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Old Nov 9, 11, 2:06 pm   #1
 
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Northern Lights in Alaska

Hi there,

Might sound crazy for a first timer in Alaska, but I booked a week-long MR to Anchorage in the Middle of February.

I have seen some Alaskan people say the Winter is the real way to experience Alaska....

So I am planning to go North towards Fairbanks to improve my chance of Aurora sightings. I guess the sky is clearer in the interior.

I'll be renting a Compact or Economy car. I'd like a SUV but this is beyond my budget.

Any resident expert could tell me all that I did wrong and how I could make it right?

I am quite familiar with driving in the snow. I want to avoid critters and the like and I know that days will be short.

I picked second half of February because I wanted less cloudy nights and a new moon.

Minos

PS: I guess no Grizzly or Brown Bear at this time. Any thing else could harm me during my time in the outside looking at the skies? Wolves?

Last edited by Minos; Nov 9, 11 at 6:28 pm.
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Old Nov 9, 11, 9:17 pm   #2
 
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I would consider flying, taking the train, or one each direction from Anchorage to Fairbanks. The road is open year round but I'm not sure how fun it actually is to drive it in the winter.

If you haven't seen it already, here is the Aurora Forecast website:
http://www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast
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Old Nov 11, 11, 9:11 am   #3
 
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The road will take approx. 8 hours each way if you drive the speed limit. Unless there is a winter storm (quite possible) you will be fine in a front wheel drive car. By late Feb. there will be about 9-10 hours of daylight. Clear days let more light in later.

I agree with alphaeagle. Drive it one way and use alternate transport in the other direction. The train offers spectacular views but takes 12-13 hours one way. it can get quite long unless you are very patient.

Late Feb. in ANC has the Fur Rendezvous, a huge winter carnival with lots of things to do.

As has been said before, the ANC group tries very hard to meet up with our visitors. There is a thread in the AS forum that we track for that.
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Old Nov 11, 11, 10:49 am   #4
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The road will take approx. 8 hours each way if you drive the speed limit. Unless there is a winter storm (quite possible) you will be fine in a front wheel drive car.
Some rental companies in Anchorage offer studded cars for an additional surcharge that may come out to less than the cost of an SUV. I would recommend looking into that option if the weather looks questionable. (They're typically available as day-of-rental upgrades and can't be reserved in advance, although 6 or so hours before you arrive and letting them know you're interested in studs might help there to be one available.) I do not know if any of the companies that allow one-way rentals to or from Fairbanks have studs. That may be a limiting factor if you want to do that.

I'd make it a point to stay out in Chena Hot Springs if/when you go to Fairbanks. (You'll need a car to get out there, so rent one in Fairbanks if you don't have a rental from Anchorage.) It's far enough out of the city that you won't be affected by light pollution. The weather in Interior Alaska tends to be clearer than along the coast, so a night or two at Chena makes for great chances of seeing the Northern Lights. Plus there's nothing quite like dipping down in the 106-degree water and then standing straight up and getting crusted by a coating of ice in the -20-degree (yes, minus 20) weather....and then dunking back down and repeating the cycle. It's one of the most exhilarating experiences I've ever done.

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Originally Posted by BOB W View Post
As has been said before, the ANC group tries very hard to meet up with our visitors. There is a thread in the AS forum that we track for that.
Link in my signature.
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Old Nov 12, 11, 1:50 pm   #5
 
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Minos View Post
Hi there,

Might sound crazy for a first timer in Alaska, but I booked a week-long MR to Anchorage in the Middle of February.

I have seen some Alaskan people say the Winter is the real way to experience Alaska....

So I am planning to go North towards Fairbanks to improve my chance of Aurora sightings. I guess the sky is clearer in the interior.

I'll be renting a Compact or Economy car. I'd like a SUV but this is beyond my budget.

Any resident expert could tell me all that I did wrong and how I could make it right?

I am quite familiar with driving in the snow. I want to avoid critters and the like and I know that days will be short.

I picked second half of February because I wanted less cloudy nights and a new moon.

Minos

PS: I guess no Grizzly or Brown Bear at this time. Any thing else could harm me during my time in the outside looking at the skies? Wolves?
You should fly direct in/out of FAI and skip ANC altogether if you are only wanting to see the Aurora. As a Parks Highway veteran, I would strongly advise against doing that drive in February in a rental car with no snow tires.

The other issue with renting a car in ANC and driving is that Anchorage rental cars aren't winterized for Interior Alaska (perhaps part of the ANC mentality that Alaska starts and ends 50 miles in any direction from C Street, but that's another discussion entirely). If you get up to Fairbanks or Chena Hot Springs and it gets down to 30 below overnight (a distinct possiblity), you could be in big trouble with your car. Your average Anchorage vehicle is usually only winterized to the 20's-below zero, and I have yet to see a rental car in Anchorage that has a block heater installed.

Just my $0.02. I spent 5 years in Fairbanks and working on year #6 in Anchorage, and routinely go back to Fairbanks year-round (going up next week, as a matter of fact)
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Old Nov 12, 11, 7:21 pm   #6
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perhaps part of the ANC mentality that Alaska starts and ends 50 miles in any direction from C Street
There's more?! I never knew. I thought the road ended there.

ANC cars really aren't winterized at all. We all keep the same oil, same antifreeze, same everything that the car comes from the dealer with. About half of us put studded tires on, but I don't know anyone who does any more than that. It's just not needed.

As for rental cars: some do come from the factory with factory block heaters installed, but it's usually just luck of the draw. The rental agents aren't likely to even know which cars have block heaters.

I only know of one company at ANC that rents cars with studded tires. Another company had them last year, but I don't know if they're doing studded tires again this year.
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Old Nov 16, 11, 7:50 pm   #7
 
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As for rental cars: some do come from the factory with factory block heaters installed, but it's usually just luck of the draw. The rental agents aren't likely to even know which cars have block heaters.
I wouldn't want to drive from ANC to the Fairbanks area on a day like today without a block heater, battery warmer, etc. It was pretty cold in the Fairbanks area. To the east of Fairbanks, I Eielson AFB hit a record low today of 42 below this morning.
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Old Nov 19, 11, 1:08 pm   #8
 
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Originally Posted by jplenny View Post
I wouldn't want to drive from ANC to the Fairbanks area on a day like today without a block heater, battery warmer, etc. It was pretty cold in the Fairbanks area. To the east of Fairbanks, I Eielson AFB hit a record low today of 42 below this morning.
I was up there Wednesday and Thursday...funny thing was that 35 below in Fairbanks was more pleasant than single digits in Anchorage with the wind blowing 40 miles an hour.

But yes, driving around in those temps in an un-winterized vehicle is not just a bad idea, it can be life-threatening. Hopefully the OP heeds that advice.
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Old Nov 19, 11, 7:07 pm   #9
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Originally Posted by Chugach View Post
I was up there Wednesday and Thursday...funny thing was that 35 below in Fairbanks was more pleasant than single digits in Anchorage with the wind blowing 40 miles an hour.

But yes, driving around in those temps in an un-winterized vehicle is not just a bad idea, it can be life-threatening. Hopefully the OP heeds that advice.
The -20 in perfectly still air at my house early this morning was almost balmy.
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Old Nov 19, 11, 11:43 pm   #10
 
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I totally agree about not attempting to drive ANC-FAI this time of year.

As for animals to be concerned about, if you are driving, also watch out for moose. When we drove from FAI to Chena a couple of years ago, the car in front of us collided with a moose. It did a lot of damage to the car, and some damage to the passengers. The moose took off, but there was blood and hair on the windshield.

My recent experiences with rental cars at ANC and FAI have been a bit frustrating. Long lines; no preferred service; and then you need to attest that there is no damage to the car. So when you finally get to the car and find some damage, you need to start the whole process over again.

BTW I've seen great Northern Lights from the ANC area.
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Old Nov 20, 11, 5:01 am   #11
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BTW I've seen great Northern Lights from the ANC area.
Me, too. Twice in 16 years.

Awesome Northern Lights are a regular feature in FAI. They're an extreme rarity in ANC.
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Old Nov 20, 11, 1:55 pm   #12
 
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I totally agree about not attempting to drive ANC-FAI this time of year.



BTW I've seen great Northern Lights from the ANC area.
The Anchorage-Fairbanks drive in winter isn't bad at all...so long as you have a properly equipped vehicle. I've driven that road every month of the year in my own car. I actually think February and March are the best time of the year to do that drive.

But...I would never advise someone to take an un-equipped rental car on that drive in the middle of winter, especially a car from Anchorage that isn't winterized. Bad, bad idea.

I've lived in ANC six years and can count on one hand the number of times I've seen the lights here, and each time it was just the faint green, not the variety of colors you get up north. Part of the problem is that ANC is perpetually cloudy...Interior AK has better/clearer weather most of the time.
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Old Nov 27, 11, 9:35 am   #13
 
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Thanks for all your advice!
Out of curiosity, do you know who rents winterized car in Anchorage?
Minos
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Old Nov 28, 11, 9:40 am   #14
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Thanks for all your advice!
Out of curiosity, do you know who rents winterized car in Anchorage?
Minos
Dollar Thrifty rents cars with studded tires ($20/day option; first-come, first-serve). Some cars may have block heaters, but if any do, their agents won't know which ones. I'll see if I can do some research and report back. Their four-wheel-drive cars don't have studs, but I'd take a 4WD without studs over a 2WD car with studs.

Budget offered studded cars last year, but I don't know if they are doing studs again this year.

AFAIK, no one else has studs, and no one else will know which (if any) of their cars have block heaters.

No other winterization options are available on any cars in ANC (battery warmers, tank warmers, lower-viscosity oil, different coolant mix, etc.). None will supply you with an emergency kit, but necessary supplies can be picked up at various stores in Anchorage (Walmart, grocery stores, specialty winter/outdoors gear suppliers, etc.).

Roads in Alaska are not salted (so rust isn't a problem), but gravel is used to provide traction. Leave a large distance between you and any car you are following to avoid very-common windshield chips. (Rental agency LDW will cover this damage, and it's worth it IMHO unless you have primary coverage on your credit card [like the Amex PCRP] or have $0-deductible windshield coverage with your insurance company [and aren't worried about a raised premium].)
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Old Nov 28, 11, 12:44 pm   #15
 
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If you decide to make the trip to Fairbanks from Anchorage in the winter, make sure you are prepared for the weather, just in case of a car breakdown or accident.

I came up on a broken down vehicle between Nenana and Healy last night and the occupants did not have appropriate winter gear. While you can get away with a jacket, light gloves, hat, and hiking boots in Anchorage, they won't work for long at -30F. Granted, someone like me is going to come along and help out, however you should be prepared just in case.

When I drove from Anchorage to Fairbanks last December, we left Anchorage at about 5:00am and once we got out of the Wasilla and Houston, we passed only 8 cars going the opposite direction between Sutton and Nenana. My point being, while the road is well maintained, it is very desolate at times.

The couple was extremely happy to sit in my warm car while waiting for a towing company.
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