Another Great Visit to the Northern Lats!

The Northern Lights, Ice Carvings & The Iditarod in Alaska, 20131x570-LtGrey

AK2013_denali1I’ve just gotten back from my 5th Winter shooting trip to Alaska having had, as always, a great time.  The Aurora Borealis, the International Ice Carving Championship, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, and the usual collection of potpourri and other things Alaskan.

I organized this trip for 6 of my photography friends, not as a true workshop, but more as a guided tour to some of the venues and events that might be a good basis for a workshop next year.   Fairbanks was the main base of ops this time, with a few days in and around Anchorage and along the Iditarod Trail.

Of course, the winter months are best for viewing the Northern Lights.  This is not because of any “season” as some mistakenly think, but primarily due to the far north’s long, dark nights and cold, clear skies.  The aurora phenomenon can and does occur year-round at both earth poles (Aurora Australis at the Southern Pole), but the lack of total darkness at these far-north (or south) latitudes during other times of the year make viewing them essentially impossible (unless, of course, you are on the Space Station).AK2013_aurora1

I’ve been completely addicted to the aurora since I first saw and photographed them in 2001.  They are mezmerizing and one of the most beautiful, yet mystifying, experiences I’ve ever photographed.  AK2013_aurora2

Scientists say that the sunspot activity (at least as related to the earth’s positioning), generally runs in 11-year cycles.  2013 is at, or near, the peak of this cycle (called “SolarMax”).  Sorry for being a little nerdy here, but all of that is just background for my observation that so far, this has been a relatively weak (and  underwhelming) peak.  In any case, the timeframe while we were there, we had pretty sketchy light shows. But, I did manage to capture a few that are maybe worth seeing.  (See blue button at the end of the post for more aurora images.)

On all my trips, I try to find other interesting things to shoot.   While in Fairbanks, I visited the International Ice Carving Championships, which is part of the annual Fairbanks Ice Festival.  Although it’s amazing to see what these special artists from all over the world create out of blocks of ice, I found myself gravitating to the details and patterns that are unique to ice sculpture.  (See the orange button at the end of the post for a potpourri of other pics from the trip.)AK2013Ice_1

I added a few days in Anchorage to coincide with the Iditarod Trail Sled-Dog Race, the gruelling 1,000 mile race of man and dogs across some of Alaska’s most inhospitable country.  The ceremonial start is through downtown Anchorage, and that is a festive and easy way to get a flavor for the racers and their teams.  But, the actual (read”serious”) race runs from Willow, just north of Anchorage, west to Nome  on the Bering Sea.  In prior years, I’ve shot from the ceremonial run, but this year decided to be more adventuresome.  I hopped one of the flights operated by a local flying service ( out to Rainy Pass, the 4th race checkpoint along the Iditarod Trail, about 130 miles west of Anchorage.

This was a terrific experience, although one I’ll have a better feel for photographing on future trips.  The weather was mixed, with a ferocious storm that sat just west of Rainy Pass most of the day.  Although we didn’t learn about it until our return flight, that very storm and wild wind-sheers from it downed another small plane just a few miles beyond our position.  Very sadly, three souls on board perished.  Just a close-call reminder of how quickly factors can change in Alaska and how adventures, even with experienced guides, can be very unpredictable and sometimes extremely dangerous.

But that aside, the day’s trip was a very worthwhile and exciting experience.  Seeing these legendary and dog-tired (pun intended) race teams and their support helpers. and experiencing the race up close and personal as each team come into the frozen river encampment, talking to them directly, and even lending  a hand (or foot in some cases) was exciting and a real treat.  Next time, I’ll know of some important tips (different vantages, remote equipment, etc.) for, hopefully, some much stronger race images.

AK2013_IditComosite1For those interested in details such as lodging, I’ll include some propaganda here for the “A Taste Of Alaska Lodge“, a few miles north of downtown Fairbanks.  The TofAK is a great location, easily reached on all-weather roads only 30 minutes from downtown Fairbanks and the airport or train depot.  The lodge is a very modestly priced B&B in several log structures on 280 acres of wooded heritage farm going back three generations.   AK2013_TofAKComposite2It is a wonderful eclectic mixture of essential Alaskan decor, native artifacts, antiques, and beautiful quilts handmade by Kory’s (the extremely friendly and accomodating proprietor’s) mother.  But don’t let the rustic decor be misleading.  The food is hearty, very tasty and varied each day from what Kory refers to as egg-day, to syrup-day, to quiche-day and so on.  A huge variety of the usual breakfast fare (yogut, fresh fruit, muffins, juices, etc. is more than enough for breakfast and/or as a take-along for the day’s snacks, and Kory is happy to arrange for in-lodge dinner for those who decide not to venture out for dinner.  Our activities were generally limited to day-trips, but dog-sled rides, snow-shoeing or snow-machining (in winter) or a huge variety of other ventures are all right there.  All in all, TofAK one of those great all-season finds if you are in Fairbanks.  Check it out at

I am already watching the auroral forecasts for the rest of the fleeting dark weeks for surprise sunspot acttivity.  I doubt that I’d be able to organize and make another quick trip this year to either Alaska or the Yellowknife in Canada, but I haven’ruled that out.  Like I said, I’ve become an addict, and the Northern Lights are one of my main drugs-of-choice.

If you’re interested in seeing more images from the trip, click one of the buttons below.

Be advised that none are what I’ll hold up as really good examples of photography or dramatic aurora, but they will give a smattering of what I saw and shot.

Hope you enjoyed a few words and images from this trip.  Cheers!



1 Comment

  1. Love the image from the window seat Jim! I t looks like you had a fantastic time. I would love to see the Aurora Borealis someday. Thanks for posting, -j

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