We have conducted many trips primarily to Alaska and Scandinavia to view the aurora. One thing we have found is that if you are planning to observe from a particular hotel or lodge, certain practices need to be exercised by the hotel or lodge in order to ensure that your experience is going to be positive. In addition, below we provide a number of tips that will help you get ahead of the game before you take your first aurora photo.
RULES OF THE LODGE
Shoes are not permitted inside except in the entry way. Use slippers or socks only. The room is generally cleaned once during your stay and you must put a sign on the doorknob indicating that you want it done. Hair dryers and conditioning shampoo are available and there is a TV with limited number of channels. There is a limited time to shower since the lodge is on a septic system, so be quick! The hair dryer can be used by photographers to blow moisture off camera lenses when coming in from the outside especially during the winter months.
NAME CHANGES BEFORE THE TRIP
Name changes are not permitted within 60 days or a $100 fee will be assessed by the ground operator.
PERSONS WITH MOBILITY ISSUES
Aurora viewing means going outside at night, walking to a spot and sitting down. Our primary viewing location is a walk down a hill with a moderately steep slope as shown in the image on your right.
If you are not able to walk by yourself down to the location then there are two alternatives.
*Note that all of the main lodge rooms (except for the 2 suites) are located at ground level.
OPTION 1: You can simply step outside your room onto the back driveway (above left photo) where you can take one of the two chairs (above right photo) outside each room and move them onto the driveway for viewing.
The lodge and trees will partly obscure viewing but otherwise it should be a good alternative to walking down to the yurt area where everyone else will congregate.
OPTION 2: If you have booked one of the two suites, then you walk out the front door to the front patio (photo to your right) and can watch from there.
Trees will obscure part of your horizon but otherwise you should be able to see the Northern Lights.
Gratuities to lodge personnel or drivers, tour guides are NOT included and you can use your own discretion as to how much to tip. Normally tips are given to those people at the end of their service period or when you leave Alaska and last see those individuals. The amount of a tip may be shown on the tour web page.
IF YOU ARE A PLANNING PHOTOGRAPHY OF AURORAS
In order to be successful you must not only bring the proper gear but be sure you have taken test exposures on stars at night and can see pinpoint in-focus star images. You will need to manually set your camera with the proper speed (ISO) [generally 1600-3200], exposure time (generally 4 to 20 seconds), use a lens at least 28mm or smaller in focal length, shutter release to set the exposure time and verify you can manually focus on stars. Bring your manual for reference if you are not completely familiar with camera operation. DO NOT plan to hand hold your camera! Never use a flash! Always bring a sturdy tripod. If you do not test your camera prior to the trip, chances are you will most likely completely fail at aurora photography.
There is free wifi at our lodge but very limited upload and download capability.
Our tours have been run in October and in January, February and March. In October temperatures usually do not make it to freezing so a warm coat, insulated pants, hat and gloves are what you might need for night viewing. The clothing advice below applies for winter months.
Generally there is little to no wind in Fairbanks during aurora viewing months. This is great because it means you have little to worry about from wind chill. However, it does get cold. Temperatures at night can dip to -25 deg F but usually are higher than that. You should prepare clothing for worst case conditions and layer so you can add/remove layers to assist with your comfort. There is now a yurt at the viewing area where you can get a bit warmer rather than hike back and forth up to the lodge. There is no bathroom in the yurt so if you need one, you will need to go back to your room.
If you are arriving early and overnighting in Fairbanks prior to being transported to the lodge, we suggest that you take a 2 block walk to Big Ray’s at 507 2nd Avenue provided you are staying at the Springhill Suites. They have, beyond a doubt, the largest selection of winter clothing we have ever seen. If you cannot find what you want there, it may not exist. Prices are reasonable too.
Shoes: snow boots are a must as there is almost always snow on the ground that could be 1 to 2 feet deep
Socks: heavy socks (or even electric socks) will help keep your feet warm
Hand warmers, toe warmers: put those in pockets or shoes to keep hands/feet warm. They are disposable and will generally work for 5 to 7 hours.
Parka: consider a parka rated to -20 deg F or even colder. Remember you will likely be sitting/standing for a considerable time and the longer you remain in one position, the colder you will get. You should have well nested interior pockets and exterior zippered pockets for putting key items for photography, flashlight, etc.
Ski pants: these are a really good idea since they protect from wind as well as ambient cold
Thermal underwear: not always necessary but they provide an extra internal layer of protection for upper torso and lower body
Gloves: if you are photographing you will need thin but well insulated wool gloves. If not, ski gloves, also well padded are a must
Hat: fur lined hat will protect your head and ears
Gator: good for neck protection
Face mask: also great for protecting facial skin but tricky to use especially when wearing glasses. I have never had good luck preventing my glasses from fogging up. However, putting anti-fog spray on your glasses is one mitigation measure for that. Breathing inside a face mask is almost guaranteed to fog up your glasses.
RED FLASHLIGHT! White light interferes with people taking photos.
TEMPER YOUR EXPECTATIONS
If you have never seen aurora before you should be aware of these realities:
a. though we normally schedule our expeditions around New Moon, even if the sky is perfectly clear, it is possible NOT to see aurora if there is no solar activity to kick off a disturbance in the Earth’s magnetic field.
b. when there is aurora activity, it can often be seen if the sky is partly cloudy and on some occasions can light up the cloud even if the sky IS cloudy.
c. aurora can also be seen and photographed even with the Full Moon in the field of view!
d. aurora can be impossible or extremely difficult to see (much less photograph) if inside a well lit city.
e. weather forecasts and solar activity forecasts, regardless of the source, should be taken with a grain of salt.
f. aurora photography with a point and shoot camera is generally useless and will irritate those around you if your flash goes off. We do not allow flash cameras at our (exclusive) observation venues. But it may be possible to photograph bright aurora with a smart phone camera! A downloadable app for this purpose can help.
g. when you see your first really good auroral display it will be a thrill of a lifetime.
h. do not be deterred by the cold or even by the presence of cloud. Be persistent. If you have multiple nights, check every hour or two when it is overcast. In northern climates, skies an often become clear or partly cloudy for a short time or for very long periods without warning.
The photo to your right looks terrible. In reality there is plenty of cloud but three indications of aurora. The bright green glow behind the trees indicates something is happening low on the horizon to the north. That glow might be mistaken for car headlights. In the far right side of the photo, there is a faint green auroral glow. Then to the left of the cloud there is a very faint light green aurora glow. Visually you might not recognize these indicators, especially if you just stepped outside and your first conclusion was that it was mostly cloudy.
i. Aurora can appear for a few seconds to minutes in one area and then vanish. It can become intense in a matter of seconds (or not). It can move around the sky or remain entire stationary on a time scale of seconds to minutes or even longer.
j. a sign of minimal activity may be a faint green static arc that lasts for a significant period of time but does not change in intensity.
k. the appearance of extremely intense aurora have, on extremely rare occasion, been linked to sounds heard by a few observers. I have not met anyone who has experienced this phenomenon.
l. aurora can appear white, green, red and even blue though the most common visual color is green.
m. the camera can always record more than the eye but the visual experience can be extraordinary.
n. aurora can take on the appearance of a slow or rapidly moving set of piano keys or an accordion, essentially a curtain with well defined linear structures.
o. someone may tell you that aurora can only be seen during certain hours, for example between 1030pm and 230am. Look any time the sky is dark. You never know what will happen. Be patient and persistent!
p. aurora can likely be expected within 2 days after a very strong solar flare has been initiated. Sometimes the effects of that stream of high energy particles can linger for several days causing light to moderate auroras or even strong auroras to be seen.
q. if somebody knocks on your door and tells you an aurora is in progress, and it is winter time, chances are good that by the time you get your clothes on and outside, the aurora will have faded. This is not always the case but does happen more than you would like.
r. aurora can appear whether or not a storm is predicted or a solar flare has occurred. There are a variety of causes for aurora.
s. if aurora activity is forecasted to be low or high, this cannot be guaranteed. Aurora viewing is very unpredictable at times.
By far, we have found that lodges in Fairbanks DO NOT follow the guidelines listed here. Even so, you might find that going to nearby lodges are your best bet. If you are purist, this means that if you want to avoid interference to aurora photography, you should consider to get far away from the very places that are supposed to have your best interests in mind. In the end, it may mean renting a vehicle and driving to some uninhabited road or view point rather than waiting at a place that is advertised to be warm, have comfortable facilities, etc.
OTHER PHENOMENA THAT MIGHT BE SEEN
STEVE stands for Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement and appears to be quite different from an aurora. A purple ribbon of light may appear without warning that signals this phenomenon. It is rare in the sense that we have never seen it in our numerous aurora viewing expeditions. Auroras occur when charged particles emitted by the Sun collide with the Earth’s atmosphere, imparting energy to the molecules there that is subsequently released as light. The result is a dazzling, dancing light show that has fascinated skygazers and facilitated scientific discoveries about our planet, our Sun, and the way they interact. Though the aurora is relatively well studied, it still holds surprises. STEVE IS a vibrant, violet phenomenon known to amateur photographers and sky watchers for decades, but which only captured the attention of the professional scientific community around 2016.
A light pillar is an atmospheric optical phenomenon in the form of a vertical band of light which appears to extend above and/or below a light source. Sometimes you cannot even spot the light source. The effect is created by the reflection of light from numerous tiny ice crystals suspended in the atmosphere or clouds. I have photographed these before from Svalbard and also from Fairbanks. The light can come from the Sun (usually when it is near or even below the horizon) in which case the phenomenon is called a sun pillar or solar pillar. It can also come from the Moon or from terrestrial sources such as streetlights.
USING AN IPHONE
There is at least one useful app called NightCapCamera that will allow for decent aurora images: https://www.nightcapcamera.com/aurora-photography-photograph-the-northern-lights-on-your-iphone-with-nightcap/
You should consult the internet to see other examples.