- Our tours are all private. A comparable private tour in Fairbanks costs MUCH more (by as much as multiple thousands) because Fairbanks tour operators are focused on booking a van full of tourists every night and you would have to pay for their empty seats. In fact, groups as small as two people may find our rates cheaper than some non-private tours in Fairbanks, and larger groups will find our rates significantly cheaper.
- We recognize families and friends want to share their experience with each other, so we charge non-photographers in your group a lower rate than photographers. A couple can spend just $200 extra to bring their four children along. That's less than many Fairbanks tours charge for a single person!
- Our flexible-date option allows guests to shift their tour date to coincide with an optimal weather/aurora forecast, and guests may purchase additional tours at discounted rates if they desire more guided time photographing the aurora. Other tour operators simply don't offer such flexibility. Be careful when they mention their high "success" rates; what they call a "successful" aurora sighting may be the kind I wouldn't bother to view from my bedroom window, let alone drive 300 miles to see. If you want a high chance of seeing a good aurora display during your tour and capturing good images, you need flexibility.
- The Lodge is located far from light pollution. This is key for viewing and photographing the aurora on non-tour nights since you would otherwise have to drive on icy roads in a foreign place to escape city lights and then spend most of your night waiting in the cold and dark for the aurora to start dancing.
- Being located in the mountains means we can easily find better natural scenery to include in the foreground for aurora photography. A good aurora photograph requires a strong composition including compelling foreground, and the greater Fairbanks area only has boring trees and hills!
- I am willing to help you create the aurora images you want to make. Other tour operators simply drive you to a location with a clear view of the northern sky and let you take pictures by the side of the road, whereas I can help you plan a shot like the ones I take. If you want to try something adventurous like snowshoeing to a glacier or climbing a mountain ridge to shoot the aurora, I'm all ears—good luck finding another tour guide who will do that!
Why should I choose your tour over a Fairbanks tour?
On the night of your tour, usually after dinner but possibly before if the aurora is expected to appear early, I will meet you at the Lodge to set expectations for what you might see, show you how to operate your camera gear, and demonstrate techniques for photographing the aurora while you practice shooting before we leave in our tour van. If we haven't already planned a shooting location, I will describe the different places we could go that night and offer recommendations based on the weather, moonlight, the amount of snow cover on the ground, the dynamics of your group, the kind of shots you are hoping to achieve, and any other relevant factors. The actual time we depart the Lodge is flexible but is usually between 9 and 11 p.m. We typically won't drive more than 50 miles one-way to reach a shooting location or escape clouds since we offer options that allow you to pick a night with better weather for your tour, but we may bend that limit under certain circumstances. We may visit several locations to add a little diversity to our shots, and we will stay out as late as you want with me as your coach photographing the aurora. I recommend to guests that we stay out until at least 2 or 3 a.m. because peak aurora activity usually lasts until then; members of your group who become tired or feel cold can relax in the vehicle with blankets and hot chocolate or coffee.
What will I experience during a tour?
Yes. For logistics reasons, I do not currently provide tours for visitors or locals staying in the Delta Junction area or anywhere besides the Lodge at Black Rapids.
Do I have to stay at the Lodge at Black Rapids to book a tour?
Guests staying only one night will naturally want to book the date-specific option. Photographers trying to save money and who feel comfortable shooting on their own after receiving private instruction on the first night of their stay may also find the date-specific option better. All other guests should consider the flexible-date option because it is the most cost-effective way to guarantee you will have your tour on the night with the best weather/aurora forecast during your stay. Note that there is a late booking fee of $300 if you book the date-specific option less than 3 days in advance, so waiting until the last minute to book will not save you money and may result in there being no tour availability.
Should I choose the date-specific option or the flexible-date option?
Why is there a late booking fee for booking a tour less than 3 days in advance?
Providing tours in a remote location such as the Lodge at Black Rapids includes logistical challenges that become more difficult to meet on short notice. By charging a late booking fee we are actually encouraging guests to reserve the flexible-date option instead because it provides the same benefit as waiting to the last minute to see what the weather/aurora will do while also guaranteeing tour availability. (*Note: Major aurora events are rarely predicted more than 3 days in advance.) Note that a late booking fee is NOT charged for any additional tours that guests may book during their stay.
Do I get a refund if I don't see the aurora?
No, all tours are non-refundable once booked. Aurora sightings are always uncertain, so we design our tour options with more flexibility than those offered by other tour operators to give you a better chance of a successful aurora sighting during your tour. You will also be given expert aurora photography instruction whether the aurora shows up or not so you will be ready to photograph it on your own during the rest of your Alaska visit. (You can apply your knowledge to shooting in other low light situations as well.) I will help you plan shooting locations if you decide to venture out on your own during the rest of your stay, and I will continue to provide alerts for aurora activity/sightings after your tour. We are dedicated to making your aurora photography quest successful during your stay, even if your tour winds up unsuccessful.
How do I select the date for my tour if I book the flexible date option?
There is no deadline to choose the date for your tour. I will be in touch with you before and after your arrival to provide recommendations based on the weather and aurora forecast. Generally, the first night in your window with relatively clear skies will be the one I recommend, though this might not be the case if the weather looks exceptionally good during your stay or there is a geomagnetic storm expected on a different night. We may also wait until late afternoon to make a go/no-go call on a given night, but will usually make the call before dinner so you may enjoy your evening. Guests make the ultimate decision!
If you book the date-specific tour option, your tour may be canceled due to severe weather that presents a risk to your safety, but not simply due to cloudy weather, snow, or cold temperatures. (-40 °F is a possibility!) For example, a tour might be canceled due to a high wind warning producing excessively low wind chills or a blizzard creating dangerous driving conditions. If your tour is canceled, you will be offered a full refund for the tour or the choice to reschedule your tour without charge if there is availability. If you book the flexible-date option, we will not cancel your tour or extend your tour window for severe weather except in the rare circumstance that your entire tour window is affected. Tours may be canceled for other reasons beyond our control, including natural disasters, road closures, etc., in which case we will provide the same options to refund or reschedule your tour. Trip insurance is recommended for guests in case they miss their tour due to travel delays, illness, etc.
What happens if my tour is canceled?
Yes. Guests seldom realize it until they arrive but tracking the weather and aurora activity in a remote location in Alaska can be difficult. In fact, just figuring out which direction is north is tough for many! On cloudy nights at the Lodge, we may sometimes find clearer skies by driving 50 miles or so on icy roads that can be extremely daunting to those without experience driving on ice. (Please drive slow and watch for moose.) Guests without any experience viewing the aurora will be at an extreme disadvantage when it comes to judging how "good" the display they are seeing is and may not even realize they are looking at a weak aurora. Even though most people who visit Interior Alaska in the winter do so to see the aurora, you'd be surprised how hard it is for many of them to stay up at night to look for it. By booking a tour, you'll have me as your local expert to make sure you are looking for the right things in the right places at the right times throughout your entire stay (not just during your tour), and you'll be "forced" to stay up and look for the aurora at least once. And a cell phone isn't going to capture a good picture of you beneath the aurora!
If no one in my group is a photographer, is there any benefit to booking a tour?
No. Tours are private and booked on a first-come, first-served basis. However, if there is still tour availability on a given night, guests belonging to different parties are welcome to pool together if they wish to share the costs of a tour.
Can I join a tour that has already been reserved by other guests?
No. If you are bringing a DSLR or a camera with a tripod along, you must pay the photographer rate. Obviously, you will still be able to observe any instruction I'm giving to others and if you have trouble taking your own pictures the temptation for you to ask for help from me or the other photographers receiving instruction will be too great. You don't have to pay the photographer rate if you are only trying to capture images with your cell phone...but don't count on getting any decent images that way.
If I want to bring a camera but don't desire photography instruction, can I be charged the non-photographer rate?
Guests who wind up with great weather and aurora activity during their stay may wish to purchase more than one tour. If you book the flexible-date option, you are able to book an additional tour on any night during your window for an additional fee of $200 with guaranteed availability and on any night outside your window for $300 if there is availability. If you book the date-specific option, you may purchase additional tours on any night during your stay as long as there is availability for $300 each. The rate for an additional tour does not depend on the number of people in your party, but you may not bring more than the original number of photographers or total guests you booked for your first tour without paying the difference. Guests simply ask me or the Lodge staff for another tour and pay for it upon checkout. For example, a family of six with only one photographer books the flexible-date option with a 3-night window for $900 and decides to pay $200 for an additional tour on the last night of their window after having a successful first tour, paying a total of $1100 for two tours. (Two non-private Aurora Chasers tours in Fairbanks would cost this family $3600!) If you think you may want to book multiple aurora photography tours during your Alaska visit, you could possibly save thousands of dollars with us!
How do I purchase additional tours during my stay?
Temperatures in Interior Alaska can drop below 0 °F (-18 °C) at night by mid-October and -40 °F is a possibility starting in November and lasting through March. To stay marginally comfortable in temperatures this cold you need to wear multiple thick layers, including a heavy base layer for your upper and lower body, insulated pants, a mid-weight upper layer covered by a heavy upper layer, and a big, puffy coat on over everything. Wool or synthetic materials work well for base layers but cotton is actually great for your other layers—trust me, you won't be sweating if you're not engaging in physical activity so your cotton layers will retain their insulating properties. Tuck your upper layers into your pants to help retain the heat produced by your body. You need mittens, not gloves, and you should wear glove liners so you can take your mittens off briefly if you need dexterity. Do not handle any cold objects with bare hands, especially metal—this includes your camera, tripod, door handles, etc., and avoid tightly gripping objects or letting your fingers rest against cold objects even if wearing gloves or mittens. (Example: Carry your tripod in your arms rather than holding it with your hands.) If your fingers or hands start to get cold, it's better to take your mittens off and place them next to your body until they warm back up. You'll need a head covering and something to cover your face on very cold nights such as a balaclava or scarf. (The tip of your nose and ears are more susceptible to frostbite.) You need heavy winter boots rated to -40 °F that don't fit too tightly with wool socks on to prevent cutting off circulation to your toes. We have hand warmers and toe warmers to help keep your digits warm, which are at the highest risk of frostbite. We'll have a heated vehicle nearby to warm up if you need to, and moving around will help you stay warm. If you dread the cold, consider a September or early October trip, or early April. The Lodge does not rent cold weather gear but may be able to make special arrangements or direct you somewhere you can purchase your own.
How should I dress?
My Aurora Photography Guide provides a good primer on photographing the aurora, including information on the camera gear and settings you should be using as well as tips for planning and composing your shots. For an exhaustive treatment, I recommend Patrick Endres's e-book. There are many aurora photography tutorials on the web, but most are simply concerned with gear and camera settings rather than the artistic aspect, and some of them offer poor or outdated information, so be careful what you read. I'm happy to answer questions you may have in advance, especially about cameras & lenses. To learn more about the aurora itself, see here.
Where can I learn more about the aurora and aurora photography?
It depends on what else you want to see and do during your Alaska visit. If you come in September you can see the fall colors and enjoy hiking during your stay. If you come in December you can contemplate the serene austerity of winter in the Alaska Range while you relax by the fireplace. If you come in early March you can see the Iditarod or enjoy playing in the snow with a decent chance of "warm" temperatures during the day. Yes, you're somewhat statistically more likely to find clearer skies at night in March but it's not a guarantee, and I've seen jaw-dropping aurora shows in every month ranging from late August to mid-April. If you plan a stay of a week or more you've got a great chance at seeing the aurora no matter what month you visit while also having plenty of time to experience the rest of Alaska's offerings. If you stay three nights, you'll spend almost as much time traveling as you do enjoying your vacation and you could easily wind up with three cloudy nights in a row no matter what month you visit, or you might catch the aurora during a period of low activity, which we are currently seeing more often because we are near the solar minimum. If you're making a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Alaska to see the aurora, stay for 10 days or two weeks, but don't waste your whole time sitting around a hotel in Fairbanks or Chena Hot Springs waiting for the clouds to clear every night. Have yourself a memorable vacation in case the aurora fails to appear or meet your expectations.