Our daylight may be returning but the darkness of the night sky still has some surprises in store. The magic of the aurora borealis never fails to impress those whose eyes are cast skyward this time of year — and there is no better place to view them than in Alaska’s back country. The farther away from urban lights, the more vivid the night sky.
It was four years ago and temperatures were dipping into the teens one night in the Brooks Range. I had just turned in, snuggling deep into a warm sleeping bag. Just as I drifted off to sleep, the sound of footsteps crunched outside my tent. A friend’s voice was filled with wonder.
“Come out here–you’ve got to see this!”
I quickly pulled on boots, coat and mittens and stepped outside into the cold air. A last glimmer of twilight still tinged the western horizon. To the east however, the sky was dark and stars that had earlier been just pinpricks on the dome of sky, now gleamed bright through layered depths of space. There in the darkness, another kind of light had begun to shimmer. Like an apparition, moving ribbons of light appeared at the dark eastern end of the sky. The aurora slowly grew more vivid and the lights began to twirl like ribbons as they reached toward the dimming light of the western horizon. At first they shimmered silky white, but then changed to green. As the light show continued, they transformed themselves to shades of rose and then back to green again.
The show continued long enough for our fingers and toes to grow cold and our necks to ache from standing open-mouthed, staring at the night sky. We were all seasoned Alaskans, but none of us remembered a show quite so dazzling.
So what are the northern lights, exactly? Electrons and protons from the sun are blown towards the earth on a “solar wind.” The aurora can be seen on dark, clear nights when these charged solar particles strike the atmosphere near the earth’s magnetic poles. The colors are a result of the types of gas particles involved in the collision between the solar wind and the earth’s atmosphere.
The aurora borealis, that mystical light that has engendered so much legend and lore over the millennia, has become a pilgrimage for travelers world-wide. Aurora seekers often travel to Fairbanks which is located at the edge of what scientists call an “auroral oval,” a ring-shaped region that circles the north magnetic pole where solar activity is most common. Fairbanks has relatively clear skies in winter, and being a smallish town, you don’t have to go far to escape the city’s lights. Some hotels in Fairbanks even offer wake-up calls for visitors who want to be alerted to northern light activity.
I stepped outside early in the morning recently to the feed horses and discovered the sky shimmering with the aurora borealis. It was clear and cold enough for the snow to creak underfoot. The full moon cast shadows on the snow and to block the moonlight, I leaned against the shade of the barn. This was the best display I could remember since that back country experience four years ago. I remembered that gleaming night in the Brooks Range so well because earlier that same day I’d made a satellite phone call to my daughter-in-law. We had made a date to talk because it was the day they would learn the gender of their baby.
“It’s a girl!” she announced over the static on the line.ora
It was the same night that the northern lights twirled overhead like dancing spirits. I couldn’t help but wonder if, like me, they were celebrating this new life in the world.
Today that baby is four years old with eyes that sparkle like stars in a blue night sky.
And unbeknownst to me on that cold evening when I watched those dancing lights, my son and daughter-in-law chose to name their daughter “Aurora.”