Welcome to Bettles, Alaska! Population 63 (it’s really only 29 during winter months), 35 mi north of the arctic circle, 150 mi to the nearest village, average winter temperature -15F (-26C) and completely off the grid.
Why would any person with a deep appreciation of warmth (like myself) travel voluntarily to this remote village in the middle of winter, you ask? It’s for the most spectacular show put up by nature – Aurora Borealis! The northern lights display cannot be forecasted, but the probability of seeing them is greater closer to the Arctic Circle during late winter months. We had only two nights to catch them and we were extremely lucky to see an amazing show on the first night. I even got a glimpse of the lights on the flight from Seattle to Fairbanks.
Bettles lodge can accommodate 21 guests at a time and all of them are there in search for the light show. There is no sleeping at night at the lodge. Everyone is on the lookout for the green magic in the sky and ready to go into the bitter cold at any point during the night.
On the first night at midnight, they drove us to a pond house a few miles away from the village to better see the lights without any light pollution. Some people just laid on the frozen lake and enjoyed the lights dancing right above us. The lights seemed deceivingly close. It almost felt like you could reach up and touch them. At one point the aurora covered the entire sky and lit the night in a green glow.
The lights are beyond spectacular in real life, but they look a lot better on camera because of the long shutter speed. I experimented a little with the flashlight.
On the second night the aurora was not nearly as impressive. To the naked eye, the lights looked like a whisper of grayish cloud in the sky that was slowly changing its shape and strength. We decided not to go to the pond house but rather stay at the lodge and check up on the sky every hour or so. We gave up at 3 am. The lights never lived up to the show on the previous night, but I had some fun photographing the village phone booth.
During daytime, the lodge offers fun activities like snow shoeing, cross country skiing, dog sledding and snow machining. We did the first three activities and the highlight was definitely dog sledding.
Two-hour dog sledding at -10F was an experience in itself. I brought with me my warmest winter clothes and boots, but the dog mushers didn’t think so. They gave me another winter coat to wear on top of mine, mittens to wear on top my two pairs and army-grade bunny snow boots. I could barely move, but I was nice and warm the entire 2 hours. Ten dogs were strapped in to the sled and after the musher’s “alright!” off we went.
The dogs were very eager to go on a ride, they were barking and jumping and pooping, all at the same time. I was surprised to learn that dogs are trained to poop, pee and eat snow while they run, no pit stops for that, and they did that a lot
On the way back, I asked to stop so I can take a picture of the sunset and the dogs were not happy about that at all and they voiced their disapproval of my request, sorry doggies!
We also tried snowshoeing and cross country skiing on the frozen river, which was a lot of fun. Cross country skiing is quite a workout, in less than half an hour I was sweating.
The visitor center for the most remote National Park in the US, the Gates to the Arctic, was across the road from the lodge. The park is accessible only by plane and there are no facilities of any kind in the park. We watched a movie about the park in the visitor center and flew over the park on the way to Bettles, so I will move this park to the list of National Parks we’ve visited:)
The people that live and work at the lodge are all very nice and happy to be there. Almost all of their stories are along the same lines “I came to Alaska to visit, I fell in love with it, and I decided to stay”. Most of them come from other cold weather states and countries though. Their pets are always hanging around the lodge.
We spent two days in Fairbanks. On the first day, before departing for Bettles, we stopped by the World Ice Art Championship. It was still early in the competition so there weren’t a lot of ice sculptures ready, but the ones we saw were pretty intricate.
On the last day in Fairbanks we drove to Chena Hot Springs Resort. The natural outdoor hot springs Rock Lake reaches an average 106F, which felt pretty amazing in -10F.
Chena was 60 mi of driving on a road covered with ice. This one time we wanted to purchase additional insurance from the car rental place and they didn’t offer any! At every turn or slight curve in the road my heart was stopping and all my muscles were clenching, but we made safely to and from Chena. Good thing my parents don’t speak English and can’t read this
There is also a nice little ice museum in Chena, where they serve appletinis in ice martini glasses.
By the end of the trip, the skin on my fingers cracked and my iphone didn’t recognize my thumbprint anymore because of the extremely dry air. But that’s ok, because this trip is definitely in the top of the most exciting experiences so far!