It doesn't take long during a visit to Fairbanks to realize the locals' thermostats are way off. "You came during a warm spell," I hear about twice a day, despite the temperature on my visit hovering right around the zero mark. Is that insane or what?
THE NEXT MORNING, my internal clock tells me to get uparound eight a.m. It's pitch-black outside, though, so of course myexternal clock tells me to hit snooze. No can do. I'm showered,caffeinated, and out the door by ten a.m., ready to begin my huntfor the elusive northern lights. The sun, however, is stillsleeping. The front page of today's Fairbanks DailyNews-Miner local section runs the headline, "3:42 of PossibleSunlight."
There are two approaches to viewing the northern lights, neither ofthem ideal for the nonnocturnal. Though the lights are technicallythere anytime the sun is down, they generally can't be seen untilthe wee hours. So, you can either stay up all night and wait, ortry to get a few hours of sleep, set your alarm for one a.m., andtake a peek outside. I decide to check into Chena Hot Springs, apopular winter resort for aurora watching, located about an houroutside of town.
Chena offers an interesting excursion to check out the lights. Iboard an SUSV (Small Unit Support Vehicle), a military-issued,fully tracked all-terrain vehicle that transports about 10 gueststo the top of the surrounding ridge (it's a roughly 30-minuteuphill ride over snow-covered trails), where we all hurry up andwait for the lights to appear.
At the top of the ridge, Chena has erected a party-size yurt (acircular, domed tent originally used by the nomadic peoples ofCentral Asia) for us to hang out in, and though there are twowood-burning stoves, my teeth are still rattling. We wait for fourhours, but the lights never truly come. There are a few falsealarms - and even a vague appearance of green waves in the arcticair - but nothing that even comes close to the photos I see allaround town. It appears the aurora gods will not be cooperating onthis night, though the frostbite gods seem to be operating at fullcapacity.
I wake up the next morning and head to the hot springs that give the resort its name. It's roughly two degrees outside, darker than I thought possible, and I'm walking around in my bathing suit. "This is insane," I tell myself. I practically hurdle the fence and belly flop into Hot Springs Rock Lake, a 100-year-old natural hot spring that maintains a yearly average temperature of 110 degrees. Its healing waters attract loads of Russian and Japanese tourists, the former because they believe it relieves psoriasis, muscular pains, and arthritis; the latter because it's rumored they believe conceiving a child under the northern lights is good luck (there is ongoing debate around these parts as to the validity of this rumor).