Booking spontaneous trips is a habit I got into after I turned 21. I wanted to go everywhere and see everything, which meant that anytime I had any extra money to spare, I booked a ticket and searched for the cheapest hotel, AirBnb or hostel around. In August, Chicago was hot and humid and I was tired and getting a little loony during my long retail days. During a lunch break, I decided on Seattle. It looked like my type of city: by the ocean, with plenty of culture and coffee. And so began my countdown for October and my continuous search for things to add to my list of sights and eats to check out while I was in Seattle.
My friend and I were on a brunch outing when she commented on my upcoming trip. With enthusiasm, I began sharing all my travel plans. That’s when the idea to visit Alaska began to form. It was close enough and why not? I could spend five days in Seattle and another four in Alaska and still make my return flight from Seattle. And once that idea was formed, there was no way back. I knew exactly what I wanted to do: aurora chasing in Fairbanks. I had seen it all over NatGeo, my Pinterest and honestly, it’s on everyone’s bucket list. With even more exhilaration, I booked my flight and hotel for Fairbanks.
September came and went, and before I knew it, October and my trip were both around the corner. I was packed and prepared; I’m a Chicago girl, I know cold weather and how to handle a little snow. Seattle was beautiful, relaxing and everything I needed before I launched into what would undoubtedly be the greatest roller coaster I’ve been on since I began traveling.
Fairbanks feels like another world: it is both still and bustling with energy. Even now, I struggle to describe exactly how it made me feel. I was very much an outsider, a fact that became obvious everywhere I went. I was too eager, too in awe of all the landscapes around me. It is exactly what I did not expect. I landed around 7 p.m., grabbed my little rental and headed to my hotel. There was some snow on the ground, but nothing I hadn’t seen before. However, I quickly learned that the city of Fairbanks does not believe in spreading salt to help melt snow and ice, making every drive interesting since I had decided not to spring for the snow tires or for a 4-wheel drive.
After arriving at my hotel, I settled down and took a nap in preparation for my first night of aurora chasing. I had a different aurora experience booked for every night in hopes that one would lead to the ultimate Northern Lights experience. I woke up 30 minutes before my tour bus was expected to arrive, ate a granola bar, checked all my camera equipment and bundled up. I was determined, especially since the aurora proves to be unpredictable and uncaring of your travel plans. I hopped in the van with five other tourists and headed off to Chandalar Ranch in the outskirts of Fairbanks, where its much quieter and the city lights don’t pollute your view. As promised, we settled in for a long night filled with hot chocolate and sprinting back and forth between the freezing temperatures outside and the cozy couch inside. Every time we thought we caught a glimpse of what may have been the aurora, we dropped our cups and ran, hoping our eyes weren’t tricking us. That first night, I only caught some small glimpses of green along the horizon line. At 3 a.m., exhausted and defeated, we all piled back into the van and headed back to our hotels. I fell into a deep sleep and dreamt of catching the aurora. That morning, with only a few hours of sleep, I began the two-hour drive to Denali, knowing I had to be back to get some rest before some more aurora chasing that night.
For my second try, I had a spot at SkiLand, which did not provide a pick up, but offered unlimited hot drinks and was only about 30 minutes away. At $30, it was also one of the more inexpensive options to try and catch the aurora. I bundled up again, this time with a tripod I borrowed from my hotel, since mine wandered off somewhere in the Seattle airport. My little rental and I made our way to SkiLand. Again, I settled in with some hot chocolate and began chatting with the tourists around me. Some of them only had that night to try and catch the lights before heading off and some had been trying to see the lights for the past week. This was disheartening, since I only had two more nights to catch the view of a lifetime. While SkiLand was fun, it proved fruitless. Though the aurora forecast was higher than the previous night, the cloud cover from the earlier snow hadn’t cleared in time for us to see if anything was happening in the skies above us. At 2 a.m., I headed back to my hotel.
My third night was unsuccessful, with heavy snow during the day making it impossible to travel anywhere and essentially trapping me in my hotel with Thai takeout. I walked around the grounds of my hotel and met a mama moose and her baby. That night, I cried on FaceTime with my girlfriend, upset that I would not see the aurora at all during my trip, other than the small glimpses I’d caught during my first night. I was sad, though I knew I would probably get a chance again. I’m not a huge planner when it comes to traveling, but this proved to be the first time where I really felt defeated by a destination. Maybe I should have sprung for snow tires, maybe I should have checked the weather and saved my money and time for further down the line. My flight back to Seattle was scheduled for late the next night, but that didn’t mean much since I’d be going through airport security during what are considered peak aurora viewing hours.
The day of my flight proved to be the prettiest day I’d seen in Fairbanks. It was sunny and there was a gleam over the entire city. I drove to a few scenic viewpoints, the university and had some Walmart pizza. I packed up and relaxed at my hotel pool for the evening, knowing I’d be headed out to return my rental and get to the airport around 10 p.m. At this point, I had accepted that while my aurora chasing adventures proved to be thrilling, I’d be returning to Chicago without the show I’d been hoping for. I jumped into my little car for the last time and drove to the airport. As I pulled up to the rental car area, I looked up and to my shock and surprise, there they were: the Northern Lights danced above the airport grounds, hues of blues and greens making waves in the sky. After all that effort, I began happy crying. Here was the aurora, almost just for me. I ran inside, returned my keys and begged the attendant to keep my bag behind the counter while I ran outside. She must have thought I was nuts, but I grabbed my camera and sprinted back into the cold.
They were still there, just bouncing around in the clear sky. I stood in the parking lot and was soon joined by a few other tourists who were either returning or picking up their cars. We all looked up in a trance. There is no way to describe what that view was like. I know it’s just lights and energy and a bunch of particles, but it is magic. I cannot image what it would be like seeing a show like that, completely put on by nature without explanation, a thousand years ago. After 15 minutes or so, I scrambled to set up my camera in order to try and capture the lights correctly. Having lost my tripod in Seattle, I settled for the top of a minivan and began adjusting my camera settings. My first few attempts were a disaster, but I set up remote viewing on my phone and quickly began to grab some amazing shots of the aurora. I couldn’t believe it. It was hard to walk away, but my plane was going to begin boarding in less than an hour and I didn’t know what the line looked like inside. I packed my camera, grabbed my bags from the rental car attendant and headed to my gate with a smile on my face. In the most unexpected of places, a few others and I had gotten a show I’d gone to lengths to try and catch. I made it through security, boarded my plane and headed back to Seattle.
It’s about a month later and I still can’t find the right words for this experience. It is magic in it’s purest form. Nature is wild and unpredictable, and I was a damn fool for thinking it would ever care about my plans.
Thank you, Fairbanks.
Author: Camila Henao
Author Bio: Camila Henao is a freelance writer, poet, and photographer from Chicago, Illinois. Originally from Colombia and a recent graduate from the University of Illinois’ English program, her work explores immigration, language, and familial bonds across generations.
Henao has a passion for storytelling through various mediums. Currently, she is working on her first chapbook, traveling and spending time with her two cats.
Link to social media or website: https://camilahenao.net/