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Learning to Bear it

            Would you like a wake-up call?" the desk clerk asks as I check in.

            "No, I'll just use my iPhone alarm," I naively reply.

            "Not that kind of wake-up," she laughs.  "Do you want a call if the aurora comes out?"

            I've flown to Fairbanks, Alaska's largest inland city, to see and photograph the aurora borealis.  These northern lights occur when the earth's magnetic field draws in ionized particles from the sun, causing gasses in the upper atmosphere to glow with eerie luminescence.  The volume of sun-shot particles, the solar wind, determines auroral intensity.  With activity levels varying in 11-year cycles, NASA predicts 2013 to be a high-intensity "solar max."

            To learn how best to capture this auroral bonanza on camera, I book a Northern Lights Photo Workshop through the 1st Alaska Outdoor School.

            "The tour is targeted at photographers who have no experience shooting the aurora," says Ronn Murray.  "I'll teach you how to take photos the same way I do professionally."

aurora            Ronn drives eight of us aurora paparazzi wannabes to a lodge northeast of town.  In indoor warmth, he offers suggestions for adjusting ISO (1600), aperture (wide open), mode (aperture priority), metering (evaluative-matrix), exposure compensation (+1 stop) and white balance (3500 Kelvin).

            "Keep an extra battery in a warm inner pocket, and once you take your camera out, do not bring it back in or it will get coated with condensation," he warns.

            The sky is overcast, so we kill time, endlessly waiting for the clouds to lift.  Finally around midnight, Ronn discovers the skies are actually clear over Cleary Summit to the north.

            We hit the road like a band of tornado chasers racing after the solar wind.  As we arrive at Cleary, so do the clouds.  After a moment of patchy splendor, curtains close and the show is over.  We head home.

            Hoping the northern lights look better farther north, I book a flight with the Northern Alaska Tour Company to Coldfoot Camp.  This truck stop settlement along the pipeline-hugging Dalton Highway, 55 miles north of the Arctic Circle, offers drivers the last food, fuel and flush toilets for 240 miles.Coldfoot truck

            While tourists travel the highway in summer, winter traffic is largely limited to road crews, long haulers and ice road truckers heading to the ice roads.  I check into the Slate Creek Inn, a prefab motel resembling a string of doublewides.  There are only two other guests.

            After a 140-mile Arctic Mountain Safari tour to Atigun Pass, guide Jason Smith and I drive to nearby Wiseman, a wilderness-worthy town with 14 year-round inhabitants and no wired-in electricity.

            "Most use alternative energy," Jason explains.  "There's a wind turbine and there's solar.  In the dead of winter, they supplement with generators."

            Resident Jack Reakoff has the heat going in a one-room log cabin.  While Jason scopes the sky, Jack and I chat inside.

            "I consider the middle of March to the 10th of April as the best time for aurora watching," he tells me.  "We get clear skies and the magnetic fields of the earth and sun lock better at that time of the year."

            Jason reports a dim display of lights to the north.  Its faint green glow brightens the polar sky.  It's not spectacular, but it's better than nothing.

            With aurora watching being a night owl endeavor, days become free for exploration.  Back in Fairbanks, I ogle natural history and art at the University of Alaska's Museum of the North and vintage vehicles at the Fountainhead Antique Automobile Museum, which also displays attire from the era.Fountainhead Antique Automobile Museum

            "I believe it's the largest collection of historic vintage clothing on display in the U.S.," brags curator Willy Vinton.

            Figuring winter in Alaska means dog sledding, I stop by Paws for Adventure for a one-hour mushing experience.  At most sledding operations, guests ride as cargo.  Paws owner/guide Leslie Goodwin gives participants a chance to mush. 

            "You will ride in the sled for the first part with me driving," she explains.  "When the dogs and the trail mellow out, I'll let you take over my spot and I'll be cargo."dog sled

            Our team of Alaskan huskies dash Iditarod-like through woods and across snow-blanketed meadows.  Riding the runners allows me to appreciate the power and eagerness of the pups.  Fortunately, I only miss one turn.

            I continue on to Chena Hot Springs, a hotspot in the hills northeast of Fairbanks.  After simmering in mineral water, I take a geothermal tour, which includes a peek inside the resort's massive greenhouses.  I follow that with a tour of the Ice Museum where artists have sculpted cool designs in the frozen medium.

snow coach            For aurora watching, the resort provides snowcoach tours to the summit of Charley's Dome, 1,300 vertical feet above the resort.  There, yurts offer a warm retreat and heated outhouses provide for warm relief.

            "There's a faint band of color starting in the north," one of the guides announces.

            The yurt empties faster than a kindergarten class at recess.  Boots hit the snow, eyes aim upward and enthralled guests oooh and ahhh with unbridled emotion.  I stand in awestruck wonder.

            Bands of wispy green glow against a starry black background.  The translucent color intensifies, fades and reappears in eerie slowness.  Other cultures have thought the northern lights to be dancing spirits or signs from God.  I find them simply heavenly.

            I drive back to Fairbanks the next day where I have dinner with a long-lost friend.  Then it's back to the hotel.

            "You still want that wake-up call?" the desk clerk asks.