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When the sky begins to dance
Northern Lights viewing can’t be beat in Interior Alaska
By Melissa DeVaughn

When my husband was a boy growing up in Alaska’s Denali National Park, he used to be spooked by the aurora borealis, those mysterious-looking lights that fill the northern skies like paint over a canvas. When the soft glow of lights would begin to flicker across the sky, fading in and out of focus in greens, pinks and whites, he swore they were specters. In fact, no matter how much his parents tried to explain to him, he thought they were shadowy ghosts, hovering above in the darkness.

This Far North phenomenon turns an average winter, fall or spring night into a widescreen extravaganza like nothing else. When you see the lights for the first time, there are no words, no description, to match their magnificence. You can only watch in wonder. Such beauty is a rare and oft-admired thing.

We Alaskans are lucky to count the northern lights as one of our winter “attractions.” Searching for them is not quite like wildlife-viewing, in which if you look long enough you will definitely see an animal — a beaver, a rabbit, a moose or bear. No, the northern lights are on their own timetable, coming when atmospheric conditions align in such a way as to make their activity more predictable. The northern-lights watcher can only hope to be in Alaska when those conditions are right, and to be thankful for it when the aurora does come.

Auroras can occur between mid August to April. But in the winter, when darkness prevails, the lights stand out even brighter and can be seen longer, which would be between December and March when the sky is the darkest.

Sunspots and solar flares are the root of the aurora, according to Charles Deehr, aurora forecaster at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, who says the northern lights are caused by solar flares that ionize particles in the upper atmosphere. The charged particles are drawn through space to the magnetic north (and south) poles, where they travel down the poles like beads on a wire. When the particles hit the earth’s atmosphere, ribbons of purple, blue, red and green weave together, turning the winter sky into a celestial kaleidoscope.

Bright yellow-green — almost lime-colored —lights are the most common, hovering some 60-70 miles up in the sky. Purple and blue hues are particularly beautiful.

Fairbanks, in the heart of Alaska’s Interior, is one of the best places on earth for aurora watching because of its close proximity to the North Pole. There are several tour companies that offer aurora expeditions or opportunities to view the northern lights. Remote cabins, away from the city lights, will bring you closer to the auroras. Or travel by dog team at night: guided tours will take you into the high country to see northern lights and learn about mushing.

“Fairbanks' position under the "Auroral Oval"—a ring-shaped region around the North Pole—makes it one of the best places in the world to see the aurora borealis,” said Amy Geiger, of the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Our location offers a great balance of clear nights, occurrence frequency and activity that draws people from all over the world.”

According to the Geophysical Institute, one of the leading northern lights research institutions in the world, the best time to see the aurora is at about midnight, give or take an hour depending upon daylight savings time. Consider this: in Alaska, the northern lights actually occur anywhere from 40-100 percent of the nights in an average year, depending on the location in the state (the further north you travel, the more frequent the occurrences). However, climatic changes such as clouds, snow, or summertime daylight can affect the viewing of the lights.

Don’t worry, though. In Fairbanks and other northern points, the lights just come to you. You don’t have to search them out.

My husband and I prefer the more mystical side of the northern lights. Once, while driving along a beachfront road in Kenai, a town in Southcentral Alaska, we had to stop the car. The lights were so dramatic, so sweeping in blues, greens and faint tinges of pink, it was hard to concentrate on driving. We just had to stop and watch. Another time, while camped outside with my sled dogs, I watched the lights dance behind the mountains across the valley and could have sworn I heard them (the Geophysical Institute has found no proof that the lights make sound, but says a swishing noise reported by observers over the years could be attributed to leakage of the electrical impulses from the nerves in the eye into the part of the brain that processes sound).

Whatever you choose to believe — science has discovered much about the northern lights, but a little mystery is fun, too — a visit to Alaska in the wintertime is not complete until you’ve seen the sky dance.

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