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Tourists flock to frigid Alaska to watch northern lights
Anchorage Daily News


January 30, 2008
Wednesday PM

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- The bitterly cold winter is becoming a boom time for a few tiny communities in the remote Arctic.

Their moneymaker shimmers in the sky: It's the aurora borealis.

North of the Arctic Circle, tiny outposts such as Bettles and Wiseman are increasingly drawing aurora-seeking tourists from Japan, Europe and the Lower 48.

The statistics are impressive: The northern lights appear most frequently at these latitudes in Alaska.

By traveling to these spots, a visitor will definitely see auroras if it's not cloudy, according to aurora forecasters with the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Each winter, chartered planes and commercial flights unload thousands of aurora-obsessed Japanese tourists into Fairbanks.

The city, south of the Arctic Circle, remains the ultimate destination for most winter travelers who come to Alaska to see the aurora, a solar wind-created phenomenon that creates billowing curtains of green, red and pink light near the north and south poles.

But the city is also a springboard for tour companies and private lodges more than 250 miles to the north that welcome winter travelers to the foothills and valleys of the Brooks Range. Unlike the Fairbanks area, there are no ice sculpture festivals, hot springs or downtown dining.

"You can't go shopping. Unless you like wilderness, there's nothing to do here," warns Berni Hicker, owner of Arctic Getaway, a bed and breakfast in Wiseman.

That suits the type of people who spring for these trips.

"The lights were spectacular and we had fun braving the cold," said Jay DeDapper, a New York City television journalist who in 2006 brought his mother, Marguerite, 83, of Connecticut, to Bettles for the aurora.

Temperatures hovered around minus 40 to minus 50 during their trip, which was a birthday present for Marguerite. She had talked for years about seeing the aurora, he said.

After settling in at the Bettles Lodge, they ate moose lasagna and got to know fellow guests from Japan, New Mexico and California. DeDapper deemed it a perfect spot -- "low-key, nothing fancy," he said.

In some ways, winter tourism has already put a stamp on the region.

The Northern Alaska Tour Co. runs multi-day winter trips to Coldfoot and Wiseman. The company now owns the truck stops at Coldfoot and the Yukon River crossing, which were built to serve Dalton Highway truckers that haul freight to and from Arctic oil fields. The tour company began housing and feeding its summer and winter guests there several years ago.

Truckers often grouse about sharing the gravel haul road with summer tourists and hunters. Now, to a lesser extent, they also share the road in winter.

At least several times a week during winter, the tour company sends a satellite phone-equipped van filled with tourists up to Coldfoot.

They eat and sleep at the truck stop and drive 12 miles up to Wiseman for aurora watching and dog mushing demonstrations, and if the weather permits, drive more than 50 miles north to scenic Atigun Pass.

Before the Northern Alaska tours began in 2001, winter tourist traffic on the road was virtually nonexistent, unlike in summer when tour buses and campers constantly rumble up and down the highway. "This is still very low volume," Reakoff said, of the winter tours.

Bettles, roughly 50 miles from the nearest road, also is welcoming more winter tourists.

The fly-in Bettles Lodge, built by Bush aviators in 1948, now hosts more overnight guests in the winter than it does in the summer. In the summer, most travelers stop in briefly on their way to a float trip or wilderness trek, said Dan Klaes, who runs the lodge with his wife, Lynda.

The growth in winter tourism has been good for Bettles' economy, said Klaes, also the town's mayor.

"It generates economic benefits at a time when there (otherwise) is nothing," he said.

Each winter, about 500 people visit Bettles for the aurora, he estimated, and though it's cold, many of them go skiing or snow machining through black spruce and birch forests in Bettles and the adjoining Native village of Evansville. Both are along the Koyukuk River.

A second lodge that opened in Bettles two years ago, the Spirit Lights Lodge, reports that it is booked solid from mid-February through the first week of April.

"We're open year-round, but our main operation is the winter season," said Annie Wright, who owns Spirit Lights with her husband, Bernard.

Though the trips to Bettles and Wiseman focus on aurora watching, tour operators also offer dog sleds, local lore, snowshoeing, skiing and flight-seeing trips, if the weather allows.

DeDapper said he and his mom spent a day snowshoeing around Bettles, riding on a snow machine to a frozen lake and taking a dog sled ride to the Koyukuk River.

"It was all great fun. Everyone at the lodge shared their stories over dinner and the aurora watch began again," he said.


Reach Elizabeth Bluemink at ebluemink(at)
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