DANC­ING WITH THE STARS

Jerry Gar­rett in­ves­ti­gates an out-of-this-world phe­nom­e­non in the land of the noon moon

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Canada & Alaska -

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.

Deb Hickok,

ex­ec­u­tive

di­rec­tor

of

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

Main pic­ture: Stu­art Isett

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

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