Chasing the Northern Lights

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Appearing as green sound waves rippling and spiraling throughout the empty night sky, The Aurora Borealis are caused by solar flares exploding the Sun’s charged particles against the Earth’s gases above the magnetic North. Like a hellbent forest fire, they begin as white smoke, before spreading wildly in an array of colors, ranging from green to bright purples, blues, yellows, and reds.

Surfing the crest of a high wave or the view from a mountain’s summit all bring about a euphoria where you feel the true magnificence of the raw, naked Earth. However, the Northern Lights is one of the few ways to witness the splendor of not just the planet, but the universe at large. You are reminded of both your insignificance as a microscopic being in a universe so vast its unfathomable and also of the great gift of life, where you are blessed to watch the cosmos dance before your very eyes.lights2

My week of chasing the Northern Lights began during Alaska’s truest form, the frozen and ever-darkening night. A few friends, my girlfriend, and I were on a roadtrip south on the Kenai Peninsula when word spread that the Aurora forecast for the night was excellent. Sumer’s end and the death of the midnight sun gave birth to the visibility of The Lights, the Far North’s greatest gift. Staying up all night proved tiring and discouraging as nothing appeared. The following morning a great jealousy scorched our eyes when we found that our friends up north in our home of Healy had seen an amazing show.

Deadset on seeing them, we drove sleepless from noon until night until we arrived in Talkeetna, a small town known for its awesome view of Denali. The requirements for good visibility are cold, dark, and clear nights, but even with those factors it isn’t a guarantee so you may suffer and still see nothing. We sat, shivering for hours, huddled in blankets as we fell victim to a desolate sky.

 

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And when it was about time to give up they appeared! Above an ominous silhouette of Denali, a faint white smoke twisted and turned until it became a thick cloud that stretched from the mountain to as far as the eye could see. We sat in awe, unaffected by the dropping temperature. The true excitement of the Aurora Boreaalis came when they danced and we were thrown into a frenzy.

What can never be captured with a camera is how the lights dance and move like the ripples of waves in a storm or slow moving sound waves. So much so that I was warned by a friend not to waste time taking pictures of the lights as the true expereince lays with watching them gracefully glide from horizon to horizon. In the five days spent under the Northern Lights, the pictures in this post are only from one night.

The next day we made it back to our home of Healy. Just after sunset around 10:30PM, I was pulled out of dinner to frantic shouts as the greatest showing of The Lights had just begun. A sight that never grows old, this showing of the Aurora amazed some who had already spent four summers in Alaska and its one of the main reasons so many come here time and time again.  Many natives say if you whistle that the lights will move for you, but the overzealous bunch of us began to scream at the green and purple lights that dazzled and dipped across the entire night sky like an entertainer aimed to please. The shouts of excitement were heard all across what is usually a quiet town.

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Perhaps most wondrous of all was that when The Lights would stretch across the entire night sky, it would illuminate all the faces of those around greater than any full moon I’d ever seen. You could read the beauty of the night upon all our faces as a look of childish joy gleamed upon us all.

The town of Healy brings about great viewing of The Lights because of how the towns raised upon mountains and its wintered trees never grow tall, giving a view that stretches from horizon to horizon. But most importantly is the town’s proximity to the Arctic Circle. So much so that a day’s drive will bring you to Coldfoot, which sits directly below Magnetic North. Once you head above Coldfoot, you will need to look south to view the Northern Lights.

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More than anything, the Northern Lights, are one of the few ways for humanity to connect with whatever lies above.  It comes from the same type of cosmic beauty that would have inspired the Mayans to build Chichen Itza, sent Neil Armstrong towards the moon, and led a curious kid to sit on his roof and stare at the stars.

For me, it was the reminder that something wonderful always lies just over the horizon and a push to keep my restless soul moving forward. As I fell asleep under the green heavens, I said goodbye to Alaska and prepared my mind for Mexico City in the morning.lights3

Article by Spencer R. Morrison

All photos by the author.

 

 

 

 

 

Young, Broke, and Well-Traveled: The Migrant Life of Seasonal Workers

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At first glance, it seemed like a terrible experience.

But I’m not sure what I expected when working at a white water rafting company in Alaska. My new home was a broken down 70’s trailer crusted with fake gold and dressed with orange velvet curtains. The only running water were the leaks in my roof and the intruders in my backyard were monstrous moose or gigantic grizzlies. By far the worst part was that it was communal living, where almost 30 people shared one permanently smoking kitchen and two decrepit bathrooms.

Living with so many travelers came with a number of factors, one of which was the callused look we first gave each other, knowing how hard it is to get close to people you may never see again. I was greeted with a lifeless handshake from an ex-undertaker, argumentative eyes from a law student, and miscommunication from a Bulgarian first arriving in America. And it wasn’t until now, the last weeks grinding down and flights booked out, that I realized the only reason I survived in an environment so hostile was that I dropped my guard and learned to call these strange people my friends.

But they remained strangers for some time as the lukewarm welcome was all I felt when my train rolled into Denali National Park on that snowy May afternoon. I walked into the Minty, the communal kitchen, where my coworkers from all walks of life sat drinking glasses of camaraderie, while I felt like I was drinking alone.

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Things warmed up as the summer finally came and it all began to settle on one sleepless stretch when darkness never came on June 21, the summer solstice. Healy, Alaska is close to the Arctic Circle that for weeks the sun never fully sets, it only dips behind the horizon. You’re trapped in the confusing state between sunlight and twilight, but never darkness.

During the entirety of the night before, the sun left its path in the sky and we chased it’s rays from late night festivals at the 49th State Brewery to later rows on the lake. If what shuts your tired eyes is the shifting of day into night then if the sun doesn’t sleep why should you?

So we didn’t for weeks on end. And when my alarm screeched at 5:45 AM for work, my brain rattled into a frenzy after only two hours of sleepless shut eye. When you don’t catch R.E.M sleep, your mind begins to miss dreaming so much that it does so when you’re awake. Whatever happened before my eyes did not feel like my own as if I watching someone else’s vision from a static TV. My dragging feet guided my body through camp, a row of dilapidated trailers and tents enclosed by acres upon acres of untouched spruce forests, vast tundra, and colossal mountains.

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The same, tired faces shuffled into the kitchen. None of us slept, not even those that stayed indoors. Burning sunlight meet your eyes every time you closed them and the effect was temporary madness from those that were already crazed. A quirky school teacher was eating Ellio’s Pizza for breakfast before going to work as a bus driver where he wore a life jacket and helmet because, “safety is my #1 priority!” I wondered what a life jacket and helmet could do when insomniac eyes caused the dotted lines of the highway to disappear.

I noticed one of my coworkers drinking black coffee to washout the aftertaste of last night’s bad decisions. You never know what will happen when strong whiskey mixes with the bitter loneliness of a starless night. The type of relationships that come out of seasonal work are different from your normal work flings.

Imagine the struggle of a relationship gone complicated. Picture that person being there when you work, eat, and socialize, while they live 10 feet from your door. But anything is better than braving these cold nights alone, or so they say.

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The overly joyful bus driver drove the dead eyed group of us into the Canyon. Healy itself is most known for being the entrance to Denali National Park and also for where Chris McCandles walked “Into the Wild”. The small town picturesquely sits in a valley cradled on both sides by the Alaskan Range and sitting along the rushing Nenana, a glacially fed river.

Our drive everyday was along one of the most beautiful roads I’ve ever seen. On that winding two lane road, we rode between crashing forests in a sea of mountains, surfing restless waves of green. In my sleepless state, rushing 60 mph through the wilderness on a school bus filled with wide eyed workers, all laughing crazily about the night that never ended, seemed like the climax of some dream just before I was shaken awake.

We arrived in the Canyon, the tourism strip for Healy and Denali. Winter blows through in late September, instantly freezing a multi-million dollar tourist industry into a boarded up ghost town. Today and throughout all the summer, hundreds-of-thousands of tourists rush in and out of the mile-long strip of shops, restaurants, and hotels. The wide bellied and narrow sighted tourists toss out thousands of dollars a day just to be here, our mouths wide open to catch the change from their pockets.

And that’s why we all came here. To live and work in a wild, grandeur land, to hopefully make enough cash to travel when the season ends, and do so in a way unrestricted by the confines of a career path. We were the poor migrant workers off the past, but instead of chasing seasons for crops we chased them for tourism.

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This was my first time working as a photographer and doing seasonal work in general, but some of the guides have been doing this for over a decade. Josh, a blonde 6 ft. 6 in. guide, eagerly ran off the bus to greet the day like a massive golden retriever. He’s been working as a raft guide for sixteen years, running rivers all over the country, and the quick cash has taken him across the world.

In between trips, he entertained us all with stories of his travels. When he was in his mid-twenties, he hitchhiked across Europe, ending up on a ship in a Portugal where he crossed the world by sea twice in one year. “Man being two hours from a grocery story is nothing, you know how many nights I went hungry traveling? So many times I’ve had to knock on restaurant doors in Germany begging to wash dishes for a meal.”

Now he dates a renowned Mammalogist for the Smithsonian and he’s saving up to buy a ship of his own to sail all over the world. Her research has brought her everywhere from masticating the last White Rhino’s in Kenya to studying wildlife in the tiger-filled jungles of Burma.

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It was a gamble coming up for him as it was for all of us. He bought his equipment with a credit card and came here with pennies to his name. Typically there’s no set schedule in tourism jobs, not even a guarantee of work. When he first came here, he was scraping for side jobs here and there, while other weeks he worked constant 12 hour days. That’s the adventure of seasonal work, the great mystery of coming to some far off land, with hopes of coming off on top and the anxious risk of ending up with just enough gas money to make it home.

Even so, if September rolls up leaving you broke and defeated, the wealth of daily adventure is what no normal job can provide. On that rainy June day, the stressful trips ran in and out, the hordes of tourists strained our minds with the same monotonous questions, but once we all finished, we set off to explore the vast wilderness of Denali sitting at our doorstep. And at the end of it all, after a long day of work and a longer adventure, we met up to trade stories at the dock on the lake.

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That night the greying clouds of doubt dispersed as the omniscient midnight sun streaked a smile upon all our faces. The people I originally judged to be cold were just weary of befriending someone to then say goodbye. That had frightened me too. But a place like Alaska teaches you that the only way to make it out alive is to never go alone.

I opened up to these characters that I now called my friends. I talked about legal weed with a Malaysian who could be put to death for marijuana, discussed the fallacy of law and order with a law student from Idaho, debated religion with former Mormons from Utah, and talked politics with gun-toting Southerners.

Detached from the rest of the world, we were stuck in a raft camp for four months, learning from people of all different walks of life. The greatest lesson was that accents, upbringings, and pasts aside, we all shared many of the same view of life and happiness, more so than people we knew for decades.

These people and this place were strange, but even if just for a summer, I had found a home.

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Article by Spencer R. Morrison

Arctic Winds on the Alaskan Railroad

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The tracks guided us through a desolate forest no man could call home. Perched between cars, I stuck my head out the window to feel the force of the train explode against the rushing winter winds. My heart began to thump at the speed of the engine and the frozen air made my eyes tear.

It was already mid May, but I grabbed my thick jacket, hat, and gloves, which were buried deep within the forgotten corners of my backpack. Up to this point in Alaska, I’d only witnessed temperate sunny days of spring, but to expect any sort of norm here is to be fooled by the violent, fickle weather of the Far North. Yesterday I strolled along hot rocks on the banks of Talkeetna, letting the sun kissed river run its fingers through my toes. Now every spruce tree and mountain top made way for ominous grey clouds and the frostbitten air they unleashed. A violent snow storm was forming and I was far from ready.

I had just awoken on the train, which was leaving the mountain climbing town of Talkeetna and speeding towards Denali National Park. But for a brief moment I had forgotten where I was heading. Nothing was familiar except lying down on the leather skin of a steel monster driving 100 mph into the great unknown. In front of me was a young petite girl who reeked of Walmart perfume and quarter life crisis. Behind me was a guy who seemed to be taking a refreshing weed nap, the poster boy for Alaska’s legal marijuana. The most interesting of all was a bigger woman sitting in front, who introduced herself as a professional “Adele impersonator.” She handed me her card, “in case you need my services”. I had no clue why me or any other God Forsaken soul would need such services. I boarded the Alaskan Railroad to watch the rolling winter landscape, but like always, my greatest entertainment was my fellow passengers.

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“So why’d you come to Alaska?” I asked everyone, while asking myself the same question.

The petite girl said how bored she was with life after months of working in customer service for AT&T. Thank God, she’d now be working in customer service for a Denali gift store. Letting out a loud snore, the guy in the back jolted awake and said how he was here to work as a raft guide, making some quick cash before his next semester at college. The Adele impersonator, whose eyes were caked with eyeliner and lips dripping with lipstick, said she was paid by one of the hotels to “entertain guests”. More than anything it was that she too quit her job for another season in Denali.

That’s what happens here. Adventurous 20-somethings, jaded by the relentless routine of every day life, start reading Jack London stories, and screaming the words of Christopher McCandles from Into the Wild, “No longer to be poisoned by civilization he flees!” They dream of Alaska as the last place in America where the youth can find true freedom. Then they sporadically book a one way ticket to Anchorage in May as if the midnight sun will thaw the frozen Earth and their problems with it. Some like the train conductor with a white beard and a questioning eye never left and the youthful summers turned to decades of aging winters.

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He told me, “people come here looking to escape. Hell I know I did years ago. I don’t know what it is, but something definitely happens to those who move to Alaska for the summer.”

What’s immediately noticeable is how hair thrives in areas it normally didn’t and everything about their appearance seems wild. However, the true changes are more deep rooted. There’s an unblinking, courageous look in their eye after months of walking amongst grizzly bears taught them that fear will only make you prey.

Packing up everything they needed to survive in a backpack made them prefer the simplicity of a tent to the luxury of a Hilton suite. More than anything, it’s the dual respect and appreciation for the Earth after one of it’s most extreme environments has continually brought them to the peak of life and grips of death.

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Now the other passengers and I were getting the first taste of it. It began as just a day of clouds , but it turned into something else. Much of the weather of the Alaskan Interior comes from the frigid Bering Sea of Russia and a few of us stood in the corridor to feel the brunt of the snow coming down. It wasn’t a blizzard, but instead a vengeful wind whipping pin needles of ice into the train and onto our faces. Feeling brave, I stuck my head out the window and my cheeks pushed into my eyelids that had begun to go completely numb. I wiped the frost off my face to see that the landscape had changed and changed again.

The train brought us past rushing rivers of salmon runs, over long valleys and seas of green, near black bear cubs climbing trees, and now we were now pushing on through the mind blowing Broad Pass, a valley within the Alaskan Range where herds of caribou migrate in the spring.

 

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That was what made trains the optimal way to travel. They brought you remote places cars and buses could not. They rode at a comfortable speed where you could appreciate the land, as opposed to the lightning-fast-delusion of planes. One of the most euphoric feelings I’ve ever known was finding a seat on some foreign train, where you can watch as you drift into the dripping horizon.

I sat around with the other passengers, drinking a few beers and making mild plans to hangout once the season begun. But once June rolled around, we’d all be too engulfed in the madness of the Denali summer and most of us would never see each other again.

It was still snowing when I arrived in Denali National Park. Denali is relatively close to the Arctic Circle so blizzards could happen in the middle of July and I was getting the dreadful feeling that winter would follow me all season long. I got a ride from a girl from Wisconsin with blue hair and the same tattoo as me. She saw the dreariness of winter in my eyes so she gave me a hazy promise that summer was on its way.xR1-00580-0013

Article by Spencer R. Morrison

 

 

 

Denali National Park

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Mt. Denali

My first weeks in Alaska brought about moments only possible in the Last Frontier. Everyday at midnight, I became delirious as the sun dipped down low and smooth over the Alaskan Range only to rise three hours later. In the sleepy mining town of Talkeetna, I listened to stories of altitude sickness and trekking glaciers from the first climbers in 2016 to independently summit Mt. Denali, North America’s tallest mountain. Inspired to feel the same success, I attempted to summit Mt. Healy only to get stuck in a snow storm.

For Alaska is where the fearless go to face nature only to be handed glory or doom. But the true brute and beauty of Alaska’s force is seen best in Denali National Park.

The park is over six million acres but its vastness is incomprehensible. Picture driving across an area bigger than the entire state of Massachusetts, but it only has one road made of gravel. After a certain point, you can only drive in on these crippled, elderly buses that slam you against the wall at every turn. The driver crept up Denali Park Rd., which snails up the mountains of the Alaskan Range. I gasped when I saw there are no guard rails and to the left is a steep drop of hundreds of feet.

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Climbing Mt. Healy
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Mt. Healy

 

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Mt. Healy in a snow storm

After two and a half hours on the bus we had only driven 46 miles, but I’d had enough and asked to get off.

The Bulgarian man next to me said, “Ever since I saw “The Revenant” I think I will not leave America until I see a bear in the wild.”

“You’re a lunatic,” I said.

I laughed nervously at the thought of staring eye to eye with an animal that most guns can’t kill. To make matters worse, when the bus driver let us off, he said, “Be careful there is a high concentration of grizzly bears in this areas. Don’t get close as this time of year mothers are with their cubs so they’re prone to attack.”

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The Denali bus
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The entrance to the park

Denali National Park is home to thousands of grizzly bears. There is a certain protocol when traveling in bear country. You make tons of noise, while hiking so you don’t surprise them. If you do see one, stay at least 900 feet away as bears can sprint at speeds up to 40 mph and are faster than race horses, let alone humans. If they do charge you, you must stand tall and scream loud to scare them away. Most importantly, do not run or the bear will see you as prey and chase you until they maul you to death.

They say that if you follow these steps you’ll be fine. But how do you know how you’re gonna act until you stare eye to eye with the king of the forest? To be honest, if I saw one charging me, I would not only run, but I would shit myself in the process.

My friend David and I got off the bus. The thoughts of bears completely left my mind when I saw the magnificent Polychrome Pass. The edge plummeted 500 feet to the cool tundras and a view of the snow capped Alaskan Range, stretching as far as the eye can see. Behind me, the Wyoming Hills gracefully tip toed past. Like most Alaskan landscapes it was as if I had stepped into a Bob Ross painting.

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Polychrome Pass
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Polychrome Pass
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Dall Sheep

The bus disappeared with the same cloud of dirt as when it arrived. A calming peace overcame me as not a person could be seen or heard. In the valley below, a mother caribou nudged its young along to drink in one of its choked streams. A glossy raven sqwalked as it soared to its nest above. My childish excitement grew when a herd of Dall Sheep jumped up the cliff and came within feet of me. The tundras had recently thawed for the coming Alaskan summer and all wildlife was there to call it as their own.

An age old wind danced with the trees and ran its fingers through my hair. I watched in awe as the titanic mountains moved in and out of the clouds as they have for eons. In the wilderness, it doesn’t matter what job you have, what bills you have to pay, or any other dull responsibilities of modern life. The timelessness of the wild plunges you into the present. This is why people have been coming to the Denali area for over 3,000 years. Its why I’m here today.

It’s called “Polychrome Pass” as the mountains give off a whole spectrum of colors from the shine off the volcanic ash, but one boulder stood out amongst the rest.

“That big boulder has a different color from the rest of the rocks,” I said pointing to a rock with a gold tint on a nearby hill.

 

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Mt. Denali from Talkeetna

We hiked up the mountainside towards the rock until we noticed that it had these strange bumps that seemed to form a head. Then the rock moved and we jumped back. I took a picture, zoomed in, and realized we were walking up to a wild grizzly bear.

“Let’s get the Hell out of here!” I said as the chill of a glacier crept from the mountains and into my spine.

Even from afar, its sheer mass engulfed a side of the mountain. The bear got up to look at its cub nearby and shake off a deep rest. It then turned its head and looked right at us. The bear tilted its neck with a wide eyed look of curiosity, but I did not share the same wonder. David remained calm and slowly backed away, but I was stuck shivering in pure fear. Its hollow brown eyes watched us until it receded into just another shiny rock upon the mountains of Polychrome Pass.

When the panic subsided, I sighed a breath of relief and hopped on the next bus heading closer to Mt. Denali. It was a moment of travel I knew all too well. I was a stranger in someone’s home, feeling grateful for the opened door, but knowing I should never overstay my welcome.

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Article by Spencer R. Morrison