The Aurora Borealis in Fairbanks, AK
Published: May 2009
By Mark Jacobson
Sure, there's vast unspoiled beauty—plus moose, elk, hot springs, and perhaps the finest dog-team racing in Alaska. But it's the spectacular aurora borealis at its peak that makes deep winter in Fairbanks worth braving.
Alaska has been called a land of extremes, and swimming in the steamy, rock-ringed pool at Chena Hot Springs, a modest "resort" 60 miles up a very lonely road from Fairbanks, brings together those extremes pretty well. The mineral-rich springs, first noted for their medicinal benefits during the Klondike gold rush a centuryago, bubble up from deep below the tundra, geothermally heated to a more than balmy 110 degrees—a contrast to the icy air arriving in gusty torrents from the Brooks Range, straddling the Arctic Circle 240 miles to the north. On early-February nights temperatures typically plunge to 35 below zero. This is a 145-degree swing, whiplash extreme on any scale, especially when your submerged tummy and chest are being happily parboiled and your hair is frozen solid.
"Cold, very cold—but very hot too," noted my fellow bather, a thirtyish Japanese man who, in passable English, introduced himself as "Kazuo, from Osaka." Kazuo regarded the tiny icicles he picked from his bushy eyebrows with bemusement. But he kept his head above water and continued to look up. It only made sense. In the sky above the steaming spring, unfurling across the impossibly black and starry central Alaskan firmament, was the planet's splashiest show, the aurora borealis, a.k.a. the northern lights.
On a good night—at Chena, almost any relatively moonless/cloudless night between late August and April is good—the aurora appears fleetingly, coquettishly, along the horizon with the first of the evening stars. Before midnight the main event is usually well under way. This time,the show commenced with a billowing white plume, as languorous as smoke blown from an ivory cigarette holder poised between the sultry lips of Marlene Dietrich. It was followed by great green sheets of light, hanging in the southern sky like emerald-hued curtains. As if ruffled by a cosmic, celestial breeze, the luminous drapery began to sway, undulating to a wholly idiosyncratic yet perfect time signature. Veteran aurora-watchers call this dancing. At Chena, the lights dance until morning, which in early February doesn't come until shortly before brunch.
This is what I'd traveled 4,000 miles to lay eyes on. You see, I've always been kind of a closet sky nut, one of those semi-nerdy boys with a telescope set up in the backyard who never tired of looking at the Sea of Tranquillity and the rest of the moon's pockmarked face. It is an intermittent passion that has continued to this day, with chilly evenings spent on the deserted runways of Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn to see meteor showers, and trips to the Coney Island beach attempting to catch a glimpse of Saturn's rings before the local muggers close in.
Named in part for the Roman goddess of dawn, a tragic figure who was obliterated each day by her sun-god brother Helios, the aurora has long been a source of wonder and, upon occasion, dread. Native Alaskans regard the aurora as a torchlit bridge over which the spirits of the dead pass on their way to the heavens. Explorers' opinions are equally metaphysical. In 1871, George Kennar, an early polar adventurer, wrote: "No other natural phenomenon is so grand, so mysterious, so terrible in its unearthly splendor as this; the veil which conceals from mortal eyes the glory of the eternal throne seems drawn aside, and the awed beholder is lifted out of the atmosphere of his daily life into the immediate presence of God."
Peering up through the hot-spring steam clouds at the pulsating smear of electricity above, I saw no reason to disagree with Kennar. A simple, stammering "far out" more or less summed up my general sense of awe. For his part, Kazuo, having arrived in Fairbanks via the direct flight from Narita just that morning, evidenced a more clinical kind of knowledge. He knew, for instance, that the most common aurora color, green, is produced by the solar bombardment of oxygen atoms approximately 60 miles above the earth's surface, while the rarely seen red glow emits from a similar reaction in deeper space, at least 200 miles into the heavens. In this way, the aurora operates like a giant color TV, with charged electrons causing various atmospheric gases to glow in various hues. The main difference between this and a Trinitron is that these electrons do not come from inside a fake-wood console, but from the sun, 93 million miles away.
But it wasn't science that brought Kazuo to Chena. It was romance, and a practical plan for the future. Kazuo had come to Chena for the same reason that many of his countrymen travel here (some 70 percent of the spring'svisitors are Japanese): he firmly believed that should he and his wife successfully conceive a baby while in Alaska, under the neon skies of the aurora borealis, their offspring would be "much more intelligent" than the typical child.
I'd heard about this idea of the northern lights' supposed procreative benefits on the part of Japanese tourists but dismissed it as a Klondike urban legend, a north-country old wives' tale. Kazuo had set me straight only a few hours before over a couple of shots of Grey Goose inside the Aurora Ice Hotel.
The Ice Hotel, a phantasmagoric Gothic cathedral-cum-Quonset hut/art object, is Chena Hot Springs Resort's most spectacularly eccentric addition. Carved from 15,000 tons of ice and snow by Steve Brice, a 10-time winner of the worldwide ice-sculpting championship, the hotel, kind of a high-tech igloo, provides more flamboyant accommodations than anything ever dreamed up by Ian Schrager or a whole family of Hiltons, Paris included. Outfitted with a life-sized carving of a jousting knight on horseback, plus several ice chandeliers, the hotel sports six "rooms," each with its own uniquely styled ice bed. Of these, the one with the headboard in the shape of a polar bear is the most popular. While plumbing is something of a problem—you have to go outside to another room to pee—ample insulation and down bedding are provided. Every unit also comes with a fire extinguisher and smoke alarm, as per Alaska hotel law. Brice and the Chena management argued against having to comply with this law, contending that any potential conflagration would inevitably end in a giant puddle anyway, but the state proved inflexible.
The most impressive aspect of the Ice Hotel, however, is the fully equipped 15-foot-long bar, breathtakingly fashioned from transparent local ice, which is reputed to be the clearest in the world. It was at the bar that I met Kazuo, who, after making the drive from Fairbanks in a snowstorm, found himself in need of a stiff drink—even if they cost $15 each and the bartender regretted she wasn't set up to serve frozen margaritas, which would be "what you'd want in an ice hotel, right?"
Sitting on a fur-covered, see-through ice stool in the relative comfort of the 28-degree temperature maintained in the hotel at all times (it was 25 below outside), Kazuo, decked out in a newly purchased Carhartt parka, told me he'd initially been skeptical about whether the northern lights would help his prospective child get into the best schools. However, his older brother had honeymooned at Chena several years earlier during a period of strong auroral activity, and Kazuo's now six-year-old niece was at the top of her class. So, when Kazuo was married, Chena seemed a natural destination.
A few hours later, up to our necks in the hot-spring pool, Kazuo pronounced himself overjoyed to have come to Alaska. In the state less than a day, he'd already seen more ice and snow than ever before in his life, plus he'd just barely missed driving his rental car into a huge moose that had refused to move after blocking the exit lane of an espresso shop drive-thru on Airport Way in Fairbanks. Even though the Chena Hot Springs brochure provides a full discussion of "moose nugget" scatology in Japanese (complete with line drawings of the "lump-upon-lump" and "chain-concavity" formations), Kazuo had had no idea beasts of such mammoth size and recalcitrance actually existed. This excited him. Here, in the largest state in the United States, with the aurora doing a full-tilt celestial boogaloo overhead, he felt anything was possible.
Then again, Alaska is like that, especially up here in "the interior" around Fairbanks, where men are men and women are women, not like down in effete Anchorage, 360 miles to the south, which many of this town's 30,000 residents refer to as "Los Anchorage." Fairbanks was founded by one E. T. Barnette, a prospecting entrepreneur whose steamship ran aground here in 1901; incongruously, he named the town after Charles W. Fairbanks, a Republican senator from Indiana he admired. Barnette became the rough-hewn settlement's first mayor as well as the president of the Washington-Alaska Bank. The fact that he was later discovered to have embezzlednearly $1 million in bank funds has not stopped the locals from honoring his memory with a large downtown statue and the annual E. T. Barnette Homebrew beer-tasting contest.
Fairbanks has never been for the casual tourist or the faint of heart. Over the years the town has experienced a number of precipitous ups and downs, commencing with the Alaskan gold rush, which reached a frenzy after pay dirt was hit in the Chena River Valley in 1902. Ten thousand headed north hoping to get rich. Some did; others wound up eating their shoes like Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush. The storied individualism of the Klondike days is wonderfully recaptured in the Fairbanks Community Museum in the Historic City Hall.
It would take the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, built in the mid seventies following the national trauma of the Arab oil embargo, to bring back Fairbanks's boomtown vibe. Eight hundred miles of 48-inch-wide pipe wending southward over three mountain ranges and hundreds of rivers, the pipeline remains one of the single largest privately funded construction projects ever, once employing 70,000 welders, pipe fitters, road graders, and more. With plenty of time to kill and money to burn, this thirsty, horny, stir-crazy throng often wound up in Fairbanks, the pipeline's top R&R stop.
In 1976, a three-block stroll along Second Avenue, then known as "2 Street," would turn up as many as 25 drinking and whoring establishments, including the Chena Bar, Tommy's Elbow Room, Mecca, Top of the Pole, the Flame, Stampede, the French Quarter, and Ken's Pipeline Bar. This was when Lacey Street was called Racy Lacey, home to cocaine pushers and pimps, migrants from the Lower 48 who arrived in fur-lined Superfly hats and tooled around in snow tire-equipped Eldorados. Violence was commonplace in the bars, especially when disputes broke out between backers of competing prostitutes.
Fairbanks is a quieter, almost normal, Midwestern-seeming place these days, locals allow, with a pride not untinged with nostalgic yearning. Stories abound involving 250-pound purblind pipe riggers stumbling down Cushman Street with sawed-off shotguns. If they were drunk and you were moving, errant target practice commenced. On Friday and Saturday nights, it wasn't enough for locals to lock up their daughters—no moose or elk was safe either. No one exactly misses those days, but anyone willing to move to a place like Fairbanks tends to have a kind of flexible attitude when it comes to public mayhem. Everywhere you go people talk of other eras, "before statehood," "before oil,"as if recalling a primal, Edenist, unstandardized time predating the invention of the shopping mall.
Fairbanks is known as a conservative town, but there does seem to be a dichotomy in its political perspective. For every pickup churning along the gravel road in front of you with an IF YOU CAN'T MINE IT OR KILL IT I DON'T NEED IT bumper sticker, there's at least one other plastered with a Green Party "Treehugger" tag. Agreement exists across the board on one major issue, however. All of the locals—from the lapsed hippie to the Second Amendment die-hard with a $30,000 gun collection in a $20,000 double-wide trailer—say they moved up here from Idaho/Montana/Washington State (or wherever—take your pick) because things just got "too crowded" down there. For many, Fairbanks, with its central heating and occasional stoplight, is the end of the line. As far as can be gone. Go beyond here and you risk becoming the subject of the next Jon Krakauer book. That's why, for these independent spirits, every time a Home Depot or another row of tract houses goes up, it's like a little knife in the heart.
Singular in space (it is the northernmost metropolis in the country), Fairbanks is equally unique in time. It couldn't fail to be, with only 6 hours and 14 minutes of daylight on the agenda for today (up from 3 hours and 42 minutes on December 21, headed for 21 hours, 47 minutes on June 21, when the Alaska Goldpanners, 2003 champions of the Alaska Baseball League, home team to Tom Seaver in 1964 and Bobby Bonds in 1983, play their traditional midnight game). The day-to-day weather's kind of screwy, too. Yesterday it was 26 below, a nice rebound from last week's 35 below, but nothing like today, when it's 42 above. This is driving everyone crazy. Winter warmness slicks up the roads, leading to spinouts and fender benders up and down the Johansen Expressway.
This temperature vertigo is playing havoc with the betting on the Nenana Ice Classic. To play you have to write down the exact date and time the ice will break up on Tanana River, as recorded by a clock affixed to a tripod, which is in turn embedded into the middle of the frozen waterway. When the ice splits, the tripod falls over and the clock stops, and that's the winning time. There is extensive statewide TV coverage to prevent cheating. Last year the ice cracked on April 24. Personally, I am holding two $2.50 chances for May 12, my birthday. The date hasn't been a winner since 1962, but I still fully expect to pocket the $300,000-plus prize.
While waiting for the ice to break, many Fairbankers go shopping. One can spend happy hours picking through the guitars and eight-track tapes at the massive 2 Dice Pawn Shop (where a human skeleton hanging from the ceiling bears the sign ASK ME ABOUT SHOPLIFTING) or looking for boots at Big Ray's emporium on Second Avenue. The deeply nuanced selection at Big Ray's goes far beyond the ordinary. Cold feet and the prevention thereof is an obsession here. Walking wide-eyed up and down the well-worn aisles of Big Ray's reveals hundreds of "good to 50 degrees below" offerings from specialized brands, to say nothing of the plethora of honeycombed rubber "bunny boots" favored by outdoor oil workers, or the full line of canvas mukluks, which traditionally come in politically correct muskrat, deerskin, raccoon, coyote, and timber wolf (Native Americans are given wide dispensation in regard to hunting rights).
Fairbanks is not known as a major winter sports capital but it does have its specialties. Today the town is abuzz with talk of the annual Yukon Quest, the area's premier dog-team race, which will step off this weekend for the 1,000-mile run toWhitehorse, Canada. Less well knownthan the big-ticket Iditarod from Anchorage to Nome, the Quest is believed by many to be the tougher race, owing to the rugged and isolated terrain. This evening, as part of a race promo, fans are invited to the giant Cold Spot Feeds store to "meet the mushers." About a hundred people have shown up to share free root beer and pizza amid the 50-pound sacks of dog food while getting the autographs of the sled drivers. The self-declared "Mushing Capital of the World," Fairbanks treasures its famous breeders and racers. Four-time Iditarod winner Susan Butcher and the great Herbie Nayokpuk, known as the Shishmaref Cannonball, could not be more revered if they were Michael Jordan and Mia Hamm combined.
"I can still sleep tonight, but I don't know about tomorrow night," said Crispin Studer, a mechanical draftsman and first-time Yukon starter. He recently moved from Erlach, Switzerland, to Whitehorse because "in Switzerland, we do not mush."
"The big nowhere—where else would I want to be?" asked Studer, hobbit-like in his thick oval glasses and green stocking cap, with a crooked smile. He said all he was hoping to do was "finish"(which he would do, 18th in the field of 31, after 13 days, 14 hours, and 12 minutes on the trail).
Others felt the same way. Agata Franczak, 49, originally from Poland, now of Dawson City, Yukon Territory, has been mushing dogs for 13 years and "trying to convince every other woman in Cracow and Warsaw to do the same," she said. "To be out there with my dogs in that huge country gives me a sense of humility."
Even among the stars, people like Hans Gatt and Zack Steer, who would battle it out for first and second place, respectively, there was a sense of the sheer vastness of the land and the task ahead. "I want to win, of course," said Steer, a two-time Iditarod finisher. "But I respect it more—a thousand miles, all that openness. And if you don't respect that, you don't respect anything."
Walking out to the icy parking lot of Cold Spot Feeds, past the dozens of pickup trucks, the mushers' respect seemed the correct way to feel about the entire Alaskan interior. Civilization had stitched itself into the landscape here, but humanity's presence was by no means irrevocable. The country was big and rough, never tame. It still could swallow you up like a lost prospector.
It was about nine o'clock now—p.m.?a.m.?Either way, this being Fairbanks, we were already seriously behind schedule in our drinking. Most of the old pipeline joints are gone, but saloons have come to take their place. We settled in at the Midnite Mine, which sounded like a leather bar in New York, but here was just one more dispenser of Alaskan Amber with a lot of Doors and Bob Seger songs on the jukebox.
The plan was to have a couple of cold ones, and then drive up the Steese Highway due north, past Fox and the turnoff to Chena Hot Springs. The Steese,one of Alaska's oldest roads, was first laid down soon after gold was discovered. Even now, the pavement goes for just 60 or so miles outside of town. After that is only gravel. The car-rental people make you swear you won't drive their cars up there. But the boys over at the geophysical sector of the university were predicting an especially active aurora, and we thought this was the place to see it, where the road gave out, where the sky looked the way it must have when the first people here gazed up.
But even if 25-below-zero temperatures have a way of sobering up a half-drunken man, driving didn't seem the best idea—we could smack into a moose, or whatever else they had all the way up there. As it turned out, there was no need to drive the Steese.
The aurora came to us, right in downtown Fairbanks, hanging above the telephone poles and the neon signs, a grand green swath edged with purple, the product of who knew how many billions of electrons sent straight from the sun. First it approached in straight lines, like a piece of pulsating graph paper, then it began to swirl, like a vortex.
A vortex over Fairbanks—that was wild, extreme. I stood in front of the Midnite Mine thinking of my pal Kazuo, who'd traveled thousands of miles to "the big nowhere" in the hope that the northern lights might help him and his wife have a child who'd one day be at the top of her class. Who was to say it wasn't true?Looking up, I felt smarter already.
Fairbanks, the state's second-largest city, is the best place in Alaska from which to see the northern lights, and winter is the ideal season. According to the Alaska Travel Industry Association (www.travelalaska.com), there are few direct flights from the continental United States to Fairbanks International Airport. Visitors can fly into Anchorage and then travel the 360-mile distance by plane, train, or automobile.
WHERE TO STAY
Chena Hot Springs Resort
BEST VALUE In the summer, rough it in a trapper cabin or Mongolian-style tent. For a more traditional hotel room, try the Moose Lodge. Or call ahead to see whether the Aurora Ice Hotel has been built for the winter. But even non-guests can take a soak in Chena's healing waters with a day pass. LODGE DOUBLES FROM $135, ICE HOTEL $400, HOT SPRINGS DAY PASS $10 PER PERSON. MILE 56.5, CHENA HOT SPRINGS RD.; 800/478-4681; www.chenahotsprings.com
Fairbanks Princess Riverside Lodge
Just a few minutes from the airport and downtown Fairbanks, on the Chena River. DOUBLES FROM $89. 4477 PIKES LANDING RD.; 907/455-4477; www.princesslodges.com
WHERE TO EAT
Café Alex Wine Bar
Chef-owner Alex Mayberry pairs dishes like macadamia-crusted halibut with coconut-curry sauce and lobster with martini-mashed potatoes. DINNER FOR TWO $30. 310 FIRST AVE., SUITE 100 ; 907/452-2539
LUNCH FOR TWO $15. 244 ILLINOIS ST.; 907/451-0613
With an eclectic menu of seafood, meat, and pasta entrées, Lavelle's (located in the SpringHill Suites Marriott) is perhaps the most elegant restaurant in town. DINNER FOR TWO $60. 575 FIRST AVE.; 907/450-0555
Pump House Restaurant & Saloon
At this quaint National Historic Site, oysters are flown in fresh from the San Juan Islands on Alaska Airlines, and, in summer, the salmon is delivered directly to the dock by floatplane. DINNER FOR TWO $40. 796 CHENA PUMP RD.; 907/479-8452
WHERE TO SHOP
507 SECOND AVE.; 907/452-3458
2 Dice Pawn Shop
1402 GILLAM WAY; 907/456-4600
WHAT TO DO
Fairbanks Community Museum
410 CUSHMAN ST.; 907/457-3669
308 WENDELL AVE.; 907/456-5348
549 SECOND AVE.; 907/456-6320