11. Season of Night – Life Out Here
In the blue dusk light, I saw him glide along the river, his dogs harmonious and running as though they pulled nothing. The Parks Highway turned and not even the novelty of spotting a dog sledder could melt my anxious thoughts. We were only halfway to Fairbanks and cloaked by mid-afternoon darkness, traversing whiteout conditions up and over Denali’s tundra.
I had joked with my parents that we were not just daytripping to another Alaskan town, but risking our lives through a remote country that could kill us like it had killed Chris McCandless. My dramatics felt eerily prophetic as the headlights illuminated a wall of blowing snow, as traffic grew scarce, as we both realized the absence of plow trucks. We both thought to turn around, but said nothing. The kids watched a movie, clueless.
In Healy, our minivan was a snowcake on wheels amid other rigs not blasted with snow. I eased back onto the highway; it was bone dry. Miles down the highway, I thought I saw the Northern Lights on the horizon.
The first time we saw them was in October. They were a hazy green band over Mount Magnificent, faint enough to make you wonder. A static bow of pea green. We closed our curtains and went to bed. It went on like that throughout November, and in early December, we headed north to that vibrant dancing color of our dreams.
The Aurora Borealis Notifications Facebook Group keeps folks all over the world informed on Lady A sightings: people from the Yukon, British Columbia, Russia, and on occasion, Northwestern Montana, post photos, locations, and times of the Lights. I’m no mathematician, but I’d guess that 90 percent of those photographs are supplied by Fairbanks locals perched on their own front porches, or Light Chasers come to Fairbanks from as far south as Georgia, USA.
According to the Northern Lights Centre, the Lights are visible in the northern and southern hemispheres when electrically charged particles of the sun collide with our atmosphere. According to NASA, the collision with oxygen creates a green hue and the collision with nitrogen creates a purple hue.
According to Santa in North Pole, Alaska, our last night in Fairbanks was going to be the best night.
Because a Light Show is all dependent on your location, the activity of the sun, the local weather, and the amount of darkness, Fairbanks in December on a clear night gave us hope. The sun was setting around 3pm and not returning until 10am. You can see them as early as 4pm, but we started to hear reports of a “faint green hue” around 11pm.
The kids do not remember the dark service road in North Pole, Alaska, or seeing a small shaft of green light through the moonroof of the van. They do not remember the way it waved like a flag or the way my camera only flashed obnoxiously through the treetops. But Zach and I remember feeling disappointed as we left whimsical North Pole, Alaska to return to our hotel.
As it turns out, all we had to do was step out onto our back porch at the right time for a good show.
It was 1am and I was up writing. The green band over Mount Magnificent was broad and bright and curled at one end like a ribbon. The curl traveled the length of the band and suddenly the arc morphed into a series of vertical orbs. Tight wavelengths undulating across the star-spangled sky.
One night, the orbs of light were stretched south of the house. The Lights were curtains hanging down over our rooftop. Green is the trickiest hue to detect with the naked eye; my iPhone picked up its brilliance and shades of lavender.
Some nights are quiet, but I always check before I go to bed. Some nights I see them and resist the urge for one more epic photograph. Some nights we miss the whole thing because 1am feels different when you’re past your twenties.
Two nights ago, someone reported two bands over Wasilla. I looked and saw three forming before they snapped into their ribbon-dance and faded like the twilight.
We might not see them again for now the light has returned to us. According to the National Weather Service in Anchorage, “today marks the first night of the year without complete darkness in the Anchorage area…True darkness won’t return until August 25.”
Until then, I will look instead for winter’s celestial light in the coming blooms of fireweed and forget-me-nots.
What is spring like where you live?