Where Spirit Lights Find You
By Ken Marsh
“They rippled green with a wondrous sheen, they fluttered out like a fan;
They spread with a blaze of rose-pink rays never yet seen of man.”
— Robert Service
The Ballad of the Northern Lights
I don’t recall my first aurora. When you’re raised in Alaska some icons — moose, mosquitoes, and northern lights among them — simply are. This season’s first appearance came early, though, and remains fresh. It caught me off guard, a welcome revelation, singling me out for a performance I’d gone long enough without.
It was a late-September night on Cook Inlet’s remote far side some 20 miles west of Anchorage, and I’d stepped outside my temporary home in a plywood cabin to check the weather. Beyond the yellow pale of the shack’s propane lantern I found complete darkness, lost since April to Southcentral Alaska’s near constant spring and summer sunlight.
I tried to make out the silhouettes of Denali to the north and Mount Susitna and the Alaska Range to the west, prominent daytime landmarks, but the country was inked in impenetrable blackness. Only the sky, glittering with planets, galaxies, and faraway suns, offered any contrast at all.
On the horizon due north, a bank of starlit clouds glowed faintly in a narrow band. I started to turn and re-enter the cabin — I was cold; temperatures were dropping and frost beginning to form — but something about that cloudbank made me stop. Glancing over my shoulder, I realized the clouds had brightened. And that wasn’t all. The entire mass had gathered and changed shape and, even as I watched, was clearly evolving.
The spectacle soon morphed into a full-blown cosmic show, with lights climbing and rippling overhead like luminous green-and-purple drapes in a brisk celestial breeze. Then, abruptly, it all collapsed and gathered into a tight, glowing blob. For a moment the lights smoldered, as if they might fade and vanish as they sometimes do. But in a flash they flared and exploded, spreading brilliantly across the sky.
It was the damnedest sight, yet nothing new; the aurora has found me many scores of times. I’ve seen it silhouette Denali in December, and spent March nights on the Bering Sea coast watching it shimmer red, purple, and green over the Iditarod Trail. Still, each show comes as a happy surprise, Alaska’s spirit embodied in lights, timeless, colorful, and bright.
See the Lights
The aurora borealis — named by astronomer Galileo Galilei for the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, and god of the north wind, Boreas — is solar, not seasonal. Displays occur year-round, but are most visible on dark, clear nights. Moonless nights are best, far from city lights that illuminate the atmosphere, fading stars and aurora alike.
Prime viewing months are December through February. Displays may be seen as far south as Juneau, but the best and most consistent occur farther north. Fairbanks offers some of the state’s finest viewing and is home to the University of Alaska’s Geophysical Institute, which issues aurora-viewing forecasts.
For information about aurora viewing in Alaska and auroral activity forecasts, visit the Geophysical Institutes website at http://www.gi.alaska.edu/auroraforecast