Fairbanks Aurora Hunting

I saw on the Poker Flat webcam that the aurora show was currently popping pinks. Immediately I spring from my chair, legs spinning circles like a cartoon character, until I finally get some traction under them and remember the first step in the aurora protocol; snowpants! I bolt into the mudroom where I keep my snowpants, boots, and parka lined out for emergencies like this. You’ve gotta be able to act quick. I shove one foot after the other into the pant legs, slip the boots on, and give a quick ring around the rosy to secure the elastic snow guard. Then the parka. The parka slips on preloaded and ready for action, equipped with all the essentials – from hat, gloves, and a buff all the way down to the chapstick and hand warmers. I pluck 3 batteries off the charger, grab my camera bag, and I am out the door faster than it takes the average man to use the restroom. If you linger for one second too long, it could be the second that costs you the best aurora picture you would’ve had, and you’ll be left with the regret of not having. This I know.

It was sophomore year some Falls ago. Me and a buddy were shooting lights up on Murphy Dome. The northern lights were going pretty good that night, but we were going into admission between shows and we wanted to move seats across the theatre. See, we were tired of having this obnoxious, bald, ghost white golf ball in plain view of all our photos. So we pulled up our tripods and began the move. Half way there, red auroral energy erupts from the sky! It’s everywhere, like blood exploding in a Tarantino movie. We run as fast as we could, but it wasn’t fast enough. When we’d set our tripods up again, the sky was, once again, generic green and I’ve never seen the aurora like that ever since. It was the one that got away. But she will be back one day. That is why I chase so feverishly.   

And so I find myself bouncing, literally, north on Sheep Creek Road. North! Away from the sun, away from the city. Here cometh darkness my old friend. I line myself up on a straight section of road then I quickly turn off my headlights to check on the aurora. Click! Instant darkness. It’s nothing fancy or fast, but there is a big, green swath. A half second later; click! I turn my lights back on and make sure I’m still in my lane. I am. There is this one turn on Sheep Creek that you actually do need to slow down for. So I’m slowing down for it and –woah! Red lights. But not the ones I want to see. Brake lights. Along with a commotion of other flashing gizmos representing the authority of a railroad crossing. Come on! Who in the hell takes the midnight train to Fairbanks? I know the answer though; coal. And so after a couple minutes in eternity, the gates were lifted for our admittance and me and my two new amigos were on the road again. It quickly became apparent though that amigo numero uno wasn’t on the same page as myself because while his slow ass had no trouble obeying the speed limit, I had to restrain my lead foot of urgency from riding too close on amigo dos. Can they not grasp that there’s a crazy aurora forecast happening right now?! This frustration turned out to be moot, however, as we encountered yet another railroad crossing just two miles later. Oh come the f&*% on. I try to peek up at the lights again, but I can’t dim the concoction of lights in front of me.  I came out of this delay with one helpful resolve though; if mi amigos turn onto Murphy Dome Road, then I will immediately pass them while they’re still going slow from the turn.

As it turns out, they both turned onto Murphy Dome road. And with no oncoming traffic, I sped up for my unexpected pass. I tossed a hearty “passing on your left!” into the back seat for dramatic effect and now I could run at a speed of my choosing. So there I go, flying 70 mph like a batt out of hell bent on Murphy Dome. Driving in the dark is easy if you pay attention, and I kill the radio to do just that: pay attention. See, in the dark everyone drives with their headlights on. You can use this as a forewarning system for when a vehicle coming the opposite direction is about to come around the corner; you’ll see two sets of headlights, theirs and yours, shining on the trees ahead of you instead of just yours. If your headlights are the only ones on the trees; then you can go around the corner a little faster with the occupation of both lanes. But as soon as you see the shadows change in the trees ahead, you’ve gotta quickly do a little brake action down to 55mph and shore up on your side of the road. Happen as it may be, there wasn’t a lot of traffic coming downhill tonight. Good! That means people up on the dome are staying up there. The aurora show must be good still. I’m not late -yet! I speed up a little to pass another guy.

Eventually Murphy Dome Road turns to an unmaintained dirt road. Its actually fairly nice in the winter. You see, the ice fills in all the potholes and you can go much faster than the bump a bump bump bump bump bump washerboard of the summer. It wasn’t till I was well out of the trees and near the top that I could see a line of cars coming downhill. A funeral procession for the aurora. No! Nooooooooooo! Don’t let it be so! I get to the top, survey the sky, and find a green so faint I don’t even bother setting up my camera. I’d lost the aurora again, but I didn’t loose hope. Sure, the prestige comes from having that amazing photo, but the pleasure comes from the chase.

Ok, so I was actually one of two nervous passengers in the embellished (but hopefully entertaining) Murphy Dome Road tale. -And we didn’t get skunked either! I took this picture, but it was nothing compared to what the Poker Flats Live Stream (Link: Tonight’s movie. (alaska.edu) ) had amped us up for an hour prior to piling into the car.

So on March 13th with the forecast still being good, I made a resolution to not be late again. Since I had time to plan, I figured I’d try a new spot and I drove out to Eagle summit on the Steese Highway for some photos. It turned out that the photos from my early pit stop at Twelvmile summit were best, containing a very short-lived pink streak.

The next weekend, my mom came to visit me and on the night of March 19th we went to Murphy Dome on some pretty short notice, arriving 10 minutes before an unusual purple aurora appeared to the west with a little bit of the orange sunset behind it. I think this was the coolest part of the night, but then things got crazy with some sherbert ice cream colors dancing in the sky. I’m still waiting on my reds…. the hunt continues.

And then on Sunday, March 21st I went up to Ester Dome to see what I could see. I wouldn’t even note it, except this was my 3rd time coming up Ester Dome with the hopes of getting an aurora photo and my 1st time actually being successful. So thats cool.

This puts a wrap on the aurora season. It is April at the time of my writing this, and the return of the midnight sun means these light shows will have to wait till at least September.

2 thoughts on “Fairbanks Aurora Hunting

  1. Loved the post about the aurora! I look forward to seeing the success of the hunt for the red Aurora. Your photos are beautiful

    Liked by 1 person

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