If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to see the Northern Lights (aka Aurora Borealis), I had the opportunity to spend 6 days in Alaska with famed Almanac Astronomy Editor Bob Berman. I will try to bring the experience alive for you—with photos!
Let me start out my saying that an Alaskan visit is about more than the Northern Lights: sled dog rides, hot springs soaking, geothermal plant and pipeline visits, the World Ice Carving Championships, an arctic greenhouse visit, a moose sighting, a personal jaunt to the 2015 GCI Open North American Championship Sled Dog Race (and Parka Parade), and much, much more.
But let me get to the heart of the matter: the Lights. Somehow I need to retrieve enough of my blown-away mind to recount this in at least a semicoherent manner, so bear with me, please—but let me give you at the outset the disclaimer that this is not purported to be a scientific treatise. After all, I’m just an editor, however temporarily addled. And just Google any of this or these places for more info.
OK, so on St. Paddy’s night, March 17, a luxury coach took us from outside our hotel in Fairbanks, Alaska, to go on our first “viewing.” There were 31 of us, from all across the U.S., plus Canada and even Puerto Rico. We had everyone from a young lady of 12 to an elderly gentleman whose age “you don’t wanna know.” Some people knew a lot about auroras; some knew zero. I think it was about 10°F outside, relatively balmy. But maybe I’m wrong, because we were all so bundled up that it was hard to tell. Everybody was psyched to be with their newfound friends to go on The Great Aurora Adventure.
Unbeknownst to all of us months ago when we independently decided to go on this tour (and as many of you may have heard), the Sun was to take the opportunity right before our first viewing to send off a huge eruption, which can greatly excite the aurora. So on this first night, the prediction is for a Level 4, “moderate” aurora—but in aurora-speak, “moderate” means “Get your camera, fast!”
The bus starts going. We go out of town farther and farther from the light pollution, up these windy roads (the air actually wasn’t that windy), higher and higher, until at last we are at the famous Cleary Summit, a well-known ground zero for wonderful watching. There are cars at every turnout and overlook. And I should mention that we know from the hotel that there are people here literally from all over the world for this, so as you are out and about you hear many different languages. All in search of the aurora.
That’s the thing. When you see the northern lights from “down below,” say, northern New Hampshire, you see the shimmering glow on the horizon to the north or maybe some “shower curtains” of aurora as a low, colored band. Here, they are not far away on the horizon—they are right here. Right up there, up close and auroral—not far, far away in the distance. Well, I guess they are far, far away in the distance, but they don’t just stay there. They move toward us and get bigger as they get closer.
The giant green genie is out of the bottle.
Back to the parking lot. While we are looking at the “smoke plume,” behind us, to the west, giant genies in the sky have started to swirl up out of invisible bottles. Whoa! Which direction to watch?
Straight up, look! The plume now has turned into walls and curtains of colors right above us. They shimmer. They change. The aurora in its various parts looks like multicolored stardust spewing about. Curtains. Clouds. Wow! All of a sudden, a rippling curtain starts extending itself downward in a rush of particles from left to right, or actually, it’s starting from afar and growing toward us. You can hear oohs and ahs and cries of amazement not just from where we are, but from other parking areas and hilltops. It’s like lots of people are simultaneously opening their best holiday present ever and squealing with glee. The aurora stretches across the sky, but within it, separate aurora dance parties are taking place to our right, to our left, and straight ahead. And we can see more getting queued up to take their turn.
Yikes! Some invisible Jack Frost has just blown a gigantic poof of particles at the bottom of a “cloud.” Yelps of wonder erupt from the watchers. Atop another curtain, a shower of particles tumbles down, like water overflowing a bathtub. Everything is swirling and changing and moving. Where to look? Where to LOOK? What on Earth is going on here?
And then, after about half an hour to 45 minutes (one place we were NOT looking was our watches or phones), just as suddenly as it developed, the aurora starts to quiet. A line of light and light clouds above us seems to move away toward the south. All done—for now. I can’t speak for anyone else, but it is almost as though I am exhausted by the experience. How bad is that? Exhausted by spectacularness.
A subdued murmur spreads across the parking lot. It is people saying that they don’t quite know what to say. We are all sort of stupefied.
And on it went. It is not really possible to describe this night sufficiently. And “indescribable” is too mild a word. About the best I can give to you is “Heavenly,” and you can interpret that as you will in any and all senses of the word.
We start back.
So THAT is what the aurora is … pretty cool!
The bus driver first, and later other folks at the hotel shake their heads at us.
You have no idea, they say. No. Clue. We have been watching auroras for years, they say, and we have NEVER seen or even heard of anything like that. That was not the aurora—that was THE aurora.
Or so they thought. Because Night #2 would turn out to be just as unnerving as Night #1—if not more so.