Fairbanks in March... most people would look at you a little funny if you said those were your travel plans, but that was my plan this past March. The reason why was a meeting focussed on space plasma physics, so a meeting place providing a good opportunity to see the aurora was too good to pass by, regardless of the temperatures. We weren't let down.
Fairbanks is an interesting city. It's considered the Gateway to the North in Alaska, and is no doubt the capital city of "the Interior"... basically the bulk of Alaska that is not along the coast. Despite its isolation, Fairbanks is the 2nd largest city in the state (after Anchorage). Before arriving, I had very little idea what to expect. What I found interested me. Many things reminded me a lot of smaller towns in Canada, but with a very real American heart and soul. The Alaskan Native population was also a lot larger than I had expected. Alcoholism plagues many up there (not just Alaskan Natives, but it is particularly evident amongst that group, as it also is with many of the First Nations in Northern Canada), and there are plenty of bars around town to support the habit. Its a small city overall, but it sprawls, uninhibited by any significant natural barriers or other surrounding cities. The center is easily walkable though, except for the coating of ice on the sidewalks and roads that persists for about half of the year.
The little touches around town to add some color or humor were just great. For example, these vents from the sewers... most were painted with something fun or colorful. This was easily my favorite... love the boots.
This is one of several colorful murals around town too. Another thing I was not expecting was great Thai food. Seriously... there are several Thai restaurants in town, and they are really, really good! My favorite was Thai House on 5th St... the seafood and vegetables was just amazing. It blew my mind that Fairbanks could have such a large Thai expat community... Fairbanks and Thailand are polar (no pun intended) opposites when it comes to climate. Yet, there you go... great, authentic Thai food in the Alaskan interior.
The town has a unique character to it... it's genuinely rustic... no doubt about that. It's not fake or plush "rustic" like so many mountain towns in the lower 48. Fairbanks is legitimately gritty and rustic... for good reason.
For instance this. One of the first things I did in town was take a stroll on the river. It was nice for me to be back in a place where large bodies of water freeze over completely in the winter. Still, I was amazed at how thick the ice remained in March, but I guess with daytime temperatures around -20 C (-10 F), it made sense. It was amusing too to see all the fresh snowmobile and truck tracks down on the snow (covering the river) too.
This church is worth seeking out if you're wandering around downtown. Saint Matthew's is a log-cabin church with incredible stained glass windows. This was definitely the first time I'd seen sled dogs or Native Alaskans in stained glass.
Snow tires. I was shocked to see how many people ride bikes on the snow and ice around time. Even more interesting were the tracks leading off into the wilderness and the pictures of folks "mountain biking" through snowy wilderness terrain on these things. Pretty cool. To protect the hands, they have special gloves (seen in the background in the upper left of this picture) that cover the entire end of the handlebar, the brake lever, and (of course) the rider's hands. This was taken inside Beaver Sports shop, which was just fantastic. From wandering around that shop, it was clear how important a role the great outdoors plays in the lives of many people in Fairbanks. It was a very, very well stocked shop with some very serious gear for wilderness exploration and survival, plus plenty of extreme sports.
Speaking of sports, here is a gang of college kids enjoying the University of Alaska's terrain park on campus. Yes, they actually have a full blown terrain park for skiers and snowboarders right on campus. They also had an ice wall that had been fashioned out of a rock climbing tower, which they had just frozen over all three sides with a thick sheet of clean ice. There were plenty of people ice climbing the wall, probably training for similar adventures on frozen waterfalls or glaciers elsewhere in the state.
We were also luck enough to catch the tail end of the World Ice Art Championships, which is held each March in Fairbanks. Since it was cold as Dante's Seventh Layer of Hell there, the sculptures were all mostly in pretty good shape. They were very, very impressive too.
The ice for the competition is harvested from a small lake across the street from the competition grounds. It is renowned as some of the cleanest ice in the world. "Clean" ice means it has very few imperfections, such as contaminating particulates (like twigs or rocks) and air bubbles, in a standard block. You can tell it is very clean ice since it glows blue when sunlit. They harvest massive blocks, which serve as the raw material for the artists.
And here we go... I was blown away by the delicacy and quality of these temporary sculptures. Here is a depiction of Hermes or Mercury, the messenger.
And a giant locust, or grasshopper. It is tough to tell from this picture, but the detail on this was just incredible. It was huge too... easily 12 feet or so between the face and the tail end. And the thing that just blew my mind were how thin the legs and antennae were!
This is one of the grasshopper's feet in detail... just beautiful.
And a giant fish. This thing was taller than I am standing up.
Despite the weathering, this was another of my favorites... a giant bear.
It was like something supernatural, especially with that chill, glowing blue beneath the cloak of snow.
And it was a huge thing too... seemingly defying gravity in how it was lunging forward.
Speaking of defying gravity... here is a mountain goat about to jump the gap.
And another of my favorites... a hero trying to rescue a damsel in distress from a vicious, winged serpent. The ice competition is definitely something to check out if you are in Fairbanks during the late winter... I would have loved to have seen the artists in action for the main event. They come in from all over the world to do this. There were a few still hanging around when I was there, and it was impressive to see them start from a massive raw block and begin hacking away with a chainsaw. They actually get to pretty fine detail with the chainsaw before switching to more delicate tools, like chisels and blow torches.
Alright, enough ice. Now for some wood sculptures. These are a couple totem poles outside of the University of Alaska's awesome Museum of the North.
Totem poles are used for everything from tribal mythology to shaming debtors. Often, the celebrate cultural beliefs and natural art. Interestingly, they are not holy things of worship depicting gods or the like, as many early European settlers mistakenly believed. They are quite beautiful, especially with the bright colors of a recent paint job.
The Museum is housed in an interesting new building too... the architecture of which is meant to resemble a massive igloo.
When you enter the permanent exhibits, you are greeted by this giant grizzly bear. Standing around 9 feet tall, you are dwarfed by the thing and can only imagine coming across such a beast alive in the wild.
The museum also showcases some of Alaska's former residents during the Pleistocene epoch.
Some of the animals from the Arctic North. There are plenty of giant bears in Alaska, that's for sure.
And, some of the gear that Native Alaskans used to survive in their harsh environment. The parka is made from seal skin, which was a miracle material for the natives. It is water tight and could be used to seal the opening on a kayak, keeping the deadly cold waters out and the hunters legs and body warm.
If you're planning a trip to Alaska, make sure you aren't offended by artwork and decoration fashioned from dead animals.
There is plenty of native art at the Museum too, which is quite beautiful with its basic colors and symmetry.
The Chatanika Lodge. This is way up the Steese Highway outside of Fairbanks. The reason we stopped here was for dinner and drinks before spending a night watching aurora up at the nearby Poker Flat rocket range and research facility. The food was good here, and the beer was cold and delicious. The lodge itself is fun to wander around too, taking in all the random bric a brac and zoo of trophy animal kills that decorate the place. It's nice a warm too; a good place to stop and calm the nerves a bit after a potentially hair raising drive through the mountains on icy roads. In all, Chatanika is definitely worth a stop if you find yourself way up there for whatever reason.
Fairbanks sits pretty much directly under the average location of the auroral oval. However, because of the city lights and the fact that Fairbanks is often shrouded in low lying clouds because it sits in an inversion layer due to the local geography, the best places to watch aurora are outside of the city. Our journey up to Poker Flat allowed us a perfect platform to watch the Northern Lights, one which is closed to most since it is a government research station. The aurora viewing station sits on top of one of the low, rounded mountains in the area with an uninterrupted view of the sky overhead and an especially clear view of the northern horizon. We ended up at Poker on several nights, and we were treated to a spectacular show.
The Inuit believed that the lights were spirits in the sky, playing games or guiding souls to the afterlife. Early prospectors hoped they were the gleam reflected from some massive load of gold or gems. Some people still think you can hear the aurora or control it by whistling. We know now that the lights result from energetic particles from Earth's magnetosphere precipitating into the atmosphere, ionizing atmospheric gases that then emit different shades of light as they recombine, much the same as how a neon light works. However, the magnetosphere is a complex and massive system, and thus the lights can put on one hell of complex and beautiful show. Some people describe its motion as like a dance or tai-chi. Auroral activity reminds me sometimes of the complex and chaotic dance of a flame, but at other times it can appear as just a bright, fixed spot or arc across the sky.
The aurora can be seen in both the northern and southern polar regions, but it is easiest to get to the typical ovals in the northern hemisphere. Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Northern Scandinavia are all good places for aurora watching. Of course, you need to go when there is a decent amount of night. Good times are near the equinoxes, when the solar wind is particularly effective at generating magnetospheric activity. The really neat thing about the research station were the various pieces of equipment and buildings that served as excellent additions to spruce up the photos.
The buildings also give a nice sense for scale... the aurora took up massive swaths of sky. Different atmospheric elements yield different colors in the aurora. Oxygen gives off green and sometimes red colors, while Nitrogen gives off blue and red.
Like looking into the Eye of God. This picture was taken looking straight up during a substorm, which are events in which auroral activity peaks. During this substorm, the motion of different structures and forms was incredibly fast, and there were often random bursts of light, like explosions of neon. It was easily one of the most spectacular and beautiful things I had ever seen. At first, the group I was with were all cheering and hooting, but a few minutes into the explosive show, we were all silent, dumbfounded by nature's grandeur and complexity.
The aurora are really a three-dimensional feature, though since we see them as a projection on the night sky, we suffer from a stacking effect that makes them look smeared and 2-dimensional. However, when you see them from the right angle, you get the sense that they are extended in height (as they are in reality). Aurora like this are often referred to as curtains.
This is one of my favorites... it looks like the radar dome is ejecting this massive blob of plasma, and I love the glow on the horizon. Actually, the word Aurora is Latin for "sunrise". Aurora very low on the horizon can definitely appear to be the early glow from the sun, but for auroral forms like the one above... I haven't seen a sunrise that can do that yet.
Anyway, long story short is that Fairbanks was a very neat place to visit. It was particularly rewarding being there in March, when the temperature was bearably frigid, there were nearly normal (by lower latitude standards) amounts of daylight hours, and there were plenty of opportunities to view the Northern Lights.