Updated: Jul 10, 2022
This is what we came for.
At this point of the trip, I was in pretty high spirits. The glacier hike totally exceeded my expectations. I thought it would just be some light hiking around a snowy area, but the snowmobile, the slide and the views was much more amazing than just a light stroll on a block of ice. The train ride provided endless views, and the conductor was so informative, it felt like a ride with a tour guide. The food was delicious. As far as I could tell, it was, so far, so good.
When we arrived in Fairbanks that night, we were met with our first challenge. There was a taxi shortage and ride share was pretty much nonexistent. Perhaps we just came at a bad time and there was a lack of drivers, which was surprising, because our research told us that March is peak season for aurora viewing, the main activity that draws in tourists. We also didn't rent a car, because we were advised that without a way to keep your car warm, the fluids in the car will freeze, and that could cause engine damage. Luckily with a little patience, good planning, and lots of calling taxis ahead of time, we managed to get to and from all the places we needed to go to throughout the rest of our trip.
The next morning, we headed out for the Northern Alaska Tour Company's Arctic Circle Aurora Drive Adventure. I'm not usually a fan of bus tours, but if done right, they are awesome. We figured a tour would give us the best chance to see aurora borealis. Plus, going on this tour gives us the ability to say that we have officially been to the Arctic circle. There is never any guarantee that aurora will show up, but when we saw it that night, it was totally worth it.
I was concerned that this crazy long ~16 hour tour by coach was going to be uncomfortable, since we'd have to sit for so long, but it wasn't bad. Aside from stopping at beautiful locations, the coach itself was warm, had comfortable seats, and a bathroom in the back, for emergency use. We didn't have a chance to prepare food for this tour, since we had just arrived in Fairbanks the prior evening. Luckily, the first stop we made was actually Safeway so all the tourists could buy food. Then, we were off.
Here is Joy, Alaska, where a family with a woman named Joy previously owned the homestead. As a city brat, I had no idea what that meant. On this trip, I learned that homesteading is a term that means you and your family live off the land, procure your own shelter, food, water, and energy resources, and you are basically self-sufficient without depending on the grid. If you are able to prove your self-sufficiency, then you and your family can legally own the home and land. What a great concept. The family is no longer here, and the tour company acquired the homestead, so we got to cozy up here and this is where we hung out for aurora viewing later that night.
Our tour guide taught us about the various highways, including the Dalton Highway, which was instrumental during the construction of the Trans Alaska Pipeline in the 1970s. It's crazy how this is such a huge part of contemporary Alaskan history and it was only about 45 years ago.
You can't really tell, but here we are on the frozen Yukon River. I was once again wowed by the idea that in just a few weeks, the frozen land we stood on would be a body of water. It made me hesitant about just far out we should walk, but of course, the best way to tackle this adventure is to go no further than the person who had walked out the furthest.
Here we are at a spot that the tour guides call 'The Enchanted Forest,' where the trees are almost entirely covered in the thick frost that engulfs the landscape. Our tour guide taught us that it is hoar frost. The moisture in the water particles in the air, or freezing fog, turns solid and and creates these snowy piles.
I found it gorgeous to look at. This particular area was very cold. The higher up we got, the colder it was. At this point, I think it was 10°F/-12°C, and very windy, probably 20mph or 32 km/h. Most of us quickly took our photos and got right back on the coach.
Here is the famous Trans Alaska Pipeline that made Fairbanks a boomtown, made so many people wealthy, and allowed people to imagine creating a new life for themselves in Alaska. Some of the pipeline is above ground, and some of it is underground. Alaska has a lot of permafrost, which makes it difficult to put the pipeline underground. If the topsoil is exposed to warmth, that would melt the permafrost, and would not properly support the pipeline. This was yet another thing we learned on this tour.
We reached our northernmost point of the tour and arrived at the Arctic Circle at about 7pm on March 4. It was about 0°F/-18°C. Here we learned about how tourism and military training both take place in the Arctic North. Our guide told us that we were his first tour this year that would see the Arctic Circle before sunset. I was glad that we were able to take our touristy shots in front of this sign during the daytime. The amount of daylight and night light varies so much throughout the year. Apparently during this season, the Fairbanks region gains an additional hour of sunlight each day. We got hot chocolate on the coach as the sky slowly turned to darkness all around us.
We headed back to the homestead for aurora viewing. The aurora forecast that night was very promising. Our guide also said that if anyone saw aurora on the drive back, he would make a stop for us. I kept my eyes out the window. I thought I saw some faint signs of aurora, but I wasn't sure. It was at that point where we kept wondering 'Is that aurora or is that a random light off in the distance?' Another passenger said they could see aurora, so our driver made a stop and some of us got out. We were in a nearly pitch black area and the only light around us, aside from our bus, was from the many many stars above us. I was so in awe of the stars. I had never seen so many stars before, and it felt like I had never been this close to the sky. We saw Orion's belt and the Big Dipper and it looked so brilliant and incredible.
Here, we were at the Enchanted Forest, and the looming trees covered in hoar frost looked pretty creepy in the dark. That's the moment when we felt sure we were looking at aurora.
Here were some faint hues of red and green. Looks like Christmas.
When aurora was more faint, as shown above, the Pixel 6 pictures came out much less grainy, and the colors were much more vibrant, than any of our other phones.
We brought one of our tripods - the shorter one with bendable legs, which was very useful for this portion of the trip. Between the 3 of us, we had 2 iPhone 12 minis, an iPhone XR, a Google Pixel 4, and a Pixel 6. The Pixel 6 takes the best night shots out of them. I am willing to bet money that it will outperform the iPhone 13 when it comes to night shots.
As the night wore on, the aurora really started to show off for us. We learned that the solar winds comes into play and when it collides with the atmospheric oxygen, it creates these prismatic colors, which is the colorful phenomenon that we were lucky to view.
I was already impressed with the Pixel 6's Night Sight. Then I tried out the Astrophotography feature, which takes a time lapse of the night shot, and also generates an image on top of the video. There is probably an averaging technique embedded in generating the output.
Here you can see the aurora really coming to life, dancing across the sky, and giving us an amazing show.
More aurora dancing in the night sky. It was cold, but we couldn't get enough of it.
The tour company had plenty of tripods to provide everyone. We took advantage of the multi-tripod scenario, using one to turn on the flashlight from an iPhone to light up our faces, and another tripod to take a Night Sight photo.
We were pretty much engulfed in the beautiful aurora at this point of the evening.
When we were told we'd be going to Joy, Alaska, I was hoping that there would be a sign that said Joy somewhere in the homestead. There is no such sign.
But I did find these cheesy bumper stickers. I couldn't help but get myself one as a souvenir. It's on my refrigerator right now. We left at about 2:30am and got back to Fairbanks airport at almost 5am, when the sun was just about rising. We called a taxi company and luckily got back shortly afterwards and slept for hours.
Perhaps I ought to add aurora australis to my bucket list.
After resting, we went out to eat nearby at Brewsters, yet another brewery style restaurant, and ate more fried food.
Surprisingly Tim ordered the chicken wrap, because he said he was tired of eating fried food. This is such a departure from his diet when he was younger. We really are getting older.
That night, we spent a cozy night in, peering out the window into the dark night, hoping to catch glimpses of more aurora views. Unfortunately, no such luck, but I wasn't disappointed since the aurora from the previous night was so incredible and beyond all my expectations.
We stayed in, got food from Safeway, and binge watched Inventing Anna. We actually began and finished the series on this trip, and moved on to the Tinder Swindler. These narcissistic personalities amaze me. They seem to have no remorse or recognition that they've done anything wrong or harmed anyone, not even the harm they've done to themselves. I guess that's what makes for good entertainment.
The following day, we explored Fairbanks itself. We started off at the Fairbanks Ice Museum ($10/person, but their website says $15 now). It wasn't much of a museum, but the artist, An Zhe, has created some very amazing sculptures.
It would have been cool if they served drinks at this bar. We each took a turn sledding down their big slide.
Then we moved on to lunch at Noodle House.
They were very generous with the prawns. I think I counted a total of twelve in the bowl.
I wonder why there are quite a few Thai restaurants in Fairbanks. Perhaps there are a bunch of Thai people who got sick of sweating and moved out to Alaska?
Afterwards, we checked out the University of Alaska Museum of the North ($16/adult) to learn about the history of Alaska and see cool historical artifacts documenting the biological diversity, as well as contemporary pieces from local artists.
Leonie DeRamus gave poignant observations of the varied versions of what is considered a beautiful female form throughout history. What is ideal will probably continue to change. Maybe one day we'll get to a place where all bodies are considered beautiful, and diversity in shape and size are celebrated.
I managed to convince some people that I actually got to see polar bears, but sorry to disappoint. This is just a photograph from the museum. Unfortunately they were hibernating, but since they're endangered and so far up north, I doubt I will ever get to see a wild polar bear in my life.
The history of Alaska was the most interesting to me. The transfer of possession from Russia to America, the indigenous people's lifestyles, the macroeconomic and historical context from near and far that affected the Alaskans all left an impression with me.
The stories of how the Japanese and Asian communities in Alaska were treated during World War II were heartbreaking. People were uprooted and sent to internment camps. Some of them returned to Alaska afterwards and others never came back. It shows that in a lot of ways, not much has changed. It was nearly 80 years ago, which seems like a long time ago, and not that long ago at the same time.
This is a great museum, and situated high up on a hill in the university. I was hoping there'd be more University of Alaska things in the gift shop though.
Later that evening, we went dog sledding! This was our last scheduled activity of the trip, the Paws for Adventure Moonlight Mushing & Aurora Tour. Originally, we thought it'd be a good idea to do a night sled ride, so that we'd have more nighttime opportunities to see aurora, just in case we didn't have good luck on the previous nights. The aurora was much more faint this night, but I didn't mind since we saw amazingly beautiful aurora already. Being pulled by a pack of dogs is so much fun!
I managed to capture some video without dropping my phone, thank goodness. Our musher was thoughtful enough to shine a light on the huskies for us.
The musher made a stop in an empty field for possible aurora viewing. It was a good opportunity for us to play with all the huskies and beautiful mutts. I got a pretty good picture of Tim, considering it was night time and the dogs were energetically jumping around.
There was a little bit of aurora that night.
We asked if the dogs are happy and they clearly are a very ecstatic bunch. They eat many times throughout the day and are in great shape, so they have a lot of energy to burn. In our sled, I sat in front of Tim. Even with our combined weight, and with a musher behind us, the dogs pulled us as if we weighed nothing. Dogs are amazing creatures.
On our last day in Alaska, we fueled ourselves up at The Cookie Jar. It seems there is no such thing as eating light here. Well they do serve salads, but what is the fun in eating a salad at a cute brunch place like this?
It just looks picturesque.
Maybe we should have gotten some cookies here.
I love country fried steak. I've never had it made with prime rib before. This was massive. Of course I finished it, but I couldn't finish the enormous biscuit that came with it.
I would never even think to batter and fry a cinnamon roll, let alone stuff it with cream cheese, and top it with whipped cream, AND serve it with a side of bacon. This was such a delicious dessert.
There's that sweet cream cheese filling inside a gigundo cinnamon roll.
A few of our taxi drivers recommended seeing the World Ice Art Championships ($17/adult), so we came down here and had to see it for ourselves. The sculptures on these grounds were varied and very impressive. Tim charmed the guy at the ticket booth, and scored us some discounted tickets. Saving money is my favorite thing.
The sculptures did look pretty cool, lit up at night.
Who doesn't love a heart sculpture?
fun games in the snow
Sitting on this did make my butt a little wet lol
The artist is a genius, by creating the illusion of a baby bear inside of the mama bear. This looks very Lion King-esque to me.
The figure crouched in the sitting position is reminder that we all feel like we're not enough, and blame ourselves excessively at times.
Some of the sculptures were huge, and I mean HUGE. One of the winners created an 18 foot sculpture. You could see the lines in the blocks, where they must have had to stack the ice blocks.
We left later that night and got on our red eye. Goodbye Fairbanks! We never ate at The Crepery, but I'm a sucker for this type of wall art, so of course I had to take a photo.
Many people say that Alaska is worth seeing in the winter and the summer, since the landscape and the wildlife are such stark contrasts from each other. Should I return to Alaska in the summer one day?
Ahh rainy Seattle. It was pouring rain during our layover on our way in, and pouring rain as we were leaving. Of course I stopped by the Delta Sky Lounge in Seattle during our quick layover. I popped in to get us fruit and wrapped up a couple of blueberry cheesecake muffins to go. I wouldn't be me if I didn't do it.