Ask just about anyone who’s been there: Alaska is a magical place.
Simply put, the aurora borealis, or northern lights, is a phenomenon that occurs when the earth’s magnetosphere is sufficiently disturbed by the solar wind. The resulting ionization and excitation of atmospheric constituents emit light of varying color and complexity. While it’s possible to see the aurora just about anywhere on Earth, they are especially visible in the higher latitudes in both the northern and southern hemispheres. That’s why Fairbanks, Alaska is the perfect base for our Northern Lights adventure.
Unlike most Backcountry Journeys Trips whose outings are based around sunrise and sunset, the Ultimate Northern Lights is focused largely on trips that go out after the sun sets.
On the first night, we met the group at Lavelle’s Bistro – a chic downtown restaurant located in Marriott Springhill Suites (the host hotel). Lavelle’s is a high-end restaurant that isn’t too stuffy. Like the rest of Fairbanks, it has a laid back atmosphere that belies the overall quality of the place.
After dinner, we set out to look for auroras. Ultimately, there’s no true way to predict when and where you’ll see the lights but keeping a keen eye on the local cloud cover and the KP index helps us make better predictions. The first night we headed north of town. While the evening started off cloudy, we stood in the cold and watched for the lights while the group chatted and learned more about each other. Soon, we head to Olnes Lake and within minutes of arriving, a pale white ray appeared. It was the start of an auroral event.
Excitedly, the group began photographing the aurora. As the pale strip came to life, it soon began to ribbon around the sky and lasted long enough for the group to create several compositions that included landscape elements like trees and a small cabin under the northern lights.
The next day we met a little earlier and headed off to the University of Fairbank’s Museum of the North. There we watched a film on the aurora and spent a little time touring the exhibits before heading south.
The drive along the Tanana River is a breathtaking one. The river valley is wide and in March, the river is still mostly frozen. Along a roadside turnout, we stopped to photograph the Alaska Range in the distance and the frozen river makes a spectacular foreground element. While we photographed, a bald eagle watched us from atop a spruce tree along the river’s edge.
As the sun sank we packed up and headed to dinner at the Salcha Roadhouse. Billed as Alaska’s Best Roadhouse the group jokingly wondered aloud as to the veracity of the claim. Whoever made the claim wasn’t exaggerating. The place had a big menu and the food and hospitality was first rate.
After dinner, we were on to Birch Lake. We headquartered the night’s watch in a small cabin along the edge of the frozen loch. After stoking the fire and munching on some fresh s’mores, we took turns walking out into the single-digit temperatures to watch for the start of the night’s show.
While we waited, guests practiced their light painting skills and learned a new technique or two. Once the aurora started, all interest turned to the green ribbons of protons dancing in the night sky.
For about thirty minutes we had a great show. Then as fast as the aurora started, it was over. On our way back to Fairbanks, however, the show commenced once again near North Pole, Alaska. There, we called an audible and headed out to Chena Lakes and caught the show one last time for the night.
Throughout the trip, we took in local Alaskan culture by dining at Alaska influenced restaurants like Pike’s Landing and the Pump House. Both restaurants are local favorites and offer an insight into the rich historical and cultural tapestry of interior Alaska.
During our downtime, we also took a sled dog tour where experienced mushers led a team of dogs through the spruce flats while the guests rode along. It’s a sleek and silent way to enjoy the wilderness and experiencing the synchronicity of the dogs and the musher is incredible indeed. In addition, we did a round robin teaching session where everyone shared Lightroom and Photoshop tips and tutorials to ensure that everyone was able to enjoy the images they were capturing.
Towards the end of the trip, we headed to Chena Hot Springs Resort. The resort is an immense campus that houses hot springs, lodging, an airport, greenhouses, and a geothermal power unit. Teeming with guests, we make our way into the restaurant where we enjoyed our last night’s dinner together.
All evening the clouds refused to part. After dinner, we walked outside and looked up to see the stars. Within a minute, a ray shot up from the horizon – the show was beginning. Quickly we headed down the road a few miles to a turnout where we set up our cameras for a shoot. The lights were as animated as we’d seen them all week. Multiple ribbons of green danced across the night sky. It was inspiring and a dramatic way to cap off a week that was both exciting and challenging.
Since humankind first saw the aurora borealis they’ve elicited unbridled wonder. Even in our modern world, things haven’t changed.
If you’ve read any Texas-based magazines over the past twenty-five years chances are you’ve seen some of Russell’s photos or read some of his words. Since 1989, he’s been traveling the state telling authentic Texas stories with his camera and his words – both written and spoken.
A graduate of Dodd City High School and East Texas State University, Russell was an ag science teacher in Childress, Texas for 16 years where he was named Texas Agriscience Teacher of the Year on three occasions.
After leaving that career in 2009, he continued to photograph, write, and speak about his experiences and the people he meets and in 2010, he began delving into television production. His first documentary film, Bois d’Arc Goodbye was filmed entirely in Fannin County and chronicled he and his brother Bubba’s canoe journey as they traversed the creek before a lake forever changes the landscape. The film aired three times to a prime-time, national audience.
Recently he’s worked with such celebrities as the Robertson Family from Duck Dynasty television show, T. Boone Pickens, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Pat Green, and Tracy Lawrence, but he insists that regular people are his favorite subjects.
Currently, Russell lives in the country north of Childress, Texas with his wife Kristy and their two children Bailee and Ryan but still manages to spend a considerable amount of time near his boyhood home north of Dodd City. You can see Russell’s other work and portfolio on his webpage www.russellgraves.com.