Aurora Hunting & Chena Hot Springs in Alaska
Alaskan Adventures Part 3

My grandma used to tell me that the Northern Lights were the spirits of our ancestors celebrating as they look down on us from above. If you whistle, they will draw near and dance for you.

-Raymond Frank (per the Morris Thompson Cultural & Visitor Center)

Given the snow storm the weekend we were there, our chances of catching the Northern Lights were low, but we persevered to make the most of things either way. At least the cloud cover meant warmer temperatures for the friends who’d agreed to join me and Kris on these adventures, so I didn’t feel like we’d conned these poor Florida-borns into going on a vacation in a freezer.

Exploring Alaska in Late February feels like a study in contrasts, cold environment vs. warm people and houses, rustic natural surroundings and military-grade survival boots. It seemed fitting to double down on this, like some kind of dare from Mother Nature. So, we headed one hours outside of Fairbanks to Chena Hot Springs. Who knew, maybe we’d even luck out and see the Northern Lights while sitting in the springs (open until midnight!). I was surprised how much light pollution humble North Pole had, and the Chena Hot Springs area was supposed to have far less for optimum darkness.

With the mist rising out of the hot water, this tourist trap was pleasantly relaxing, and didn’t feel too crowded despite it being a popular destination. The contrast of sitting in hot water while breathing chill dry air was delicious. Enough so that we started a trend of getting out and rolling in the nearby snow, then hopping back in the hot springs to feel that numbing, tingly sensation as your skin re-acclimates. Got a whole tour bus of Taiwanese tourists to do it. I only wish I had done my usual M.O. of over-preparing and bringing supplies. Here’s a list so you can skip that discomfort.

To bring to hot springs:

  • Flip flops
  • Swimsuit or trunks
  • Plastic bag (to store your wet suit in afterwards)
  • Towel (or rent one for $5)
  • Plastic water bottle
  • Toiletries
  • Neosporin (if you scrape your knee on the cement step going in -of course I did that)
  • Hair clip (if you skip a hair dryer and have long hair)

    Post-hot springs snacks and Aurora forecast notes at Chena: so thirsty! Right: the view in the hot springs if your phone is waterproof.

Novelty Rating: 4 of 5
-1 star for the creepster who kept yellow “mermaid!” at every female tourist from that tour bus as they got into the hot springs. You should know better, dude.
Likelihood of Repeat: 100%
Lessons Learned:
* Ice on skin in a hot spring feels like an abrasive pumice stone.
* Snow + hot tub = tingly fun!
* Bring your flip flops, ew ew ew, and you might have to wait for a hair dryer if there’s a tour bus full of women in the locker room.

Ice snack in Chena Hot Springs. Jk.

Did we see it there?
Nope. Maybe a slight green glimmer behind some clouds, but not really.

At this point, you could choose to get a drink at the nearby restaurant and relax, go to sleep, or keep hunting. We got back in the car and made one last stop on the drive back to the cabin, to search the mottled clear-and-cloudy sky.

Fun fact: Over the last decade, royalties and taxes from the oil industry have funded more than 86% of Alaska’s state budget.

-Morris Thompson Cultural & Visitors Center

It’s no wonder that one of the recommended spots to view the Aurora happened to be next to the Alaskan pipeline. Did you know: with permafrost (permanently frozen ground), they had to elevate the pipeline, so the hot petroleum from the ground wouldn’t melt the surrounding ground and ruin the piping? Fascinating. Think about that to fill up about ..2 minutes of the time you spend in the cold dark waiting for your eyes to adjust, squinting for any possible green luminosity in the sky.

On a separate night, we also headed to Ski Land to try and catch the lights. FYI if you drive to the top, the ski resort folks will come out and tell you you can stay for $30 per person. (!) Warming house, hot beverages, and bathroom access included. It’s nice to be toasty and seems like a good viewing spot, but I wasn’t feeling the extra company from a tour bus, and added glare on big windows from red lights. I think I then felt compelled to stay longer having coughed up the dollars, despite already preparing the following on hand:
– Thermos of hot water
– Way too much ramen and hot chocolate
– Coffee and tea provisions, with mugs
– An audiobook
– Hand and toe warmers
– Extra clothing layers
– Headlamp
– All-wheel-drive car with bonus skylight
– Also Recommended: either a nap, or chewing gum to help stay awake (or both)
(Insert coffee photo)
Valiant Kris drove us back at 3AM.

Other ideas on dressing for Aurora watching from a Fairbanks fashion blog:

This portable coffee was really useful once we got a hold of some mugs.

I wonder if my experience would have been better had I downloaded an Aurora app my cabin host kindly recommended. Next time I’ll try this one, it appears to have good reviews:
My Aurora Forecast – Northern Lights & Borealis by jRuston Apps

Another good reference to check:
Check the Short-term (One-Hour) forecast

Sigh. Mother Nature comes and goes as she pleases. Mad respect to her.

No dice for us this time, but here’s hoping your luck is better! Guess this means we’ll have to go back soon. 😀

This blog post is one of a multi-part series on Alaskan adventures near Fairbanks.

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