USA TODAY - The weak winter sun had been set for hours by the time Yvonne Bennett received the long-awaited email alert at her B&B in Fairbanks. In below-zero temps, she raced to her car and drove along Alaskan roads with 2-foot-high snowbanks to Cleary Summit, a mountain point about 30 minutes away.
The payoff? A spectacular burst of colorful Aurora Borealis; in this case, green lights punctured by spiky red beams, unobstructed by clouds or ambient light. This was the reason that Bennett, an association professional from Milwaukee, had made the long and expensive trip.
"It's pretty magical," says Bennett, who has visited Alaska seven times since 2006, including several winter trips. "To see it firsthand, especially when it's moving really fast-there's nothing else like it."
Northern Lights tourism, where visitors brave long nights, low temperatures and remote locations to view one of nature's more temperamental spectacles, has become big business in the Far North. Although seeing the Aurora Borealis is never guaranteed, the phenomenon is best witnessed on a clear, dark night between 690 and 1,380 miles south of the magnetic North Pole, making a trek above the 60th parallel necessary.
In Fairbanks, the Aurora season, which begins in mid-August and continues through the spring, has proved recession-proof, says Deb Hickok, president and CEO of the city's Convention and Visitors Bureau. While winter tourism makes up only 30 percent of the city's overall visitation, it has shown growth every year, compared to summer visits, which dropped in 2009, she says.
Likewise, the number of winter visitors has stayed stable in Canada's Northwest Territories, where Aurora travel packages have been an anchor for Yellowknife tourism since 1989, says Brian Desjardins, executive director of Northwest Territories Tourism. "It's definitely one of our big-ticket items," he says.
What many people don't know is that the Aurora Borealis, a light display visible at high latitudes that occurs when magnetic fields from the sun and the Earth interact, happens all year round. You can't see it during a North America summer because the long daylight hours block it out. (The Southern Hemisphere has an equivalent, the Aurora Australis.)
Auroral activity corresponds with the 11-year solar cycle, which is slated to be more active in 2013, says Roger Smith, director of the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. That means that not only will the Aurora Borealis occur more frequently in its prime latitudes (between 60 to 70 degrees), the chance that the lights will be able to be seen farther south during intense solar flare activity is also greater, he says.
Laypeople can keep tabs on the Aurora's likelihood by checking the Kp index, which measures expected geomagnetic activity on a scale of 1 to 9. When the Kp index is 3, the lights will probably be seen only as far south as Fairbanks, Smith says. But when it's on the high end, say, 7, you could possibly see the Aurora as far south as Seattle. The Geophysical Institute makes the Kp index and a corresponding auroral index available on its website (gi.alaska.edu); several organizations also send out alerts on Twitter (@Aurora_Alerts).
But having active solar flares is only part of the equation. Because the lights are best viewed when skies are clear and dark, the best time to travel to the auroral zone is around the spring equinox during a new moon, according to the Geophysical Institute. It's also important to go outside of cities to avoid ambient light, and to choose a place where you have a clear view of the northern horizon. While lights can be seen any time after the sun goes down, activity picks up through the evening, maximizing visibility between midnight and 2 a.m. The lights burst for 30 minutes every one to two hours.
Although the Aurora is a regular occurrence in Fairbanks, locals still appreciate the mystique and talk about them as people in the Lower 48 would discuss the weather, Hickok says. "The first thing we'd say is, 'Did you see the lights last night?' " she says. "If I wake up in the middle of the night, I look outside. It's still wonderful, no matter how many times you see it."
Big in Japan
The Northern Lights have an appeal beyond the science, particularly in Japan, where a trip to see the Aurora is promoted on travel shows as an ultimate natural wonder. Japan Airlines runs several direct flights to Fairbanks during the winter months, and operators offer their websites in Japanese. About 7,000 Japanese tourists travel to the Northwest Territories in the winter each year, a number that stayed stable in 2011 despite the tsunami, Desjardin says.
According to Japanese mythology, a child conceived under the Aurora will be specially blessed, or a consummated marriage will be particularly fulfilling. (Bennett says she saw one couple from Asia sneak off beyond the bushes during a light show on one of her Alaska trips.)
But tourism officials do their best to downplay the sexier side of the Northern Lights. "The reality is most of our Japanese visitors are elderly," says Hickok. "Seeing nature at its best is the lure." Others believe that the appeal includes a draw toward wide open spaces. "Japan is small in area and big in population," says Jim Kemshead, spokesman for Visit Yukon.
"When you get to a neck of the woods such as the Yukon, you're really feeling alone out there."
Hard to predict
Even if weather conditions are perfect, the Aurora doesn't always cooperate; plenty of people leave Alaska each year failing to see the lights, especially if TripAdvisor's Alaska forum is any indication. To minimize disappointment, Hickok recommends that Fairbanks visitors plan at least three days for their trip. "There's no guarantee," she says. "It's a natural phenomenon and requires some patience."
Most lodges and operators that offer Northern Lights packages have a range of winter daytime activities for their guests, including dogsledding, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. For those who don't have appropriate clothing for nights that get down to minus-30, winter outerwear and boots can be rented. And some hotels offer wake-up calls for people who don't mind rising at 2 a.m. to see the Aurora on their own.
Jim Greenlee, a teacher from Atlanta, and his wife spent New Year's Eve 2012 at Chena Hot Springs Resort, a lodge about 60 miles outside of Fairbanks that specializes in Aurora travel. After watching fireworks, the couple piled into a motorized snowcoach that brought them to a viewing platform, built at a higher elevation. While heated yurts and heavy clothing helped them stay warm, temperatures outside were at minus-20.
Luckily, they didn't have to wait long. "At first it was just a wispy-looking cloud without any distinct outline or shape, but eventually it coalesced into the ribbon of green light," Greenlee says. The ribbon twisted and undulated, creating swirls and eddies in the night for almost three hours. "It was definitely the most memorable New Year's Eve light show that I have ever seen."
PRIME AURORA BOREALIS VIEWING SPOTS
While the Aurora Borealis can be seen as far south as New Mexico, the more reliable locations lie between the 60th and 65th parallel. These towns not only fall within that distance, they have the benefit of having less cloud cover than other places in North America, according the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Chena Hot Springs Resort, about 60 miles outside Fairbanks, has very little light pollution, making a Northern Lights sighting more likely. Two-night packages that include a snow coach ride up the ridge to see the lights, as well as dogsledding, hot springs soaks and three meals, start at $939. Closer to town, Aurora Borealis Lodge takes advantage of Cleary Summit, about 2,000 feet above Fairbanks. Rates start at $199 per night; winter clothing available for rent. Chena Hot Springs Resort, Fairbanks, 907-451-8104, chenahotsprings.com | Aurora Borealis Chalets & Lodge, Fairbanks, 907-389-2812, auroracabin.com
Yellowknife, Northwest Territories
The Great Canadian Travel Company has an Aurora Escape package that includes two nights at fly-in Blachford Lake Lodge, which Prince William and Kate Middleton visited last year. Rates for the four-night trip in 2013 are $1,855, double occupancy. The Aurora Village, about 20 miles outside Yellowknife, has dogsledding, snowmobiling and snowshoeing during the day and heated teepees where people can view the lights in two-hour shifts late into the night for $120. Great Canadian Travel Company, Winnipeg, 204-949-0199, greatcanadiantravel.com | Aurora Village, Yellowknife, 867-669-0006
Whitehorse, Yukon Territory
Northern Tales Travel has a variety of options for Aurora seekers, ranging from four hours spent in a remote heated cabin for $125 a night to a five-day, four-night package that includes several evenings at a spa on the Yukon River outside town for $1,095, double occupancy. Or, rent a rustic (but heated) cabin at Takhini Hot Springs where the water is always warm-even if the air isn't-starting at $80 for a single, $100 double. Northern Tales Travel, Whitehorse, 867-667-6054, northerntales.ca | Takhini Hot Springs, Whitehorse, 867-456-8000, takhinihotsprings.com
Frontiers North Adventures uses heated Tundra Buggies to bring passengers to the best spots, be it within the Boreal Forest or on the Churchill River. The seven-night tour, which includes all meals and three evenings in Winnipeg as well as four in Churchill, costs $3,999, double occupancy. Frontiers North Adventures, Winnipeg, 204-949-2050, frontiersnorth.com
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