Getting Cold Feet at Coldfoot Camp


A green light is shining on the mountains.
Photo taken by Vanessa with her Samsung phone: Imagine what she could do with a real camera!

“Looky, looky!†An elderly Asian lady excitedly tugged on my coat sleeve and pointed to the sky. Above us, the aurora borealis gracefully danced across the heavens, putting on a show the likes of which I’d never seen before. Vanessa and I (and it seemed roughly half the population of Asia) were in Alaska—high above the Arctic Circle in the tiny settlement of Wiseman, AK, where we all gasped in wonder as the night sky took on a life of its own.

After traveling the Dalton Highway all day and part of the night—our journey made longer by a jack-knifed truck—we had arrived at Coldfoot Camp, population 10. When word came that the northern lights were expected to make an appearance, we decided to travel to the old mining town of Wiseman, about 14 miles further north—or an hour’s drive—to experience this natural phenomenon far away from any manmade lights. So we hopped in a van to drive to this thriving rural metropolis…population 14.

Vanessa: We’ve been traveling north for nine hours. How much north can be left in this state?

Terri: Maybe we’re going to watch the northern lights with polar bears.

Vanessa: That would be awesome. At least we’d be snuggly warm.

Cold doesn’t begin to describe the bone-chilling temperatures this far above the Arctic Circle. Though we desperately wanted to see the lights, it’s hard to summon up a lot of enthusiasm when it’s negative 40 degrees…and you’re just starting your journey at 11 p.m. We decked ourselves out in more layers than an onion (and would happily have added more if we could have wrestled the outerwear off the other tourists.) There is such a thing as coat lust.

A clock on the side of a building in winter.
It warmed up to -20 by morning! Photo by Vanessa

A Tiny Cabin, A Warm Fire and an Unusual Man

We were welcomed to a one-room cabin in the middle of nowhere by Jack, a man right out of central casting if you were looking for a weathered, charismatic Alaskan character. It did make me wonder what it is about traveling that makes people (or at least us) forget to ask those safety questions we do at home. Things like, “Why are we going to a cabin in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night, with strangers? And why are we eating and drinking the things that even stranger strangers hand us?â€

In this case, it was a good decision. (And trust me, often it’s not.) Inside that little cabin was a fireplace with a roaring fire, hot chocolate and cookies. And then there was Jack—who would (and should) be the mayor of Wiseman if there were enough people to hold an election. Jack embodies all that is interesting, unusual and quirky about rural Alaska. He lives in this tiny village, welcoming anyone and everyone who happens to visit. He knows everything that there is to know about the northern lights. And he patches his pants together with duct tape and rocks a pair of bunny boots.

A pair of white boots sitting on top of a table.
Bunny Boots, because you have to see them to understand!

About those Bunny Boots

For those new to the Bush, bunny boots are extreme cold vapor barrier boots, most often used by the U.S. military. And in Jack’s case, they were huge. This delighted the Asian contingent to no end, and Jack is now immortalized in hundreds of photos comparing tourists’ tiny boots with his massive footprint. Even if the lights hadn’t appeared, I’m not sure that our traveling companions would have minded since they were having the time of their lives in this cozy little outpost.

In addition to being fashion-forward, Jack also happens to be an expert photographer—especially of the northern lights. And he became Vanessa’s new BFF when he showed her how to set up a tripod and use her Samsung phone to capture the spectacle in the sky, something that she had not succeeded in doing up until this point.

There’s no way to truly describe what standing under the lights is like; we spent hours staring at the night sky, oohing and ahhing until we couldn’t stand the cold one more second. I knew it was time to leave when I stood so close to the outdoor fire that I burned my gloves right off.

Insider tip: make sure that you occasionally look down from the sky to check your surroundings, especially when standing near open flames.

A snowy mountain with buildings and trees in the background.
Coldfoot Camp in all its frozen glory. Photo by Terri

Who Stays at a Camp Named Coldfoot?

As the lights, and some of the other tourists, began to fade, we made our way back to Coldfoot Camp where we were overnighting before flying back to Fairbanks. One of three tiny settlements dotted along the northern end of the Dalton Highway, Coldfoot isn’t a place where people just pop in for a visit. If you’re heading up there, you have to be committed—or possibly running from the law.

The first people who thought it was a good idea to settle here obviously arrived in summer. When the harsh winter weather showed up, they got cold feet and headed south. Thus the name.

A close up of the side of a wooden pole
A not so subtle reminder that your toes could easily become icicles. Photo by Terri

Built by Truckers for Truckers

The toe-freezing cold may have scared off the first settlers, but it didn’t stop truck drivers. Coldfoot Camp is the northernmost truck stop in the world, and it is renowned for its commitment to those brave souls who travel the Dalton. It all started with Dick Mackey, whose claim to fame was the 1978 Iditarod win—the closest race ever. He literally won by a dog’s nose.

Mackey wanted to show his appreciation for the hard-working truckers keeping the Alaskan Pipeline project going, so he converted an old bus into a hot dog and hamburger stand in Coldfoot. The truckers appreciated it so much, they began dropping off their surplus supplies so that Mackey could build a permanent structure. It’s a place built by truckers for truckers, and there’s even a long table reserved strictly for these drivers—no tourists allowed.

A large wooden table with chairs around it.
Truckers only. No tourists. Photo by Terri

Vanessa and I greatly enjoyed dinner and drinks at the bar—not to mention hot showers and warm beds in the basic yet incredibly comfortable accommodations. In fact, she didn’t want to get up when I knocked at her door the next morning. Maybe she already knew what was coming.

The Flight Back—a Slightly Terrifying (and humiliating) Adventure

After a good night’s sleep in the oh-so-warm camp rooms, Vanessa and I joined the truckers for breakfast. Surprised that we had never been given a time for our flight back to Fairbanks, I went to look for answers.

Terri: Hi, we’re flying back to Fairbanks this morning. Do you know what time we need to leave for the airport?

Laughing Man: Not sure when the plane will get here. We’ll call you when it does.

Terri: Don’t we need to be at the airport a couple of hours early?

Laughing Man:  Not exactly.

Leaving our fate in his hands, we went to breakfast, which seemed like a reasonable thing to do at the time. But when we saw our tiny toy plane land on the icy runway (which clearly doubles as an open field—or possibly a lake) during warmer months, we were sorry we had eaten anything…ever.

A small airplane sitting on top of an airport runway.
An icy runway, a step stool & a toy plane. What could possibly go wrong? Photo by Terri

We walked out onto the runway, (yes, seriously), and waited for a few people to disembark and grab their luggage (no claim check here!) before getting on the plane. Before boarding, the seemingly nice pilot asked us our weight.

Terri: Well, that’s not polite.

Vanessa:  They need to know what you weigh to distribute the weight evenly on the plane. He’s trying to keep up alive.

Terri: What happens if we lie?

Vanessa:  We die.

Terri: That seems like pretty extreme punishment for shaving a few pounds off.

Shaking his head, he seated us on opposite sides of the toy plane. Then he flew us safely back to Fairbanks, along with a couple of other passengers. Vanessa took photos the whole way, so at least there would be a record of what happened when they found the wreckage among the jagged peaks.

In case I lied.

A view of the ocean from an airplane window.
Mountain peaks & a frozen Yukon River (a/k/a places not to land) Photo by Terri

If You Go:

Northern Alaska adventures typically start in Fairbanks, and for good reason. Fairbanks has a burgeoning art scene, diverse (& delicious) cuisine, a wealth of information about life in Alaska and hiking with reindeer. (More on that soon!) Check out some of the highlights at www.explorefairbanks.com.

When you’re ready for your arctic adventure, the good folks at Northern Alaska Tour Company will hook you up with a driver for a heart-pumping, fingernail biting trek up the Dalton Highway. They’ll also fly you back to Fairbanks after an exhilarating night of aurora chasing! www.northernalaska.com

How To: Take Pictures of the Aurora with a Cellphone


Now, we don’t normally have ‘How To’ stories on Every Road a Story, because let’s face it, Terri and I are the last people in the world who should be giving advice. But I’ve had a lot of people ask me how to use a cellphone to take photos of the aurora after our recent Fairbanks trip, so I’m going to tell you want the pros up there told me. Because I can occasionally follow instructions.

A big shout out to Drew at Borealis Base Camp, and Jack Reakoff up in Wiseman, Alaska, who, as part of Northern Alaska Tour Company, helped me “master†this ability. While my photos are not National Geographic quality, they did turn out pretty well, considering what I was working with (the cellphone and my complete lack of technological talent). So here we go…

A green sky with some lights in the background
The aurora over A Taste of Alaska lodge in Fairbanks. No tripod, pure luck.

Step 1:

Do you have an iPhone? Yeah, forget about it. As Terri unhappily found out (and she’s still bitter), these phones are not particularly good for photographing an aurora. The best thing you can do is find a friend with an Android and offer to buy them alcohol in exchange for pictures. (Hint, hint)

A green light is shining on the sky.
Sometimes the lights just take your breath away. Or maybe that’s the -33 temperature.

Step 2:

If you have a fairly up-to-date Android, you should be able to capture the Northern Lights. I used a Samsung Galaxy S9. No, they aren’t paying me to say that (though guys, if you want to hit me up for an affiliate deal, we can talk.) You will also need a tripod, because even if you have nerves of steel, your hands are going to move too much holding the phone for it to stay in focus. Especially if it is 33 degrees below zero and you don’t have your mittens on.

A green light is shining over the trees.
I feel like I’m about to be beamed up in this one. Guess they didn’t find signs of intelligent life…

Step 3:

Go into your camera settings and put it on the PRO setting. (I know, right? It’s so easy to become a pro at something!)

Step 4:

Set your ISO to 800. On my camera, it’s the listing on the far left. Hit the button and then slide the scale. No, I don’t know what an ISO is, either. I just know it has to be on the highest setting.

Step 5:

Set your F-stop to 10. Again, I don’t know what an F-stop is, but it’s the second listing to the right and is labeled F1.5.

Step 6:

Set the Manual Focus (MF) as far to the right as possible.

A green light is shining on the sky.
Reminds me of a whale’s tail. Another super cool Alaskan thing to see!

Step 7:

Put the phone in a tripod, with the lens facing up. Trust me when I say that I had to learn this the hard way—no one needed to see that many horrendous selfies. Terri also had a problem with this when I asked her to take a photo of me under the lights. And yes, we will soon be starting a “really bad photos†gallery.

A man with his face covered by the dark.
This is why you have to point the camera the right direction.

Step 8:

Take your phone and tripod outside, aim it in the general direction of the lights, and start snapping. At this point, if you’re like me, you will realize that when you put the phone into the tripod, you covered the button that lets you take pictures, so you will have to reposition it again. You may or may not choose to use a few swear words at this point. (I did, but work at your own comfort level.) While it’s awkward to have to get underneath the phone to take photos, trust me, it’s worth it.

A green light is shining over the trees.
The aurora above Wiseman, AK.

When you first see the aurora, you may be surprised that it is white and not the greens and purples you see in photos. This is because the human eye does not see the same thing that the camera does—and you are going to be blown away when you look through the lens.

A green light is shining on the sky.
We stood under the aurora for about three hours, and it just kept getting better. And colder.

Step 9:

Send pictures to all of your friends and post on social media to make everyone jealous.

A green light is shining on the sky.
There’s a reason why you hear that the Northern Lights dance.

Some added hints learned from experience:

  1. Wear lots of layers, and put handwarmers in your pockets. It’s almost impossible to snap the photos wearing gloves, so you’re going to need to get heat on your fingers as much as possible.
  2. Bring an extra picture card. There’s nothing more frustrating than having your camera fill up and not being able to take photos after all this trouble. (Again, swearing level is up to you.)
  3. Don’t spend your entire time taking pictures. Seeing the aurora dance is an incredible experience, and you need to soak it all in. It looks a lot more impressive when viewed through your own eyes, so savor the moment and don’t worry so much about social media.

 

A Night On the Moon, Sort Of


When you’ve arrived in Fairbanks, Alaska in January and your host asks if you would like to spend the night at Borealis Basecamp, you say yes…even before you know what that means. And then you look it up and realize you’re not just heading to a destination, you’re heading straight into an experience—one that you’ll never forget.

Situated on 100 acres in the snowy boreal forest just 25 miles outside of Fairbanks, Borealis Basecamp feels as if it’s worlds away from civilization—in a good way. Guests stay in geodesic domes with expansive clear ceilings that provide unobstructed views of the night sky and if you’re lucky, the Northern Lights. And you can see all of this without ever leaving the comfort of your warm and cozy bed. Considering that the temperatures in the region can dip as low as -35 or more, the ‘not leaving the warm bed part’ of this equation is especially enticing. And we were lucky enough to snag a typically sold out dome—which pretty much looks like an igloo or a pod…or maybe an egg.

A group of snow covered cabins on top of a hill.
Borealis Basecamp a/k/a the Moon!

Capturing the Sights

As we headed out on the ice-covered Elliot Highway and climbed up the mountain—Vanessa’s teeth gritting the whole way and me just admiring the scenery—the snow clouds we’d been under all day began to clear. Our chances for seeing the aurora borealis were improving. YAY! Along with those vast blue skies came a spectacular sunset that warranted a stop for photos.

We were snapping pictures like mad when we arrived at the property, which resembles nothing so much as a compound on the moon with pods dotting the monochromatic, snow-covered landscape. We were greeted by Drew, the head of maintenance, who had an abundance of tips to help us capture the aurora by cell phone…well, some cell phones.

Drew:  Are you planning to take photos of the aurora?

Terri:  Absolutely!

Vanessa:  But we don’t have a clue how.

Drew:  What are you using?

Vanessa:  I’ve got a Samsung cell phone. A Galaxy 9.

Drew:  Excellent! I can show you a few tricks.

Terri:  I’m planning to use my cell phone, too. It’s an iPhone.

Drew:  You’re outta luck.

Turns out that iPhones can’t capture the aurora (thanks, Apple!) so I spent the next few minutes listening to Drew explain to Vanessa how to set up the Pro setting on her phone. Seeing as how Vanessa is COMPLETELY technologically challenged, I had my doubts. Yet, she eagerly listed to Drew’s advice, even following him into a dark bathroom to test out the settings. She was quite excited by whatever she was seeing in there, leading some other visitors in the lobby to look questioningly at the sounds coming from behind the closed door. Ah, the lengths we go to for our art.

A group of snow covered cabins on top of a hill.
Inside our cozy dome/igloo/egg

A Lesson in Toilet Technology

Photography lesson concluded, our lovely hostess Rachel led us to our dome. Inside we found wood floors, stylish furnishings and a cozy, warm atmosphere. If this is off-grid living, sign me up!

She showed us how to adjust the Toyo heater and then suggested that we follow her into the bathroom. We were starting to wonder if this was a thing here since this was the second shared bathroom request in less than an hour, but who are we to question the locals?

The three of us stood in the bathroom looking down at the closed toilet.

Rachel:  So I need to explain the toilet to you.

Terri (looking at Vanessa worriedly):  Um, okay. You know we’ve used a toilet before, right?

Rachel: This is a dry toilet. It’s environmentally friendly and very important when you’re living off-grid.

Then she opened the lid. We both stood there in amazement—our toilet was filled with aluminum foil. Then she flushed it.

Vanessa:  What the fresh hell? That looks like Jiffy Pop!

Rachel:  Well, it kinda does. But I wish you hadn’t said that out loud.

Terri (sighs):  No more Jiffy Pop in our future.

I realize that we’re starting to sound like toilet freaks at this point. But seriously, just watch the toilet flush video (yes, of course, we stood there and took one) and you’ll understand why it’s so fascinating.

Rachel:  Just one more thing. The foil lining is actually a cartridge, and there are about 12 in each set. When you see the line at the bottom of the toilet, call me, and I’ll come replace it for you. I’m here until about 2 a.m.

So now we’ve got a quandary. Have you ever tried to keep track of your flushes? Yeah, me neither. And I have to admit, it’s a little stressful. Even if you don’t have to go to the bathroom, you suddenly do when someone tells you that you have a limited number of chances…and leaves you wondering at 3 a.m. if you should spin that roulette wheel and use the bathroom, possibly leaving your roommate with no facilities, or hold it until you explode. The struggle is real.

Anyway, we finally pulled ourselves away from the toilet to go take photos of the lunar-like landscape, and then headed to the dining room for a delicious three-course, chef-prepared meal that included the choice of flat iron steak, Alaska sockeye salmon or Alaskan king crab as entrée options—no complaints here! Housed in a large yurt with floor-to-ceiling windows, the dining room was just as impressive as our dome/igloo/egg. There was also a lounge area with a fireplace and comfy sofas where guests could hang out and play games, read and use toilets that flushed without the benefit of Jiffy Pop linings.

A group of snow covered cabins on top of a hill.
Dining in the Yurt

Starry, Starry Night

That evening, we stretched out in our warm beds and looked up at the sky above us. The stars did not disappoint. The Big Dipper was center stage from our beds, and we watched numerous shooting stars in a sky that seemed to go on forever. We anxiously awaited the aurora borealis—and at one point, it started to rise.

Terri:  This view might even surpass the toilet.

Vanessa:  Unless you take into account that we may be eaten by a massive hawk because we’re sitting in an egg.

Terri: Hopefully, hawks don’t hunt at night.

Vanessa:  Or an alien might beam us up. We are sleeping in a pod.

Terri:  Please tell me that you’ll be asleep soon.

A view of the sky from underneath a plane.
Skyview from our Beds–waiting for nightfall!

The Elusive Aurora

The Northern Lights show up when they’re good and ready, so it’s common to ask for a wake-up call when they begin to show. We had just drifted off to sleep when my cellphone rang…you know the one that would do me absolutely no good when taking photos. #bitterpartyofone

Rachel: Hi, Terri! The aurora is starting!

Terri:  Excellent, thank you.

I hang up the phone and have no idea who that was or where I am. I mean, it’s not your typical hotel room since you open your eyes to look straight up into the sky.

Vanessa:  You look confused.

Terri:  Because I’m in an egg in Alaska. Waking up at 2 a.m. to see the sky change color. Because that makes perfect sense, right?

Vanessa:  Some people are just not morning people.

We watched, waited and eventually began to see a little bit of light rising above the horizon. Vanessa ran outside numerous times to try to get photos, only once making the mistake of going out in her long underwear without remembering to put on pants.

Alas, a brilliant aurora wasn’t in the stars for us that night. (See what I did there? ) However, we did spend a night sleeping under the stars, in a dome/igloo/egg-pod, possibly on the moon with a dry flush toilet that still had cartridges available for use. It really doesn’t get any better than that.

A group of snow covered cabins on top of a hill.
Off-grid & Loving It! Or as our friend, Sue said: “You’ve Hatched!”

If You Go:

Reserve early because the Borealis Basecamp has approximately 95 percent occupancy during aurora season from August 21st through April 21st.  In addition to viewing the night sky, other activities are available that include sled dog rides, snow machining and walking tours.

www.borealisbasecamp.net