Viewing the Northern Lights in Joy, Alaska

My friend Debby turned fifty this year. To celebrate her birthday, six of us traveled to Alaska. Why would we want to go to Alaska in the winter time and freeze some might wonder? Well, after this year, the Northern Lights are forecasted to be less frequent and less vibrant for the next decade!!

Anchorage

Our group traveled from Colorado, Texas and Arizona to Anchorage, for a short overnight stop. We crashed at the Comfort Inn near the train station, checked out the blocks of snow that were prepared for a snow carving competition and then headed back to the airport for a short flight to Fairbanks the following morning.

Fairbanks

Once in Fairbanks, we stopped for lunch. Our first two choices were closed on Mondays, so we finally picked out the Chowder House. It looked like a cute, local spot for lunch. I’d recommend the halibut, corn chowder instead of the clam chowder that tasted like it came from a can.

A Taste of Alaska

After lunch, we drove outside of town to A Taste of Alaska Lodge. The lodge was decorated with a variety of quilts and collections of just about everything! After we checked in, we walked down the snowy hill and followed the trail through the woods to a dog-sledding operation. Here we broke into pairs and hopped into three sleds pulled by 12 dogs each. The musher led us around a twenty minute course through open space and trees. During our twenty minute ride, Dom and I learned all about the Iditarod as our musher had run the 1,000 mile race a few years ago.

For dinner, we enjoyed a home cooked meal at the lodge by the owner. A few of us picked halibut, while the rest picked salmon. The meal was fresh and simple, and likely what we needed given our plans for the following day. We signed up for a bus tour to the arctic circle that was to last 17 hours from 10am-3am with no places to stop to eat, thus snacks were our option.

The next morning, we loaded up on junk along with a sandwich and a few pieces of fruit. Our tour guide was an older gentleman named Joe. He started out the tour talking about permafrost, a condition where the land is frozen for two years or more. He continued talking a while more and then remarked, “Don’t worry, I won’t talk the whole time.” We all felt a little relieved as he was a chatter box. Soon we figured out this meant he wouldn’t be talking when Tiffany took over the tour at 11pm! For the next 13 hours, we learned everything there is to know about permafrost, the pipeline, the Yukon River, the arctic circle and more. He was very keen on guessing the temperature as we traveled along the famous Dalton Highway with the ice truckers. Eventually, we all picked a word that he repeated often, and took a bet on whose word was used the most. I think “Yukon” won. It was a very entertaining game!

The Dalton Highway

So on our tour, we made a handful of stops before we reached the arctic circle. Our first stop was for a pit-stop at the Wildwood General Store. This is where we were returning later to see the Northern Lights. We carried on to the Dalton Highway sign. The Dalton Highway was built for the Alaskan Pipeline and is famous for all the ice truckers that travel the road. According to Joe, the truckers go faster uphill than downhill, and they go faster on their return when they are not carrying any goods. He got on the CB with them to coordinate passing one another. “Breaker one-nine…the tour bus is ready to pass on the left!”

Alaskan Pipeline

We continued along the ice-road through stunted forest that struggled to grow on the permafrost and soon stopped for a close up view of the pipeline that zig-zagged along the countryside. Just about 50% of the 800 miles of pipeline is raised above ground due to the permafrost. Burying it risked melting the permafrost and damaging the four-foot wide pipe if it began moving in the ground. The pipeline was built between 1974 and 1977 when an oil crisis caused a rise in prices and deemed exploring the Prudhoe Bay oil field economical. The pipeline has produced thousands of jobs and tons of money for Alaskan residents.

Enchanted Forest

After our stop at the pipeline, we moved along to the enchanted forest. Here the trees were blanketed in snow. The breeze made the unseasonably warm temperature feel a bit nippy, but the sundog, a ring around the sun, made the view spectacular! We also got to sled here. We climbed up the small hill and had to hold on tight to the flimsy, plastic sleds to keep them from blowing away. At the top, we jumped on and immediately sped down the slope. This was quite fun!

Yukon River

Our next stop was the giant Yukon River which was frozen! We were able to walk on it’s three-foot layer of ice. Usually, there is a local that takes tourists on a short snow-mobile ride for $5, but he wasn’t around today so we continued on to the arctic circle. We watched the sunset here before we headed back to Joy to wait for the Northern Lights.

Joy, Alaska

We reached Joy around 11pm and were happy to relax on a cozy couch by the wood burning stove. The owner, who coincidentally was also named Joe, introduced himself and asked if we wanted to hear a story. Two hours later, when the Northern Lights appeared for a minute or two, he stopped talking, despite at least half the group pretending to be asleep on the couch! Alaskans must be lonely, though I don’t know how he could be with his 23 children!

It was a full moon, so I don’t think the lights were as bright as normal, but the good news was, we spotted them which was the main goal of our trip. Success! The most unique part of the whole experience was when we couldn’t see them, we could take a picture and they would show up on the image. That seemed amazing to me.

After a few minutes of enjoyment, they disappeared. We loaded up on the bus and headed back to the lodge. On the way, we tried spotting them a few more times and then dropped half the bus off their respective hotels before we got our car to finally arrive at the lodge at 6am!

Aurora Ice Museum

We grabbed a few hours of shut-eye, enjoyed a homemade breakfast, checked out and then headed to Chena Hot Springs Resort, home to the Aurora Ice Museum. The Ice Museum used to be a hotel, but it melted the summer after it was built. It was reconstructed and it is the studio for the 15 time world champion ice carver, Steve Brice. A chiller operated under geothermal power is used to keep the museum, which was the first of its kind, frozen. Visitors pay $15 for a tour and can pay another $15 for an apple-tini in an ice glass. Amazingly, the camera really picked up the lights in the ice hotel too!

Before we headed home, we made a final stop at the Banks Ale House because the Pump House was closed again. We enjoyed a few appetizers and took our respective flights home. Our trip was a success and humorous with great girls and awesome company! ETB

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