Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Day Four and Five: The Place Where the Lights Touch the Earth

Sunday saw us traveling into the interior, officially, across a bridge with a slightly foreboding name: The Bridge to the Interior. It doesn’t carry the same horrific connotation as something like Stampede Road (which is where the mushing company I went out with is located), but it was still really neat to cross the bridge to our final destination: Fairbanks.

On the way to Fairbanks, we passed through Nenana, of Iditarod and Balto fame. There is a statue of a sled dog in Central Park (New York) dedicated to sled dogs, because of a diphtheria crisis that happened in Nome, Alaska in 1925. The town desperately needed anti-toxin, and they were on the verge of a 100% mortality rate for this outbreak, and the only way to get it was by sled dog. They tried sea and air before putting the medicine on a train to Nenana, and having the team drive down from Nome to get it and deliver it. Today, the Iditarod is run in honor of this event, and if you want to watch a really great children’s movie about it, Balto is great.

After Nenana, we drove on to North Pole, which is about 10 miles outside of Fairbanks to mail our postcards. We also had lunch at Pagoda, a Chinese restaurant that was actually on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. Then, we went to the best place to see the Alaska oil pipeline. Some facts: it runs from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, and is raised above the ground because it is actually heated, and if it wasn’t raised, it would melt the permafrost under it. Some of the piles it sits on have heat exchanges on top, again so that the heat goes up and not down to melt the permafrost. Something that really interested me is that you can actually go up to the start of the Dalton Highway that runs 400 miles to Prudhoe Bay where the ice road truckers run supplies. This highway is gravel, and freezes in the winter. Because the drivers are going 70 mph, they have to have a good distance to be able to stop for things like moose in the road. To do this, they have three sets of lights: normal, bright, and then two flood lights on the top of their cab that lets them see up to a mile ahead of them. You see a lot of these guys on the road, and they usually turn the flood and bright lights off, but you can definitely see that they are approaching. Another fun fact is that when you rent a car in Alaska, you sign a contract saying that you won’t drive on the Dalton Highway, and that if something happens it’s on you; this is due to the fact that you are almost guaranteed to have your windshield shattered by a rock kicked up by one of the truckers.

After seeing the pipeline, we drove back to the hotel, took naps, ate dinner, and got ready for aurora watching. The auroras last night were still only level two, maybe level three auroras, but we all managed to capture better photos because it was also a much larger aurora. I think what I love most about the actual watching is not taking pictures, but getting to soak in the elements and experience the majestic place I get to see like never before. One of my favorite pictures I have taken has an illuminated snow bank, thanks to an ice road trucker having his flood lights on. 

On Monday, we had our adventures at University of Alaska Fairbanks. The day started a little later and we visited the northernmost Denny’s for breakfast, which like Paris is always a good idea. After, we headed off to UAF for a visit to the museum of the north, and the reindeer farm. The reindeer is a livestock animal, much like a cow in the lower 48 states. They are raised for meat and are amazingly well adapted for the cold. I always love hearing about how adaptation and evolution has led to an animal being able to fit into its niche just absolutely perfectly.

After the reindeer, we went to a talk on the auroras, and what makes them actually happen. This was so interesting, as I knew the general premise, but never knew just how much goes into making an aurora happen. There’s a lot that happens, but basically the sun puts of bursts of energy that interact with the Earth’s magnetic field, causing collisions that produce the colors. Something neat is that auroras may be happening in the daytime, but it’s just so bright that you can’t see them!

Between our UAF time and night time activity, we went to the grocery store across the street for dinner supplies. While there, we spent some time goofing off in the souvenir aisle. As luck would have it, I managed to lose my hat there! Luckily for me, there was another group that was going a couple hours later. Thanks to them, my hat was found safely on a shelf where someone had put it on a shelf, possibly thinking that it was a piece of merchandise. That’s how nice the hat is by the way, my Oma is amazing. I’m just thankful for the people that found it! 

With this talk, it was only appropriate that we go aurora watching on a cold, clear night with forecasted level 4 auroras. This was the best night of auroras this entire trip, except for maybe what we see from the plane Wednesday night on the way home. The sky lit up beautifully, and the lights danced across the sky in a manner that brought many of us to tears, in awe at the beauty and majesty of the place we are in and the world around us. After the first time of them dancing, one car decided to go back to the hotel, and the rest of us headed to the very top of the hill we were watching from, and there we found the place where the lights touch the Earth. It was so awe inspiring to see the auroras right overhead, looking like they were going to come down and touch the ground. The best part of this night, was that in these pictures, the vibrant green you see and the occasional splash of pink was what you could actually see with the naked eye. The thing I wish I could convey with these pictures is just how much they moved. 

That’s all for this entry; I will post about two days again about our day at Chena hot springs after getting back to Orlando Thursday afternoon. Thank you for following this adventure, and I hope that this entry makes up for missing a couple days; it is difficult to keep up when you are getting home at 2:30 in the morning from watching the Northern Lights. I hope you will check back Thursday for my final entry! 

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