In Search Of The Northern Lights

I’m standing at the baggage carousel at the airport in Fairbanks, Alaska and I’m looking warily toward the door. It’s 2:30 a.m. and it’s below zero outside and the last thing I feel like doing is opening the door and actually going outside.

I look around and there are local people in shorts with no jacket, and my taxi driver will tell me later that the Alaskans think it’s warm outside today.

But honestly? I just think they’re nuts.

I’m in Alaska working on a television project whose goal is to capture the northern lights. I know I’m lucky to be here but I’ve been fearing the cold since I joined this project months ago. I brought enough clothes to outfit the Russian army, and I figure it will be like diving into a pool: after a few minutes I’ll get used to it.

And I sort of do.

A woman cabbie takes me the 5 miles to my hotel and she chats the whole way as if she’s known me forever. She’s the first person that introduces me to the true Alaskan personality: warm, fuzzy, down to earth, and capable. They all seem to be able to shoot bears and start a fire with a piece of flint in howling winds in 40 below weather.

I really like the Alaskans.

She tells me that the main tourists in Alaska this time of year are the Chinese. They come to see the northern lights, mostly because no one in China can see their own sky because of all the pollution. But here, in interior Alaska, nature is at your behest. Nature is all there is, including skies full of stars — and on the clearest nights- the ethereal northern lights.

The Chinese come for another reason, too: despite their recent modernity, they are still a superstitious bunch. They believe if your child is conceived under the northern lights, he or she will be a genius. Lots of couples come here, then, to make little Einsteins.

The taxi driver doesn’t find that charming.

“Guess what the question is that I get asked the most,” she says.

“Um, I bet people ask about bears,” I say, because in a few days I’ll be in remote Alaska and bears are the thing that is most on my mind.

“Nope,” she says. “People actually ask me what time we turn on the northern lights.”

I can’t believe this — this idea that people are so removed from nature that they think the northern lights are a man-made show.

Later, I set out to see Fairbanks, a town of 30,000 that reminds me a lot of Jamestown: warm people, a sweet little downtown, and there’s snow on the ground. I can’t help but think as I’m walking around dressed as a snowman that the people of Jamestown would feel right at home in Fairbanks. There’s a lot of similarities between both cities, including size, climate and the friendliness of the locals.

The big difference is that negative forty degrees here is rather commonplace in the winter. And also Alaska is far, far away. It’s a twelve-hour plane ride from the eastern coast of the United States, which means Turkey is closer to New York City than Alaska is.

Go look at a map! Trace your finger from Jamestown and move west in a diagonal line all the way through the huge country of Canada and keep going until your finger falls into the ocean at the northern and westernmost region of the North American continent. Alaska looks like a sideways crown attached to Canada and one can’t help but wonder how our country ever got hooked up with this beautiful place, so far away from the comfort and security of the Lower 48.

Sarah Palin was right when she said, “People in Alaska can see Russia from their kitchen windows.”

She was only trying to make a point: Alaska and Russia are divided by the Bering Strait by a mere 55 miles. I could take a boat over to Russia and buy a mink hat and be back in time for dinner if I wanted to. (Not really.)

Tomorrow, we set off on the Ice Road in our four-wheel- drive to get to the Aurora Borealis Base Camp where we’ll spend the rest of the week praying that we see the northern lights. We’ll sleep in igloo-shaped domes with glass ceilings so we can even see the lights from our beds.

The car rental guy said this to me this morning: “We don’t normally rent out cars to people going north on the Ice Road, but we’re willing to take the risk for you folks since you’re a television crew. But here’s what you need to know: bring food and blankets to last a week and be prepared to live in the cold for several days because that’s how long it might take if you go off the road for someone to find you. There’s no cell service there and nowhere to walk to for safety. You’re on your own.”

Obviously he doesn’t know I’m from Western New York, so we’re going to be just fine.

To be continued next week …