This is Part II of my aurora-viewing adventure with Almanac astronomer editor, Bob Berman. I hope this gives you a taste of what it’s like to see the Aurora Borealis.
The tour got off to a spectacular start on night #1, March 17, thanks to the arrival of a burst of solar radiation that excited the northern lights to levels of display seldom seen before. We were at Cleary Summit, outside Fairbanks, Alaska, and what we saw was truly otherworldly.
Maybe this is a good place to reiterate that this recounting is not meant to be a scientific bible of auroras. I’m just an editor of The Old Farmer’s Almanac—true, with a fairly good grasp of astronomy as we all have—but let me encourage you to use your Googling fingers for more details if you want.
Of course, for those of us (including me) who had never before seen an aurora at fairly close range, there was no means for comparison, but everyone, everywhere, on Day #2, March 18, was talking about the truly historical astronomical.
You might say that this was dumb luck on our part—to have been at this place at this time for viewing—and you would be wrong. In fact, our tour was scheduled here and now on purpose because Fairbanks has one of the best combinations of geographical northness (if that is a word), reachability (ditto), and clear weather at this time of year. Plus, we were coming up on the New Moon on the 20th, so it was one of the darkest times of the month.
As far as the huge solar flare and its amazing enhancement of the aurora went, we totally predicted that, too. Not. All right, so the degree of our success was in fact dumb luck—we confess. But if opportunity knocks, you need to be at the door.
Whereas during Day #1 we had been excited in anticipating our first viewing excursion because it was, well, our first viewing excursion, now in Day #2 we are more agog over what the actual prospects for spectacularity are going be, grizzled and somewhat jaded veterans that we now are. The forecast is for another Level 4, same as Night #1, but can anything equal what we saw last night? Seriously?
The game is changing, though. Today we board a bus taking us to the next destination on our tour, Chena Hot Springs Resort, some 50 miles east northeast of Fairbanks. That’s 50 miles as the Alaska raven flies, because on the roads it’s well more than 50 miles of snowpack after black spruce after white birch after snowpack after black spruce after white birch after more snowpack. And in case you were wondering, the trees are really spindly because their roots have a tough time sucking water in the presence of permafrost. You get the picture. Oh, add moose tracks and those of numerous other critters.
As night approaches, we prepare to meet the cold … and the Snow Coaches. These are otherwise known as Snowcats, those tracked vehicles used for maintaining ski trails and numerous other snowy mountain tasks. Each coach has two pods, the first with the driver and three passengers. The second pod has two facing rows of five seats. We will be taking these 3 miles up a trail to a low summit at 2,600 feet where two heated yurts await to warm us with stoves and hot drinks if we want. Not bad!
Now they tell us that because last night was so awesome, they are moving up the start time for tonight. Be on time—don’t get left behind! Like we’re going to miss it.
The Snowcats get ready to crawl.
At 9:15, we’re loading up. Safety instructions, the door closes. Whoa! Off we go. Hold on! It’s like being in race car with four flat tires driving up a railroad track like crazy. But we make it, and step out into … a wonderland of white.
Our jaws drop. An eerie white light bathes everything. We are surrounded by other low mountaintops. Our top is perhaps half the size of a football field, packed snow with widely interspersed fir trees. Plus two yurts, maybe 30 feet in diameter, with the translucent center bubble at the top of one’s peaked roof glowing like a soft yellow button atop a big beanie. Or maybe it’s a secret signal to the firmament: Here, aurora! We’re over here!
And then: It’s ba-a-a-a-ck.
The night sky begins to fill to our north. Aurora clouds begin to thicken into brighter, denser bands, shimmering, throbbing, waving. All the while, more aurora arrives, like more and more people trying to crowd into the same room. The particles bounce into one another and overlap and sometimes fall down.
Over there, there’s a sheet of light that is wrinkling like someone has taken it outside to shake it. Opposite in the sky, a spiral Christmas tree ornament twirls and swings back and forth. Next to it, the smoke from someone’s birthday candles wafts upward, occasionally buffeted by mysterious celestial breaths.
Let’s put this into perspective. As Bob Berman later pointed out, your fist held at arm’s length equals 10 degrees of elevation. So, for example, if you hold your arm straight out, you should be able to measure nine fists between the horizon (straight out) and your zenith (the point directly overhead)—or, a 90 degree angle.
These auroral spectacles are not some small things off in the distance. The aurora that floods the sky occupies at least 60 degrees, from the horizon up, in my estimation. The ornament dangling down in front of it is perhaps 30 to 40 degrees tall. These are big things. Big, supernatural, exciting, moving things. More than once I take comfort in knowing that I understand what is causing this, even though I can’t believe what I am seeing. But I also think of humans eons ago. What must they have thought?
All of this is not the same as what we saw on Night #1. Well, it is. And it isn’t, because it is constantly changing. And it is growing. Really growing. Really growing eerily. More and more of the sky is becoming awash, as the aurora tide sweeps higher and higher. Initial oohs and aahs have subsided somewhat, replaced by silent wonder.
Then, out to the west, in the aurora, or maybe coming out of it, I see a brighter line develop and trace its way across the lit backdrop. It makes a C. Which turns on its side. Which wiggles and reshapes. It’s as though someone with a light saber or fiber optic wand is standing behind the aurora and sweeping the light back and forth and around, like a kid would do with a Fourth of July sparkler. Except that it doesn’t sparkle or twinkle—it’s more like a giant arc welder that has frozen its flash in the sky and then started moving it.
Now the ever-morphing C-arc comes closer and becomes clearer. Its structure looks like that of the narrow bottom part of a tornado funnel, but horizontal, and not twisting, and hundreds of miles long. It scoots along sideways like a solid celestial Slinky. Wait! Now it is becoming a pulsating astro-glowworm, writhing and wriggling in and against the auroral backdrop.
There is more. I can’t even remember it all, much less describe it. When one wave fades, we go into the yurt and have some ramen noodles. The truly hardcore stay outside all the time. They know that anything can happen on a moment’s notice. When the cries outside go up again, those inside the yurt exit to rejoin the wonder.
We leave the mountaintop at 2:00 a.m. Not even the bone-jarring Snowcat descent can shake away our astonishment and awe. It’s almost as though we are unnerved by how spooky and how beautiful the same thing can be at the same time.
Night #2 has been every bit the auroral spectacle of Night #1. We now have had two evenings for the northern lights record books, if there are such things. We will go on to have more viewing nights with wonderful, beautiful auroras. By any previous standards, these are topnotch and much to be treasured, but they are not Night #1 and Night #2.
While I can’t speak for everyone on our tour, I can surmise that in years to come, when we hear talk or see news of “the best aurora of all time” or whatever, we will just remember our March 17 and 18, 2015, nights on Alaska hilltops—and smile our Lights of a Lifetime smile.
Even on subsequent nights of the Almanac tour, the aurora was quite spectacular.
I hear every tour can’t guarantee a Lights sighting and it depends on solar flares and cloud cover, but what I saw absolutely incredible. It was truly the trip of a lifetime.