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Chasing Aurora Borealis

Our bodies started to shiver as we waited for our Northern Lights tour at Chena hot springs. The base layers weren’t as formidable against the cold of night in Alaska as we originally thought. Our military grade SUSV’s were out front waiting our arrival. As our names were called off one by one, we were assigned a driver and vehicle. With anticipation we buckled into our seats as we made our way up the hill. The sky was thick with snow and there was a fresh trail as our driver steered the course. A bumpy road lie ahead as she navigated her way, she glanced back and started a conversation with us. She spoke of coming from Hawaii and never planning to move to Alaska. It was a quick trip for the summer with a friend that became so much more. It would be her first winter in the state. Knowing the difference in temperatures from Hawaii to Alaska, my wife and I both glanced over at each other with hesitation. Surprisingly, as our trip went on, we had no idea how many stories we would hear similar to this. As we finished our conversation, we had arrived at our destination.

In the dark of night, we found two yurts. The one was ready for us as we shuffled out of the SUSV’s. The night got even colder as our feet touched ground at the top of the hill. The lights of the yurt were the only thing that gave us the ability to make our way through the darkness. As we entered into the yurts, we were offered refreshments as we waited for Mother Nature to work her magic. Our guides let us know that we could stay, as they checked every twenty minutes for a clear view of the northern lights. The warmth of the dwelling was nice, but I had in my mind that I would find them first. My father and I made our way out several times, long enough to get a glance through my camera. This of course was before our fingers and feet started to freeze from the snow and cold. Each time, going out, not seeing anything and then moving back to the yurt for comfort. As the evening wore on, we questioned if we would ever see the sky light up. Would the instant ramen and hot chocolate be all we received for a 6 hour tour to Charlie’s Dome?

On our third trip outside, we were setting up to take some nice photos of the trees filled with snow. Setting my camera to a very low shutter speed to get a better shot at night. Several photos into our session, we turned to a roar from the people behind us. Thinking of many possibilities of what it could be in the dark of the woods, we were quick to join the commotion. That’s when we looked to the sky to see a faint velvety substance move across the clearing clouds. It was somewhat grey in color and mixed with the cloudy sky. To get a better view, I turned my camera around to the focal area. As excitement grew, we looked through the viewfinder and saw a bright light go across as the picture finished processing. There in the darkness were the northern lights, aurora borealis. I had never seen such a beautiful image of the sky in my entire life. The vivid color of green that streamed through the sky illuminated my heart. Every second all of a sudden seemed to count. Every snap of the camera provided delight. Sadly nature chose for us not to admire the beauty of the green by naked eye, but this didn’t change our adrenaline rush with each shot. People started to join behind the camera to see what was on screen. I could no longer feel the shiver from the cold. The adrenaline set in as we watched nature do what it’s always done, create beauty unlike anything man could ever create. It was a memorable first evening.

The next morning we woke up later than normal. It’s hard getting up early after going to bed at 4amthe night before. As we made our way from Fairbanks to Talkeetna, we still wished we had gotten a better look at the northern lights. We felt like we had only reached the tip of the iceberg per say. Fairbanks is one of the best places in Alaska to see the northern lights, but there are still plenty of options to see them throughout the state. Being that you have to stay up pretty late at times to see the lights, our bodies had started to feel a bit of exhaustion. We hesitated on if we would try to see them again. This was until we received an alert for a high possibility of an aurora sighting on our last day. The final day was spent taking a plane ride up to Denali and doing a fly over of the mountain range. Absolutely stunning views of the area that were almost unheard of. It’s been said that only 30% of people get to see Denali on a perfectly clear day. We had three days of clear skies. Not sure what percentage that would come to, but we had numerous people tell us to buy lotto tickets. We passed on the lotto tickets, but knew that luck was on our side this trip.

It got late into the evening when my eyes started to close as I waited on the couch. I looked at the app on my phone for the percent chance of seeing the lights. It showed a 3% chance at the time, so much for the wonderful forcast! I figured that it wouldn’t be worth the sleep deprivation for the drive the next day. I made my way up to the warmth of my bed and settled in for the evening. My parents woke around 3am and took a glimpse out at the sky. In the dark of night, faint streams were seen. Mother Nature had given us a second shot! My father ran to my bedroom to wake me up. As I awoke from a deep sleep, I was unsure of what was happening. My mind quickly went from REM sleep to being put on full alert. I struggled to comprehend what was going on for a moment as my fight or flight response began to kick in. I then realized what my father had said and I quickly got to my feet. Moving fast down the stairs of the airbnb, I grabbed my camera on the tripod next to the door. I pointed my camera straight to Denali. As the pictures began to process, perfect green streams floated across the sky. The sky above Denali had become nature’s canvas. Every photo became more exciting than the next. Something came over me as I continued to snap shot after shot. After I got my share and my eyes started to get heavier, I knew that it was time for me to make my way to bed. It turned out that luck was on our side for a second time!

What are the northern lights? The lights are actually the result of collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun, and gaseous particles in our atmosphere. They occur all around us, but being magnetically charged, they tend to move towards both the north and south poles of the earth. Which is why you usually only see them as you get closer to both areas. Depending on what element they mix with, it gives different colors across the sky. The most common form would be mixed with oxygen to get you a green color. Several other colors like reds and blues can also be seen, but are more rare. The best times to see the lights are usually when the sky is clear and it’s extremely dark out. Alaska in particular, it’s hard to see the northern lights in the summer as the days run much longer into the evening. This is why we chose a trip to Alaska in September as the nights become a bit longer as it gets closer to winter time.

Our trip to Alaska had many amazing experiences that came with it, but the northern lights were the highlight. Another amazing experience to check off my bucket list. There is something about the absolute beauty of nature that brings an extremely large smile to my face. This initial taste of how to view the northern lights and what to expect was just a small appetizer. There’s more to come with these beautiful natural wonders and I look forward to a main course. None of the nights were a perfect glimpse with the naked eye, but it left me with a profound memory of our experience. As I continue to travel the world, I know I’m still not done chasing the lights of the north.

Chris Hetrick. Author & Photographer.

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