Glowing with excitement

By Bidisha Bagchi ( China Daily ) Updated: 2014-03-30 07:51:25

 Glowing with excitement

A 12-hour journey on the Aurora Winter Train keeps passengers busy appreciating breathtakingly beautiful winter scenery and occasional wildlife. Photos Provided to China Daily

 Glowing with excitement

A drive across the Arctic Circle takes visitors to the renowned Dalton Highway where people can see massive pipelines carrying crude oil.

 Glowing with excitement

Visitors will have the fish they catch cooked and served for dinner.

 Glowing with excitement

Ice fishing on the frozen Yukon River is another highlight of an Arctic Circle trip.

A trip to Alaska's Fairbanks is an opportunity to witness one of nature's greatest light shows. Bidisha Bagchi takes a front-row seat.

It was a pitch-dark winter night and the time was way beyond midnight. With the outside temperature hovering between - 23 C to - 25 C, we patiently sat on the couch inside a heated log cabin, sipping hot coffee and waiting for the aurora borealis to appear. We were in Fairbanks, the utmost place in Alaska, to see the play of lights on the night sky. The lights we all know as the northern lights.

Fairbanks is a fairly popular town in Alaska known for its Aurora sightings and its infrastructure to handle the crowds that flock to it.

The quickest and easiest way to reach Fairbanks is possibly to take a flight from Anchorage. But we chose to take the Aurora Winter Train, a journey of 12 hours where every second was spent well.

The train went dashing through the snow flanked by breathtaking winter scenery on both sides. Frozen lakes and rivers with some visible patches of ink-blue water, canyons, cliffs, mountain ranges, miles and miles of snowy vista and occasional wildlife-spotting kept us busy throughout the journey. The train actually slowed down every time the driver watched a caribou either crossing the tracks or on the fields so that we could have a better look ... it was fun!

The Aurora Borealis Lodge in Fairbanks arranged our first aurora viewing. It was a decent log cabin on top of a hillock, far away from the maddening crowd in the proper downtown, and especially the glaring street lights that, in meteorological terms, "contaminates" the aurora.

Around 2:30 am, we were out in the cold, standing on the snow-covered deck and looking up at the clear sky. The show was about to start. Gradually, a band of faint white light came up. It began to spread slowly and the white color turned to a pale green - almost white, but with a tinge of green. It looked as if someone had very carelessly stroked a part of the night sky with a wide paint brush. The band of light broadened, narrowed and scattered around.

It was kind of eerie to watch the tall curtains of light move, flicker and fade only to appear at another side of the sky and it was also a sense of achievement, watching the aurora borealis, one of nature's greatest spectacles.

The cabin owners had arrangements to take photos of all the visitors with the aurora and we took our turns. I also realized that photographing the northern lights was a little tricky. Only a very hi-tech camera could catch that bright green glow.

After a great show in the sky and numerous photo shoots we returned to our hotel at almost 5 am.

We had planned our entire next day for the Arctic Circle Drive adventure, a "journey by land across the Arctic Circle".

It was almost a 14-hour drive that took us on the famous Dalton Highway that became popular after the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System started operation.

We were traveling by bus, a group of about 25 people from different parts of the world. The bus made multiple stops for taking photos, a bathroom break or just for admiring nature.

The TAPS was magnificent - miles and miles of pipeline carrying crude oil and it was all in the middle of nowhere. We stopped at a pump station to see the massiveness of the pipes. At one point where the bus was going downhill, the highway and the pipeline could be seen side-by-side. What a magnificent sight it was.

We continued with our journey to the Arctic Circle and stopped at the mighty Yukon River, which was completely frozen. The fun part was when we started walking on the river bed. All of us stood in a line and our driver-cum-guide led us till the center of the river.

Glowing with excitement

A little before sunset, we reached the Arctic Circle. It was bitterly cold and just one layer of caps and gloves seemed to be insufficient. I didn't dare to ask what the temperature was; it was the Arctic Circle after all, you can't expect it to be warm or even bearably cold.

The board read "Arctic Circle, Dalton Highway, Alaska 66° 33'" ... Wow!

By the time we reached our hotel in Fairbanks, it was way past midnight. Groggy with little or no sleep at all, we accepted our certificates from our guide that said we had successfully crossed the Arctic Circle.

The next day was booked for ice fishing on the frozen Yukon River. We booked with the Chandlers Ranch guys who would take us ice fishing in the morning, arrange for our fishing permits and drive us to their ranch to view the northern lights, once again. And, if we managed to catch some fish, they would cook it for us and serve it for dinner. We were truly eager to catch some and we did: 11 in total, silver salmon and trout, but after losing quite a few baits.

The northern lights show on that night was far more spectacular as we saw the lights dance, wave and flicker. The bands of light stayed on in the night sky for longer periods and it was truly a visual treat. The Chandlers people did not have any professional arrangement to take photos of the lights with visitors, so what we saw that night will only remain in our memories.

For dinner, our prized catches were nicely fried and served with rice and vegetables.

Our most awesome Fairbanks trip had come to an end and we are now ready for another Alaskan adventure to Barrow, on the Arctic Sea coast and the land of the Inuit. But that will be a different story altogether!

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(China Daily 03/30/2014 page10)

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