring but senses insufficient demand to expand its offerings.)
While winter here may hold little or no interest for warm-blooded Americans, it is high season for international travellers, particularly the Japanese.
What’s the attraction? Debbie Eberhardt of the Taste of Alaska Lodge, a few kilometres north of Fairbanks, says there is plenty for tourists to do in the dead of winter.
‘‘ They do things like throwing boiling water in the air and watching it freeze like marbles before it hits the ground. They blow soap bubbles, which freeze solid and roll around on the ground like Christmas ornaments. They put bananas outside to freeze, and then use them as hammers to pound nails into two-by-fours,’’ she says, laughing.
Most popular, however, is anything to do with aurora-watching.
‘‘ They’ll sit out all night, around a roaring fire, and watch the sky. We taught them how to make s’mores (a mix of chocolate and marshmallow between two crackers) last year, over the campfire.
‘‘ They loved that. I saw them the next morning with chocolate and marshmallow dripped all down their jackets because they were trying to eat them while looking up.’’
Winter tourism peaks late in March, when Fairbanks also offers a popular winter carnival that includes ice carving, ice fishing, snowmobile-riding and dog races such as the 1600km Yukon Quest to Whitehorse in Canada’s Yukon Territory.
A typical charter group will spend four nights in the area. Their activities include aurora-watching atop the Mt Aurora ski hill near town, attending aurora seminars at the University of Alaska Fairbanks or the internationally known Geophysical Institute (which tracks the aurora), and soaking at Chena or other geothermal springs in the area.
The Chena Hot Springs Resort also features the adjacent Aurora Ice Hotel, the only one of four such places in the world that stays open all year.
The Aurora Ice Hotel’s four rooms include survival gear such as quilted bedding, passes to the nearby hot springs and a back-up room in the resort’s 82-room Moose Lodge.
Since the ice hotel reopened year-round in 2004 after an unscheduled meltdown, only about 200 hardy guests have booked a room there, according to Kaylene Nuss, the resort’s marketing manager. ‘‘ Only a handful stayed all night,’’ she adds.
The hotel, which is a balmy -7C inside, also features medieval and erotic ice sculptures, popular with international tourists.
Many of them don’t start arriving in force until winter really hits and the temperature plunges as low as -46C. The colder, the better, it seems.
the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Centre, says the Northern Lights are a prime attraction but only in winter; in summer, there’s daylight here around the clock.
‘‘ The Fairbanks/Chena area is the epicentre of Alaskan winter tourism in the state, because it affords the best viewing areas for the Northern Lights,’’ Hickok says.
‘‘ It enjoys clearer weather and less precipitation than cities farther south, such as those on the panhandle or in Anchorage. The aurora is also more intense the farther north one travels, and it stays darker longer here.’’
A romantic allure for the aurora borealis was suggested in a 1992 episode of the popular television program Northern Exposure , written by Jeff Vlaming, a screenwriter now living in Pasadena, California.
‘‘ I picked up a (November 1991) copy of AlaskaMagazine and there was this quarterpage article in there about some ancient belief that was held by the Japanese that if you conceived a child under the Northern Lights it would be a gifted child,’’ he says. ‘‘ I thought, this is great . . . exactly the colourful type of thing I’m looking for. So I put it in the script and Northern Exposure bought it. It was one of the best episodes ever.’’
Andy Hall, the present editor of Alaska Magazine , reckons the 1991 story actually said the child would be ‘‘ lucky’’.
A March 1, 1992, article by Timothy Egan in The New York Times quoted an Anchorage tour operator who claimed Japanese honeymooners come to Alaska to consummate their marriages, for a long and fruitful life.
Vlaming, still receiving residual cheques for reruns of that episode, also thinks that since the rumour has had 15 years to germinate, grow and spread worldwide, many people have come to believe it.
Even Eberhardt, the sceptical innkeeper, notes: ‘‘ In early December we did have a honeymoon couple who said they came for the aurora. But not only to see it.’’ www.explorefairbanks.com www.travelalaska.com
Blaze of glory: The aurora borealis turns on its light show, drawing tourists to Alaska, main picture; Aurora Ice Museum at Chena Hot Springs, top right, and dog-powered races, bottom right