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I ventured up to Northern Alaska for what was a once in a lifetime experience to photograph the Aurora Borealis-
The last night in Fairbanks, after photographing the amazing ice carving championship in zero degree weather, we headed up at 10:30 p.m. to a mountain 40 minutes from Fairbanks to hopefully see and photograph the Northern Lights. Arriving atop Murphy Dome, a faint band spread across the sky. Nothing spectacular, but we all hauled out our photo gear and took pictures for about half an hour in the now below zero degree temperature.
When the lights faded away, Andy suggested we climb back into the van to "warm up" and wait a bit to see if the Northern Lights would put on a show. He couldn't turn on the van because the headlights would automatically go on and he didn't want to disturb the few people around who also came to view any potential aurora display.
So we waited-
Andy decided it was time to distract us from the intense cold by asking us some questions: What was the most memorable place we've photographed? What were some destinations on our photo bucket list? By the second round, the responses were getting shorter and more sporadic. The wind had picked up, making an uncomfortable situation even worse. I tried to ward off the cold by huddling into a ball. My body ached. My fingers and toes were frozen appendages. The van was silent. I started to lean back and forth like an old lady in a rocking chair on her front porch-
At 2:15, Andy decided to check his cell phone-
At 2:30, the fellow next to me declared that he had to take a leak. I followed him out. Sitting in the frozen van was just too much for me. I jumped out and immediately felt the wind on my face, which had gained strength since the time we first became stranded. I started to pace, ignoring the lack of feeling in my fingers and toes. I walked 15 yards into the wind, then did an abrupt about face and walked 15 yards in the opposite direction. An occasional jump or flinging of the arms interrupted my pacing. Slowly an aurora display developed along the northern sky. It grew in intensity, first a band, then two, then a couple of arcs and finally a show of shimmering curtains of green light dancing across the sky. The show was spectacular, yet no one emerged from the vehicle to photograph. Had they succumbed to the cold? Or were they just like me, too frozen to care and with only one thought in mind-
At 2:50 the state trooper's car lights appeared down the road. Andy popped out of the van as the trooper approached. The trooper asked Andy if everyone was okay and if anyone was showing signs of hypothermia. Then he pulled his SUV around to the front of the van and opened the hoods of both vehicles. After attaching the jumper cables, the trooper appeared perplexed. I drifted over. "Usually I hear the battery drain on my car when I attached the cables," he said. "I can't hear anything." I winced-
The 40 minute drive back to the hotel did little to relieve the cold that I was feeling, but relief was surely imminent. By 3:45 a.m., I was in bed, my fingers and toes having warmed up to the degree of an ice pack destined for a lunch cooler. But all was well with the world, as cruel and cold as it was here in Alaska. And yet, as it turned out, this experience was not the coldest that I had felt on my excursion to the wilds of Alaska on this trip. But that story is for another time and place…
Alaska Aurora Story
My first Northern Lights experience…
and how I almost froze to death.
My first view of the northern lights from the parking lot on Murphy Dome near Fairbanks, AK