Aurora Borealis, Fairbanks, Alaska 2015 Trip Report

By Kevin McNeal with photos by Stuart Westmorland on Mar 25, 2015

The 2015 Aurora Borealis Photo Safari began at our first group dinner in Fairbanks with an introduction to the tour and to each other. Then, with a promising aurora borealis forecast for the evening, we decided to get an early start and we drove up to Mount Skiland. With a 360-degree view of Fairbanks and the surrounding area, the Mount Skiland hilltop is an excellent place to photograph the Northern Lights. A lot of new snow from earlier in the week made for some spectacular winter landscapes, and combined with auroras we could not have asked for a better setting or start to the tour. Not long after an orientation on where to best photograph the lights—and a nice warming cup of hot chocolate—the dark sky danced with beams of vivid greens and reds and the magic began. We headed back to our hotel exhausted and too excited to sleep. Our first night had been a success.

The next morning we woke to sunny skies and snowy surroundings. After breakfast we headed out to watch sled dog mushing at the Alaska Dog Mushers Association. The timing could not have been any better as we got to witness a timed trial race with competitors from all over the world. The event consisted of four-team and six-team sleds racing against the clock with their times cumulatively added over the two days. Teams of dog mushers came rushing down the track every two minutes, excitement in the racers’ eyes and voices. They had a way of communicating that was fascinating to hear. We decided to split our group in half as some wanted to photograph at the starting line and others wanted to shoot the action along the snowy forest track. The event lasted most of the afternoon and everyone came away with some great action shots of the sled dogs and the mushers. With our stomachs full after an excellent dinner we were ready for another night of photographing the Northern Lights. We headed back to the same productive shooting area as the night before. Mount Skiland worked out well as it offers a warm chalet with a TV hooked up to webcams, so we could see when the lights were happening outside. We stayed warm while we waited—a really nice bonus. Within a short time the lights appeared and we were treated to another magic show and no one left disappointed. With several different areas to shoot from, everyone had a chance to photograph the lights from multiple perspectives in all directions. The temperature was cold, as expected, but this did not matter to anyone in the group! After hours of dazzling lights and excitement we headed back to our hotel.

After our successful day of photographing the sled dog races, we decided to try to photograph the dog mushers from different viewpoints. We also had a chance to see some of the dogs come out of their kennels and learn some background on the sport. It was a nice opportunity to see a wide spectrum of dog mushing and all the activities that go into a successful event. At lunch we took a number of group photos and relived some of our favorite moments of the trip so far before returning to the hotel for some rest.

Later that afternoon we attended the Ice Art Championships that includes the work of some of the world’s best ice carvers. We timed our session to photograph the ice sculptures against the backdrop of the setting sun, which worked out very nicely. As the sunset disappeared and dark set in we photographed the colorful spotlight-lit ice carvings. After a full evening with the sculptures we enjoyed the warmth and relaxation of a good dinner before heading out again for a night of photographing the aurora borealis. This time we shot from Ester Dome, a location we had scouted the day before. I had never seen more snow in my entire life than at this spot and it provided a perfect setting for shooting auroras with the fantastic shapes of “snow ghost” trees in the foreground. For most of us this was the highlight of our entire trip.

The next day we packed up, ate a late lunch and headed out of Fairbanks to Chena Hot Springs Resort. The resort has always been one of the top destinations in the world to view the Northern Lights and offers several winter activities to keep everyone busy during the day. We settled into our rooms, and had some tasty food in a private dining room at the resort’s restaurant—knowing we had an exciting night of photography ahead. As dark settled in, we assembled. We had arranged for a snow coach to take us up to the top of the mountain overlooking the resort. Here, the view was second to none and provided an excellent vantage point for shooting the aurora. We enjoyed some hot chocolate inside a warm yurt—where we were even entertained by a live band while waiting! Shortly after, the sky danced with brilliant shades of green and our group had another successful night of shooting under the magical skies of Alaska.

The next morning we photographed around the resort as the winter snow provided some idyllic scenes and subjects. We shot frozen ponds, hoar-frosted trees, and the sunrise through the snowcapped trees. Our group enjoyed lunch—or time in the hot springs, another highlight for some—and a short rest before we met for a private session with mushers and sled dogs. This was a nice chance to pet the dogs as well as photograph them—they were happy to have company and provided a lot of excitement for our group. As the light faded we shot the Northern Lights from various locations around the resort. There was plenty to shoot, including igloos, barns, abandoned cabins, rivers, birch trees—and even an airplane—under the stunning sky. We stayed out until the early hours of the morning before retiring for the night.

On our last full day at Chena Hot Springs we explored the outer area of the resort scouting for new possibilities for our upcoming final night under the Northern Lights. Then we took some time to relax and have another dip in the hot springs before heading out for the night. The rustic settings we had scouted earlier could not have been better for shooting. Stuart, my co-leader, set up a yellow tent which created some new options for subjects. As we huddled around the tent, the Alaskan sky did not let us down. When the night lit with auroras, cheers from the audience of photographers below rose into the colorful sky.

Night after night we had been fortunate to see the aurora borealis in some of the most spectacular winter conditions. Our group had a chance to photograph in a variety of settings and we had a opportunities to experiment with different camera settings. On our final morning, before our return to Fairbanks, we realized how very lucky we had been. At our “good-by” dinner at the renowned Pump House Restaurant in Fairbanks, we enjoyed some delicious local cuisine, relived our experiences and listed the favorite things we had seen. With stomachs full we settled at our hotel for a well-deserved night of rest. The trip had also come to a rest, but we knew the memories would last a lifetime.