Seeing the Northern Lights in the Arctic

Alaska.

The word alone conjures images of snow. Of the mountains. Of a world apart, the last frontier, a place where nature is not yet wholly conquered. And for now, in the farthest reaches of the state that is accessible only by 8-seater bush plane, we can still see her at her best.

Beautiful. Silent. And, let’s not forget, it’s f-ing cold.

Bettles, Alaska, is 35 miles north of the Arctic Circle, situated thirty feet from a public airport and covered in snow. The nearest major city is Fairbanks, a mere 241 miles away. In the summer, it’s impossible to drive to this remote region, as the surrounding area is dominated by acres of bogs and marshland. In the winter, the various towns unite to carve their own road into the frozen tundra.

This is, without a doubt, the last American frontier.

As you fly over the criss-crossing lines in the snow far beneath you, you can’t help but wonder who made them. If there’s a dog sled team working their way through the powder, or a lone truck blowing through the forests. As you stare at the roving hills, you’re left to entertain a single, puzzling thought: there are entire acres of Alaska that no human has ever set foot on.

Because this… this is a land of undiscovered gold. It’s the forgotten world, the state so many overlook. This isn’t a patch of snow in the north—this is a 663,300 square mile state about 2 1/2 times the size of Texas. This land is so large, it’s about a fifth the size of the lower 48.

Entrenched in the unknown, Alaska is a land that dares you to conquer the snow and stake your claim. It’s a snow-capped world of self-discovery and introspection, a place where you can simply sit and watch the day slip by.

But I’m here for Bettles Lodge.

I’m here for the Northern Lights.

It’s said that Bettles has some of the best aurora sightings in the state, if not the world. Situated perfectly under the aurora band, Bettles has the clearest skies and best weather in Alaska.

The serendipity makes for some truly remarkable light shows.

Getting to Bettles is an adventure in and of itself.

We take off from Fairbanks, and on the day we’re scheduled to leave, it’s a balmy -20F. I walk outside, and it hurts to breathe. I can feel my hair freezing—and it isn’t even wet.

It’s safe to say I am not cut out for this kind of cold, but I don’t care. There’s a pot of gold in this adventure, and I’m going to see it through.

This is the sort of frigid dryness that dehydrates you with every breath. The kind of dry air that can crack your skin. Drink up and keep your bottle full because you do not want to dehydrate out here.

The flight takes us into the wilderness, over fire breaks that protect Fairbanks from the wildfires that ravage the snow-covered state every year. We fly over the pipeline, over the one bridge that connects Fairbanks to the one road headed north through the snow. We fly over the tundra, and finally, we fly over the Arctic Circle.

We’re nearly there.

In this remote area, everything is accessible only by a handful of small planes that carry everything from people to cargo to mail to supplies. These planes are the lifeblood of these remote towns, the one vein that keeps them going.

If you’re lucky enough to fly by Bettles Air, the pilot Karl is full of stories. Ask him about panning for gold, about the pipeline, about the world beneath you as you fly. The hour ride sails by as fast as the tundra below you, and before you know it, you’ve arrived.

Bettles.

Population: 10.

The famous Bettles sign is quite a sight, but a lot of the records there are wrong. The coldest day is now -70F, according to the co-owner Eric.

The town is a smattering of buildings covered in snow, with shoveled paths cut into the snowbanks that guide you between the doors. The folks who live here are hardy, welcoming, and enduring.

Right away, we’re greeted and invited into the lodge. And thank goodness—it’s freaking cold.

Most of the town is shuttered. With a wooden board over the door and snow piled over any vehicles, it’s clear there’s no one home. Bettles’ population swells in the summer, when the milder weather draws more visitors and part-time inhabitants to square off in some friendly competition for the tourists’ cash. Aside from the lodge and its historic buildings, Bettles has a handful of homes, a weather observation tower, and a shuttered visitors center. Steam billows from the modified chimney as the lone maintenance man keeps watch over the darkened rooms, the front doors locked per a government order. It should ideally open around March, but no one’s sure.

A layer of snow three-feet thick covers a handful of planes left out in the elements, but that’s the norm here. Along the runway, trucks and heavy machinery sit idle, waiting for summer.

And that’s when I notice it.

The silence.

I knew I was coming to quite literally the middle of nowhere, but I wasn’t expecting quiet like this.

With the bags put away and the tour done, I find myself standing in the snow.

The white sky barely moves.

Around me, two-hundred-year-old black spruce trees bend under the weight of this year’s snow, their growth stagnated by the lack of sun. I would have guessed they were perhaps sixty-years-old, if that, maybe victims of a wildfire and doomed to regrow.

But this is just the way things move up here.

Slowly.

That’s kind of the point.

As my boots crunch through the stillness, all I can do is listen. My fingers start to freeze through my mittens. My ears sting despite my hat. None of that matters, though, as I look up at the sky and drink it all in.

The quiet.

No wind. No planes. No chatter.

Out here, it’s easy to retreat inward. To reflect. To imagine. It’s easy to lose yourself in thought, to let your mind wonder and wander and dream.

As the snow drifts onto the fur lining of my hood, little white blurs in my periphery, it gets easier to ignore the cold.

Because out here, you can just be.

It’s almost staggering how quickly I lose track of time.

In this lodge surrounded by snow, it’s easy to forget what day it is. There aren’t many clocks, and with only a few hours of daylight, it’s no wonder time loses meaning.

Routine doesn’t really exist out here, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

This place doesn’t just let you unplug—it forces you to stop. To close your laptop. To prop up your legs and grab a beer. The internet is fleeting and slow, often not working at all, and you have to simply trust the world is getting by without you while you’re gone.

Because this world, out here, is entirely separate from anything you’ve ever known.

Out here, there’s just silence with a hint of risk.

None of us goes out alone. With temperatures sinking into the negative each night we’re here, it’s just not safe. Snowmobiles are a favorite way to navigate the small town, but the locals know better than to take them on the frozen lake—nothing stops water, not even the cold, and it looks like this year there could be several feet of below-freezing slush hidden between the frozen lake and the snow that covers it.

Nature is beautiful here, but she can become deadly if you take her for granted. Serene, but isolated—and it’s important to remember how far you are from the nearest hospital. We bought medivac insurance to cover the $30,000 emergency flight back to town, should the need arise, and I suggest you do so as well when you go.

Because you’ll want to. Risk be damned.

It’s just part of life in the tundra. Stay on the path, listen to the warnings, and you’ll be fine.

Though you know the dangers, your mind will still wander. As you stare out at the snow-capped mountains, you can’t help but wonder what else you don’t know… and who, or what, is out there.

The lodge serves the kind of food that reminds me of snow days and home. Of childhood and sledding down the hill in the backyard.

Like the people, the food here is hardy and warm. It fills you to the brim, and though most of the greens are probably seasoned with bacon grease, no one complains. This is a carbs and meat kind of kitchen, and it works.

The reindeer sausage is reminiscent of kielbasa, and there’s never any left when breakfast ends. Lunch is usually soup to help you hydrate and warm your fingers, while dinner involves seasoned meat of some kind paired with a starch to keep you going.

And of course, dessert.

American favorites, all made a little sweeter to give you more energy to burn. Homemade chocolate chip cookies. Carrot cake. Cheesecake.

This is the sort of cooking you need in the tundra—food filled with nostalgia and comfort, the kind that makes you smile and sink a little deeper in your seat.

The kind that feels like home.

The dogs love to run.

And I mean they love to run.

They bay and howl as they’re hooked to the sled, some of them so eager they pull on the harness, trying to pull the sled solo. The pack sits out in the snow day and night, adjusted and bred for this weather, with bodies that run hotter than humans or any other breed of dog. This is their habitat, the world they love, and they live to run through the snow.

Every pup has his or her own personality. Natasha is a darling, sweet and eager for pets. Rocky is a heartbreaker, always patiently waiting for his pats. Salt is a talker, and a jealous girl at that—if you pet anyone else, she reminds you where she is. Since, obviously, you’ve forgotten. Trooper is a goofball, always rolling through the snow, and Buck just wants someone to play with him, damn it.

The dogs are adorable and endearing, but the sledding—it’s thrilling.

The path carves through the snowcapped forests, an icy rollercoaster with no track. We fishtail and slide around every curve. The dogs bolt down the path at full bore, the patter of their feet on the snow a symphony in the silence.

Welcome to the beauty of Alaska.

To the beauty of Bettles.

To a world that beckons you with the promise of isolation and adventure, of the kind of cold and snow that you knock off your boots on the way into the lodge.

Welcome to an escape like no other.

The one thing you quickly sacrifice out here is control.

The sky does her own thing, never one to run on a schedule. Forecasts mean nothing out here and change on a whim. To see the Northern Lights, a nocturnal schedule is best; but the next best thing is having someone keep watch in the night.

And when the lights decide to appear, dress quickly and bolt.

Just inches from the Bettles runway, you stand almost directly beneath the North Star. As the lights dance across the dark sky, you can see stars most people don’t know exist.

The world fades away in the Bettles night, and all that matters, for a time, is the cosmos. It stretches on forever, vast and infinite, a million burning dots in the sky that serve as the perfect backdrop to the solar flares casting magic in our atmosphere.

The aurora itself is oddly white, with only a hint of green and pink visible to the naked eye. After a lifetime of seeing vibrant photos, this is not what I was expecting. It looks like glimmering white fog snake and shimmer along the horizon, and I briefly wonder if I’m wrong. If this isn’t the aurora at all.

But then it dances.

On a truly clear night, if you’re lucky, you see the real show.

And this is what we came for.

For a natural wonder of the world.

For something you must brave the tundra itself to see.

For magic.

The show starts when it wants to. Ends when it’s done. And for those of us lucky enough to see it, we’re rewarded for our trouble.

Because that’s one of the pillars of Alaska—to watch as nature takes control, at least for a time.

In the vast stretches of the American tundra, we face a frontier. In winter, a frozen world of snow-covered sand dunes and drooping pines weighed down by the years they’ve lived under the oppressive gray skies.

Those of us who visit here are reminded of our comforts at home, of the ease we sometimes take for granted. We see the glamor of an ice-tipped world beneath the northern stars, a world where things move slowly, and are reminded that we don’t always need to race to the next thing on our to-do lists. We get permission to relax. To unplug. To look up at the stars and step away from responsibility for a time.

Those who live here are resilient people who are drawn to the quiet, to the solitude, to the peace of a world accessible only by plane through most of the year. They’re ensnared by the snow, tempted away by the promise of adventure. Of something new and truly extraordinary. Of something few else will ever understand.

Alaska is a place that snares your heart. In summer and winter, there’s grandeur here. The sleepy beauty speaks to a primal part of your soul, calling to a part of you that longs for something more. Something whole. Something untouched and perfect.

As the plane leaves on our last day in the tundra, I’m struck by the raw honesty of this icy world. By the lingering American beauty of this wilderness. The expanse doesn’t pretend to be something it isn’t. It’s cold. It’s rough. It’s stunning. There’s no pretense to be had while wearing four layers of snow coats and iron-tipped, military-issue boots.

There’s no expectation out here but to exist, and that alone is a breathtaking thing.

Just you and the stars.

And the stunning northern sky.

One Comment on “Seeing the Northern Lights in the Arctic”

  1. Nicely put. Having lived the adventure with you I’m impressed by what I didn’t know you felt.

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