Where were they?
The hour was closer to midnight than noon, and the sky above the small Alaskan town of Talkeetna was as black as a bear's button nose. Several stars twinkled their encouragement. Before stepping out in the minus-numbing-degree air, I had checked the Aurora Forecast. The rating was a 5, which the Geophysical Institute described as meaning "Auroral activity will be high." I even had brought along my lucky charm, Aurora Dora.
So I ask again: Where were they?
"Nature does as nature wants," said the northern lights photographer as we stood in the middle of an empty street, gazing at a layer of creamy clouds.
Aurora Dora piled into her car and, with a shrug of a smile, drove off. I returned to my hotel room and sat by the window, hopeful.
The aurora borealis is a staple of Alaskan winters, as common as moose, down skirts and frosted beards. From roughly late August through mid-April, the skies take on a hallucinogenic cast, the result of sun particles colliding with gases and releasing streamers of green, pink, blue, red and violet. The auroral zone - the staging area for the astronomical show - covers a wide swath of the northern polar region. Interior Alaska, for one, averages 40 to 100 sightings a year. Fairbanks is so keen on the spectacle that it created a fifth season, the Aurora Season.
Even with such strong odds, there are no guarantees. On my migration north from Anchorage to Fairbanks, I always kept one eye on the sky, but I allowed the other one to wander. Offseason Alaska, I learned, also illuminates.
Alaskans cultivate a strong sense of community, and that neighborly spirit extends to strangers chasing down the lights. Locals willingly offer tips on how to see them and even will watch the skies for you so you can sleep.
At the Hotel Captain Cook in Anchorage, the first stop on my nine-night quest, I ordered a wake-up call. A front-desk attendant jotted down my room number and promised to rouse me, no matter the hour, to see the lights. I asked where the staff gets its information, imagining an emergency aurora hotline and text alerts. Cab drivers and a co-worker whose shift ends at 11 p.m., he said. But he said he won't typically awaken guests for a reading below a 6.
"You'll see it for a minute," he said, "and then it's gone."
My day in Anchorage overlapped with the Fur Rendezvous Festival, an annual release of pent-up energy that includes sled-dog races, carnival rides, a costumed run and an outhouse-on-skis contest. Beneath an overpass, gloved artists carved frozen blocks for a snow sculpture competition. I passed a woolly mammoth, Gandhi and SpongeBob SquarePants before running into Jesus and his creator. Jon Eric Thompson, a 30-year resident of Alaska, set down his hatchet.
"As soon as I get out of work, I look up at the sky," he said. "When I go out to start the van and see the lights, I tell the kids, who look up."
The takeaway lesson: Keep your head up.
At the Hoarding Marmot, a consignment shop that specializes in outdoor gear, I asked an employee to suggest proper attire for my extreme sport: standing in below-freezing temperatures for long stretches of time. Rifling through racks filled with clothes for skiers, mountain climbers and mushers, he pulled out head-to-toe down - from hat to bootees.
While shopping, I met a local nature photographer who showed me his photos of grizzly bears, moose and the northern lights.
Then, as Alaskans are wont to do, he pulled up the Aurora Forecast. The evening's was a 2.
"It can be a 5, nothing; a 2, something," he said optimistically.
In other words, slight chance of activity, but little hope of a wake-up call from the Captain.
The Aurora Winter Train travels around the same timespan as its namesake, from mid-September through mid-May. The train departs Anchorage on Saturdays and arrives in Fairbanks 12 hours later; it reverses course on Sundays. Three years ago, the railway added a midweek run on select dates to accommodate the growing number of off-season passengers. Many rail riders are locals with no pressing schedule or homesteaders who depend on the train's service to access their remote property. Others come from Japan and China. In some Asian cultures, the aurora borealis contains fertility powers equal to oysters and Barry White.
In the morning, the one-room railway station was crammed with a toy train display - part of Fur Rondy - and passengers dragging wheelie luggage encrusted with fresh snow. Over the loudspeaker, an employee urged us to stop into the gift store, the only retail option between here and Fairbanks. A small group of alarmed passengers rushed the shelves and racks. (I scratched the itch with a postcard and copy of the "Ride Guide to the Historic Alaska Railroad," which highlights attractions along the route.)
On the train, an employee rattled off interesting facts from both sides of the track. On your left, a grove of trees felled by the 9.2-magnitude earthquake of 1964. On your right, a moose. On your left, Denali, the tallest mountain in North America. On your right, two moose.
"They'll stop the train for moose, bear and bald eagles," said a passenger from Fairbanks, who was returning from a girlfriends' weekend in Anchorage, "but not for Sarah Palin's house."
In Wasilla, she pointed out the former governor's street sign (left side) and her church (right side).
Most of the travelers continued onward to Fairbanks, but a few of us hopped off at Talkeetna. I disembarked knowing that I would be stuck here for several days. The next passenger train would not return till Tuesday.
Trisha Costello, who owns the Roadhouse, and her partner picked us up. The lodge and restaurant are a short walk from the station, but we took the long way around to get the lay of the town: the Fairview Inn for live music and drinks; the Walter Harper Talkeetna Ranger Station for a video about mountain climbing in Denali National Park; and Nagley's Store, office of the late Mayor Stubbs, a cat. We passed only a few people walking the snowy streets, a sharp contrast to summer, when throngs of cruisers and land tourists jam the town like spawning salmon.
"There are two Alaskas," Trisha said. "Winter Alaska really belongs to Alaskans, with the occasional visitor, flight crew or traveling nurse. They come in the winter because it's not summer."
Eight years ago, the Roadhouse started holding weekend pie-making classes during the slow season. Three student bakers attended the afternoon session. Only one - me - lived in the Lower 48, arrived by train and never had baked a pie. The other two friends drove up from Anchorage and knew their way around flour and a pound of butter.
Andy Howe, our easygoing instructor, handed us each a white apron (for keeps) and asked us to pick a flavor.
The choices covered the fruit spectrum, from apples to berries, singular or in such combos as rhubarb and raspberry. I chose a mix of black, blue and cranberry, which I pilfered throughout the lesson, sucking on the frozen clusters.
I tried to copy Andy's techniques but couldn't keep up. The edge of my crust looked like an unkempt braid.
"The imperfections are what make your pie perfect," he said. "You know it's handmade."
Hours later, I opened a box with my pie inside and slightly shuddered. But then I remembered another one of Andy's adages: "An ugly pie is the pie you don't make."
In the dining room, I approached several guests, offering a slice.
There were several takers. Lonnie Dupre, an Arctic explorer attempting a winter solo ascent of Mount Hunter in Denali, cleaned his plate. Bye, bye, beautiful pie.
To view the northern lights, you need utter darkness. That leaves a lot of daylight hours to fill. To be exact, 9 hours 51 minutes and 32 seconds on the day I arrived, with more than a 6-minute gain each day thereafter.
Many activities that seem exotic in the Lowers are a way of life for Alaskans. They use snowshoes, sled dogs and snowmachines (mobiles, to you and me) for errands and commuting. Their transportation modes are more adventurous than ours. Plus, you'd earn a low rating for telling an Uber driver that he's a good boy.
Several outfitters in Talkeetna rent snowmachines and arrange dog-sled rides, but only Iris Vondenham shows visitors how her dogs help her run the household.
"I have a spring a quarter-mile away," said the owner of Talkeetna Flower and Homestead Tours. "I use four dogs to fill up the jugs."
Iris, who came to Alaska by way of the Netherlands and Silicon Valley, homesteads 7 miles south of Talkeetna. In addition to traditional dog sled tours, she invites guests into her home, a gnome-like dwelling with the basic amenities of a campsite. She chops wood for her stove, forages chaga for tea and relies on solar panels and a generator to power her lights (winter-use only) and computer (she still works as a Web designer).
"People say, 'You're so tough,'" she said, "but I don't have an option."
Iris bought the 40-acre property for her dogs. She needed space for her septet to run - and howl - without annoying the neighbors.
"Every day, they're pretty much running," she said of the dogs, who the day before had helped her groom 5 miles of trails.
The dogs live outdoors, in or atop their wooden shelters, though Iris sometimes brings a few inside for a sleepover. Iris unhooked Sam, an Alaskan husky mix who acted more like a lap dog than a lead-in-training. I followed him inside, where Iris made tea and talked about her way of life. She bought the property more than a year ago, transforming the weekend retreat (basically a skeleton with an outhouse) into her year-round residence. She has a long list of renovation ideas, including a garden, woodshed, root cellar, sauna and smoker. But a more pressing need: collecting water.
Iris harnessed Sam, Rachel, Luke and Mouse and sped down a spruce-lined trail to the year-round water source. She crawled down to a spout and filled two plastic containers. The dogs curled up in the snow, relaxing between chores.
In winter, the Aurora Dora Gallery in Talkeetna opens at 1 p.m. Owner Dora Redman, who works the graveyard shift as a northern lights photographer, is not an early riser. When she teaches workshops, her day starts at 10 p.m.
Dora hails from Sao Paolo, a Brazilian city that has neither northern lights nor snow. She has been photographing the aurora borealis for nearly 20 years and understands the natural phenomena as well as any Alaskan or geophysicist.
"You need dark, clear skies with no light pollution," she said. "Some people believe that if you whistle, the aurora will come closer."
She paused and looked at me with mock sternness.
"Please don't whistle."
Dora said we were in the low end of the 11-year solar cycle, which means the activity in the sun that produces sun spots is calmer and creates fewer intense auroras.
"In three to five years," she said, "we will reach a high."
But, she added, "Any little shake of the magnetic field will produce some form of the aurora."
I told Dora I was headed to Fairbanks next. She said the city was an excellent spot for the lights, because Fairbanks sits directly under the aurora oval. But for a dramatic framing of the main subject, she prefers Talkeetna.
"For a photographer, Fairbanks is gorgeous, but Talkeetna is phenomenal," she said. "We have something no one else has - the Alaska Range on the northern horizon." (Another bonus: Talkeetna is 20 degrees warmer.)
Dora pulled up the Current Activity map on the Aurora Forecast.
"Aurora is happening in Europe right now," she said.
To bide my time, I set out in search of moose and more people who could assure me I would see the aurora.
Dream scenario: I am soaking in Chena Hot Springs when the sky transforms into a rave dance party.
Nightmare reality: I am soaking in Chena Hot Springs when I hear a heavy make-out session in a dark corner of the pool. At least someone is getting lucky.
About 60 miles northeast of Fairbanks, the hot springs have been pruning skin since 1905, when a pair of gold-mining brothers pursued a steamy tip from a U.S. Geological Survey team. The brew of sulfate, chloride and bicarbonate of sodium averages 106 degrees, easily 100 times warmer than the evening air temperature.
After dark, I peeled back my onion layers and, in my bathing suit, belly-crawled from the shallows into the shoulder-high water. Steam rolled in like Maine fog. Ghostly figures floated in and out of view. I accidentally crashed a game of Marco Polo.
I stayed in the hot springs more than two hours, my arms and legs wobbling like overcooked noodles. Back in my cabin, I was brushing my teeth when I noticed an insulated golf cart puttering down the lane. The vehicle pulled up, and the driver walked toward my door. Waving my toothbrush, I excitedly asked him, "Are you my wake-up call?"
He showed me an image of a neon green bolt hovering over the Ice Museum, a few steps from my cabin. I scoured the sky for a match but only saw a fuzzy green shape that, in a different place and time, could pass for pollution. Wrapped in a quilt, I roamed the resort wishing upon a star for a stronger aurora. But I was too late: The stars had shut down the request line.
At the Borealis Basecamp, I set up my position before the sun dropped. Tea mug on the nightstand, gray down comforter peeled back, pillows stacked and angled. Now I was ready for some bedtime aurora-viewing.
The base camp opened in November on 70 acres of boreal forest, 25 miles north of the bright lights and big city of Fairbanks. The natural features (trees, mountains, unobstructed sky) dwarf the bread crumbs of civilization, including a gold mine, an oil pipeline and the distant Elliott Highway.
Guests sleep in futuristic-looking domes that are off the grid, though you'd never know it without peeking behind Oz's curtain. I had heat, running water and a fridge. The one reminder that I was "roughing it" was the toilet. After about 16 flushes, I would need a replacement liner for the dry toilet. But that was a small sacrifice for the dome's best feature: the giant window that turned the sleeping accommodations into an observatory.
I watched the full moon rise before venturing over to the communal yurt, where guests gather for meals and socializing. Jeremy Rogers, one of the owners, and Frank Stelges, who leads photography classes, were relaxing with a pair of dogs and a plate of pastries. I asked Jeremy about the inspiration for the domes. He said research centers in Antarctica use the shelters, as do rescue teams, after natural disasters. The fiberglass buildings are quick to assemble and can withstand extreme weather as well as polar bears. The basecamp's domes are identical, with the exception of the 16-foot-wide helicopter-screen window. Those are a Borealis Basecamp original.
"Nothing was built for aurora-viewing," Jeremy said. "We are trying to create an aurora-centric destination."
Earlier in the week, the northern lights had unfurled over the six domes. A Florida film crew working on a reality show captured the moment, a crucial plotline for their pilot. The show was about granting wishes to individuals confronting serious obstacles. Blake White, a West Virginia farmer, suffered a degenerative eye disease that threatened his vision. His one wish was to see the northern lights, and Alaska complied.
For once, I didn't care if the sky was blotted out with snow clouds. That it was bright outside. That the Aurora Forecast was a 2. I finally was going to see the northern lights.
I entered a very dark space and, within minutes, swoops and swirls of green appeared before me. I watched the lights flit like gossamer scarves across the sky and cascade down like a waterfall. A detached voice reminded us that to see the aurora borealis, we needed patience and a parka.
I sank deeper into the movie theater seat at the University of Alaska Museum of the North in Fairbanks. Actually, I just needed patience.