Holy mind-blowing insanity, the world is full of strangeness. Even in moments of complete familiarity, a new perspective can shift the mundane into weirdness. But, for maybe the first time in my adult life, I have been first-person awed at an event unfathomable:
the Aurora Borealis.
One can have an academic comprehension of a phenomenon and find it pretty freakin’ neat, but all sense is knocked out of the head when witnessing it for real. Now on my fourth trip to Alaska, and during a year projected to be filled with auroral activity, there was zip, zilch, nada all month. But luck and fortitude panned out, and a night of utter amazement was on our dance card.
Skies had been crystal clear in Talkeetna all weekend; the warm sun blazing across a desert of white, Denali poised on the horizon without even a haze of obscurity. Schawna and Mike skied the Oosik race that afternoon while Kurt and I set out, much slower, across the virgin snows on the Susitna River to ogle the mountain and to cheer on our people at a refreshment station (Gatorade and water, yes, but also Jaeger, Oreos, and Bacon).
Our lodging for the evening was the self-remodeled, plumbing-free cabin of Gretchen and John (the outhouse had been converted to a sauna), with a surprisingly good view of the forest-ringed sky. Late into the wine, cheese, and chocolate evening, while we hovered near the bonfire, that pale glow, easy to mistake for city lights except that there is no city here, began to creep up the horizon. Within half an hour it had pulled into a solid streak of parakeet green. When it began throbbing, we realized this was going to be worth chasing.
At that same highway lookout that had offered up such marvelous views of Denali during the day, we could witness the entire expanse of undulating ribbon across the heavens. The view down at the lake proved even better, but so frigid it’s a marvel the camera continued working as I used snowbanks as tripods.
For a rookie aurora chaser, when the color drains from the sky, one assumes that the spectacle has ceased for the night and is thrilled to have seen anything that intense at all. Yet, within the hour, the light’s turf has been reclaimed and expanded and there are heaps more marvels in store.
Punctuated by moments of body warming within the cabin, the next several hours are spent jaw-dropped in the empty road wondering how a natural phenomenon manages to feel so magical. It shimmers, waves, dances and boils like a green fire in the firmament. Some moments are shockingly bright, others soft and pensive. Always shifting: filling the sky, then retreating, then returning in a new form. It became so vast and varied that all I could do was lie down in the road and stretch peripheral vision to its limits. If a zero degree sleeping bag was on hand, I would have lied out there all night.
The pictures of course can’t do it justice, partly because of my inexperience with shooting such a bizarre vision, on a less-than ideal camera at that, but also because the motion cannot translate. So much of the awe comes with the subtle ripples, like heat radiating through hot coals in a fire. So much more of it is the perspective of a tiny human under a dome of deep, starry black, already small in the naked-eye universe, and then made to feel miniscule under the enormity of our own atmosphere.
If I were a person of religion I’d have some useful verbiage and metaphor, but a girl of science has nothing more to say than “woah”. And then all I can do is silently marvel that we humans are of the optimum intelligence and visual acuity to appreciate the splendor of such an event.