Before I get into the nice long narrative of this trip, I wanted to say that it is bonkers to me that we’ve been at this for 10 years. TEN years. Eric and I started taking photos of our friends and our activities in September of 2005 and we have essentially archived our lives here since then. It’s awesome to have such a cool record of everything we’ve done together. Which remind me, the reason we booked this trip spontaneously when we did was because we have also been together for ten years. We use October 10, 2005 as our marker for when we were officially a couple or dating, and we celebrated that anniversary with this amazing trip. So here is how it went:
We landed in the Fairbanks airport after midnight the first evening and proceeded to pick up as many pamphlets for local attractions as possible, and acquire a rental car. There were more dead animals and folks wearing camo jackets in that airport than most other places we’ve been. It was kind of cold that night, maybe 25F, and the rental car was iced over and almost frozen shut. Welcome to Fairbanks! Once we got it melted and started it was an easy drive to the house where we were staying. Actually we discovered that everything around there is a pretty easy drive to everywhere else. I guess there just aren’t that many roads.
At the house was a note from our hosts saying that even though we were tired we should seriously consider staying up or napping for an hour and getting up again. The aurora was going to be out that night and the rest of the week was forecasted to be cloudy. We didn’t want to miss it if this was our only chance. We unpacked our things, rested a short while, and then camped out in the driveway. One of the reasons we chose this house was because it would be possible to see the lights right over it. Except that night we weren’t seeing much. After a while of looking at what seemed to be fog or clouds settled low in the trees we decided to take some photos of the night sky anyway. Turns out that fog was the aurora! On camera it was glowing green! Once we knew what to look for we enjoyed seeing it get brighter and darker and on occasion we could see the green color ourselves a bit. We were pleased to have seen anything at all and counted it a success. Around 3am we finally went to sleep.
The next day we got a bit of a late start and wandered into the Alaska Coffee Roasting Company coffee shop around 10:30. I fell in love with the drinks and pastries there and immediately wanted to come back. Since we had no real plans for the trip other than see the aurora we decided on the spot to go check out the local visitor/cultural center. It was free and open and something to do. We didn’t expect it to be as awesome as it was. Everything seemed brand new, including the building, and the exhibits were really cool and laid out by season. There was also a free 40 minute movie on the aurora that we stayed to watch even though that was maybe not the most impressive part. We spent almost 2 hours enjoying the exhibits there and marveling at all the free resources they had for travelers. Just outside the building was the Chena River and a walkway that we never did explore along with an interesting arch made of antlers. We stayed at the arch quite some time since there was a public webcam pointed at it that anyone can see on the cultural center’s website. Nobody else was around on early Tuesday afternoon so we just spent a while waving to our friends and family.
After leaving there we drove just north of town to a viewing point for the Trans Alaska Pipeline. There were some signs and displays as well as a path to walk right up to the pipe. That was a very fun little activity.
Eventually it was time to locate a late lunch. We decided on a place called Loose Moose Cafe. It was a tiny hole in the wall with a small menu. Eric got to try some reindeer sausage and I had a halibut sandwich. The food was actually pretty good and they had free wifi. So we stayed there with our late lunch figuring out what to do with our evening. We ended up stopping in a local Walmart to pick up some breakfast for the next day and a local RadioShack to get a cable Eric forgot to bring along. These provided a nice reason to drive more around the town, and then we went back to the house. Our hostess was there with her dogs at that time and gave us some recommendations for restaurants and aurora viewing spots.
While Eric downloaded the day’s photos, I researched what we might do for a late dinner and checked the aurora and cloudy skies forecasts. It seemed to me that the skies should be clear that night as well and we should try to stake out and watch for the lights. We decided to first head to Silver Gulch Brewery, America’s most northern brewery, for some late snacks and beer. This was also on the way out of town to the north so we could drive to a very nice open lot up there that seemed good for aurora viewing. The sky was indeed clear and the aurora was raging. Even on the drive to the brewery I could see amazing streaks of bright green out the car window. I probably should have kept the excitement down because Eric couldn’t see them while he was driving.
By the time we got to our viewing spot around 10 or so the show was in full force. A few other people were in the same lot and saying how it was the most amazing display they had seen and it was very special. No cameras required to make out the colors. There was green and white and even pinks and reds. The lights shimmered and waved and danced and seemed to illuminate the ground. When one would lose its activity and dissipate away another would start up. They created patterns literally from one end of the sky to the other. That was what we came for and we suddenly understood the beauty of the northern lights that we had completely missed the night before.
We stayed in that lot for a couple hours enjoying the live show, and eventually were the only ones left watching. I guess everyone else had work the next day and didn’t want to be out on the side of the road at midnight. After a while the lights had calmed from the incredible performance early on to some much more tame glowing. We decided we had seen the main event and should drive back to the house since we had a reason to get some sleep.
The next morning we had to get up somewhat early to check in for our bush mail flight up to Anaktuvuk Pass. We showed up at the office at 8am as we were instructed to for our 9am flight. A little before 9 they told us the flight wouldn’t be going as there was too much fog to safely cross the mountain ranges. Sad. It was okay for us as we had no real plans and could try again, but I felt bad for the young woman who was trying to get home and decided to wait on standby for the afternoon flight that day. We rescheduled on the following day’s afternoon flight and went back to bed.
When we woke up again it was almost noon! Our sleep schedule was all kinds of wacky all trip because of the late night sky watches and that decision to get back into bed after getting up. We still had a day ahead of us and decided to go get some lunch at a place downtown called The Crepery. Like most places there it was super tiny inside, but the food was very good. Just across the street we picked up some locally made fudge for later, and set out south of town for North Pole. We saw the giant Santa, we saw the reindeer, we shopped in the giant gift shop, and we drove around the town enjoying the street names and the lamp posts decorated like candy canes. They sure do embrace their theming.
We drove back into town and decided to visit the Museum of the North on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus. The campus is elevated on a hill and has great views of the Alaska range. Someone told us that on a clear day you could see Denali, though I don’t think we could make it out that day. The museum was okay. Unlike the cultural center that focused on how Alaskans live with the land through the seasons, this was almost more of a collection of as many dead animals and geological samples and indigenous artifacts as they could cram into their space. It was supposed to highlight the difference in those topics across the regions of the state, but there was just soooo much stuff it was really hard to absorb any of it. We made our way through the different regions and looked at the things, but the sheer amount of what this museum has in their collection is insane. They also said that what is displayed is only a small fraction of what they have in storage. Overall I enjoyed the cultural center more because I felt I took more in and processed it better and I enjoyed the displays more. Also that one was free. This one had pay parking plus an admission and it was just more like throwing a bunch of items in your face. Still something to do I guess.
After that we went back to the house where the host came by to introduce himself. He asked if we had seen the show last night and he told us it had been visible right over the house. He and his wife sat out in the driveway watching for about an hour and taking pictures. He seemed relatively impressed by it as well which made us quite glad we had seen it. We figured it must have been good to impress the locals.
Later that evening we went out to a slightly nicer restaurant along the Chena River that our hostess had recommended. It was called the Pump House and there were so many cars outside I thought for sure it was rented out for a private event or something. We had not seen that many cars in one place since we got to Fairbanks and everything was always very uncrowded compared to what we are used to. Inside, however, it seemed plenty big enough for everyone and we were seated immediately. It was a really cute restaurant with a lot of old Alaskan things on the walls and ceiling. The drinks, meals, and desserts were excellent, and it was our one expensive meal for the trip. Eric got to try an elk meatloaf and we shared a caramel apple cheesecake for dessert which was super unique.
Unfortunately that night did stay very cloudy. On top of that fact we were oddly tired from the weird sleep patterns and we both passed out around 9pm. At least we didn’t miss any aurora as the clouds were too thick.
I woke up feeling kind of crummy the next morning. The cold air and the dry heaters were making my throat sore. I decided to just rest on the couch most of the morning, and then we went back to the coffee shop for a breakfast sandwich and another hot drink to soothe my throat. Very soon it was time to check in again for our flight and hope it would run it this time. The staff said the weather looked great and we should have nice views. So around 1pm we boarded a tiny 8 person plane with the pilot and 3 guys going home to Anaktuvuk Pass. They were shocked and excited that two tourists were flying up there. They seemed really proud of their town and wanted to make sure that we knew one of them was a tour guide and he could answer any questions we had about the area. I felt a little bad that we weren’t actually staying to visit even though I’m not sure there is anywhere to stay or visit there anyway.
During the flight we had headphones on for the pilot to talk to us and tell us the things we were flying over. He pointed out the Yukon River, the pipeline, the dalton highway, the various mountain ranges, and gave us some info on the few towns and settlements that we passed over. The views were absolutely amazing. When we landed in Anaktuvuk we hopped out and assisted the pilot in unloading the boxes he was delivering into a pickup truck. It seemed his cargo that day was packaged foods, but there could have been other things, too.
It felt pretty cold there in town and the wind was gusting regularly. The pilot guessed it felt about 15F and I think I confirmed later the high that day was 14F before wind chill. Even as we were marveling at where we were and trying to fathom living there, locals were pulling up to the “airport” on their snowmobiles in shorts!! Short pants with bare legs! And not just one crazy local, either! That was a sight. Just about 10 minutes after we landed we got back in the plane and took off back to Fairbanks with no cargo and one other passenger.
A few minutes after taking off the pilot’s hatch door popped open. Since we were not at a very high elevation yet and the pilot wasn’t panicking we just waited for him to close it. He got on a course that he could leave the autopilot for a minute and tried to pull the door shut. I think the pressure was too much for the angle he had, though, and he really couldn’t get it to close all the way to latch it. I thought for sure he would radio back to Anaktuvuk that we were returning to the ground to fix this, but he didn’t. We seemed to fly with an open hatch for quite some time. I was getting a little more concerned and wondering exactly how uncomfortably cold or potentially dangerous it would get if we left it open for an extended part of the flight. He tried a few more times to close it and was unsuccessful each time. The one local passenger who boarded last minute with us actually yelled “go the F back down!” He seemed more panicked than we were. Finally the pilot motioned to me for help and I pulled on the top handle while he pulled on the bottom one and together we were able to overcome the air pressure long enough for him to latch it in place. That was some fun additional excitement for our money. After the flight, however, the pilot apologized for that and seemed significantly more upset about it than he had appeared in flight. Upon arriving back to the terminal in Fairbanks we got signed certificates saying we crossed the Arctic Circle! Cool! Also Fairbanks suddenly felt very warm in comparison.
We still had most of the evening ahead of us so we decided to check out a local shop. The Alaska Bowl Company makes wooden bowls in lots of shapes and with customized carvings. While they were very impressive, I just didn’t need a nice wooden bowl. Their shop also had some other Alaskan items, though. We bought ourselves a new napkin holder that is carved out of wood and shows a bear with a fish in its mouth. It will be a nice upgrade to the old warped holder we use now. Functional and local! That was a nice shop and I’m glad we visited even if we didn’t buy their bowls.
On our way back to the house we got one more coffee from the coffee shop for my throat (and because I really wanted one more trip there!). Then we just hung out at the house and did a little packing since it was our last night in town. After all the great snacks and meals we had it was hard to decide on one last place for dinner. We settled on a restaurant called Wolf Run. Unlike the Pump House there were absolutely no cars outside of this one and we almost didn’t go in because of that. It was very small inside and only one other couple was in there, but we were welcomed in and it turned out to be another great meal.
That evening the sky was actually somewhat clear again. Every half hour for a few hours we checked outside for the lights but they were never there. And since we had to be at the airport around 4:30am we decided to just try and get to sleep.
As we were getting in the car to return to the airport early in the morning the aurora was there to say goodbye. Right over the driveway were a couple of visibly green lines shimmering and expanding. It was just enough to make us happy we saw them one more time and make up for the night before. Though nothing will beat the amazing display from Tuesday night.
Overall we had a fabulous short trip up to Fairbanks and accomplished our main goal of seeing the northern lights in person. Similar to our Hawaiian anniversary trip of 2013 we felt amazed at how much we could experience with just a few days.