How I Spent 3 Nights Photographing the Northern Lights in Alaska

by Jennifer Simonson on April 15, 2019 in Travels,
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On a 98-degree August afternoon in Austin, I was lying on my couch reading magazines when I came across an article that said that Fairbanks, Alaska was one of the best places in the world to see the elusive Northern Lights.

The article went on to say that February and March were some of the best month for viewing because of the clear skies. An Alaskan winter vacation sound perfect I thought, as I leaned over to turn my fan on high.

As I researched the Aurora Borealis viewing I read story after heartbreaking story of people traveling thousands of miles to Iceland or Norway only to be greeted by cloudy skies or inactive lights. Fairbanks is a good bet because it sits under the Auroral Oval – a ring-shaped region hovering over the far north where people can see 80% of the aurora. Local travel officials say that if you stay for more than three nights you are almost guaranteed to see some aurora activity.

If I was going to trek more than 4,000 miles to the northern tundra, I was going to make sure to take some amazing photos to both remember the experience and post on Instagram to remind all my friends that even though I do not have kids, I am still alive. Most smartphones do not have advanced enough cameras to capture the lights in all their glory, so I rented a digital SLR camera from Precision Camera for my trip, took a mini-crash course on how to picture them, and set out for Fairbanks.

On her second night, at Aurora Point, Alaska, freezing temperatures drained Jennifer Simonson’s DSLR camera battery, leaving her only three minutes of power. Photo courtesy Jennifer Simonson

Visitors have several options for viewing the lights. One option is to rent a car, drive around to find a clearing, park the car off road and wait. Being from Texas, I have several problems with this option, starting with driving on snow, freezing to death on the side of the road while trying to adjust my camera, and getting lost in the Alaskan wilderness only to become the victim of a rare moose attack. Luckily for me, other options involve heat, hot cocoa and s’mores.

Night 1: No Show

The first night I spent at the Chena Hot Springs, about an hour outside Fairbanks. Guests can hitch a ride to the top of the mountain in an Aurora Viewing Snow Coach and watch the lights from a heated yurt or soak in the 105-degree mineral-rich hot springs while watching for the sky to light up above them. After a 20-hour travel day, I waited for the lights on the porch of my cabin, but went to bed before anything appeared.  

Night 2: Disaster Strikes

The second night I spent at Aurora Point. Kory Eberhadt is a friendly Fairbanks born-and-bred hotel proprietor who opened Aurora Point in 2018 as a place for visitors to warmly wait for the lights with the help of snacks and hot beverages. When we arrived at 10:30, I set up my camera on a tripod, manually set the camera to the highest ISO, widest focal point and lowest aperture as instructed by the numerous How To Photograph The Northern Lights blogs I consulted. And waited.

At one point, about 20 minutes after we arrived, steaks of faint green lights raced across the sky. “It is just starting,” said Kory. I snapped away at some photos, but before long the show was over. The temperature hovered around 5 degrees, so as soon as the light show was over we went inside. Around midnight the sky began to light up. I headed outside in time to see intense green and purple lights streak across the sky. The subfreezing temperature zapped my battery, leaving me with about three minutes of power, so I turned the camera off and watched the lights dance overhead for 15 minutes before the sky went dark again.

On the third night of her Northern Lights viewing, staying at the 10-person Alaskan town of Wiseman, Jennifer Simonson was finally able to capture the light show she’d set her heart on. Photo courtesy Jennifer Simonson

Night 3: A Roaring Aurora Success

For my third and final night of aurora viewing, I traveled north of the Arctic Circle to a ten-person village called Wiseman. A local photographer, aurora borealis expert and frontiersman Jack Reakoff has lived in a cabin without electricity or running water in the area for most of his life. He opened up his family cabin to five of us for an evening of borealis viewing. We took turns huddling around a two-barrel wood-burning stove outside, a stove inside, drinking hot tea, and taking pictures. I brought an extra battery and kept my camera covered in a wool scarf to keep it warm. Once the lights came out this time, I was ready.

All photography courtesy Jennifer Simonson, an Austin-based freelance writer