Chasing the Northern Lights

lights1

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.

 

lights6.jpg

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.

lights4

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.

lights5.jpg

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.