My long journey to see the Northern Lights

Dr. Watson E. Mills, here with one of the sled dogs from his journey, writes: This is the ninth article in a series based upon the Smithsonian’s List of “28 Places to See before You Die.” This list is broken down into seven subcategories of four places or sites each. Today’s article is the first one in the third subcategory that is called “A Matter of Timing.” Other places in this subcategory are: The Serengeti; Iguazu Falls and Machu Picchu. In my particular case “A Matter of Timing” as a title for the subcategory that includes the Northern Lights is indeed apropos!

The mesmerizing and spellbinding celestial light show that has fascinated human kind for millennia has always occupied a prominent place on my “bucket list.” The Northern Lights, also known as the Aurora Borealis after the Roman goddess Aurora and borealis meaning “northern, are surely Mother Nature’s greatest spectacle and a truly awe inspiring sight to see.

For as long as I can remember, seeing them for myself has been a priority of mine, and my odyssey began in 1985 when I traveled to the University of Trondheim, Norway, to attend a meeting of university professors. Late one night several of us made the trek outside the city to witness this wonder of nature. Unfortunately, our efforts did not succeed.

Over the next 20 years I made additional attempts during numerous trips abroad, but always to no avail. I took excursions – always outside cities whose lights and smog lessen the chance to see the lights – in Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Greenland, Finland, and Barrow, Alaska. Realizing that the phenomena occurs in the southern hemisphere as well, I attempted a sighting when I traveled to the Falkland Islands, Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, Antarctica, and Ushuaia, Argentina, but always without succeeding. I was beginning to think that it was just not in the cards for me to ever witness this dramatic quirk of nature. I also knew full well that many of my attempts were doomed because they occurred at the wrong time of the year or on a cloudy day, or too early in the evening. On some occasions I failed to venture far enough away from the lights of the city.

Then in 2006 I made yet another attempt during a trip to Fairbanks, Alaska. When I was planning this trip I began emailing a couple whose name and service I found online. The couple has a home about 50 miles outside of Fairbanks. It features one wall constructed entirely of glass. This retired couple offers hotel pickup and an in-home salmon dinner after a dog-sled ride. Then one has the opportunity to recline in a heated room and wait for the lights to appear. All of this for what seemed to me to be a very reasonable tariff. But, like others who provide the chance to view the Northern Lights, they included this proviso: “No guarantee you will see this incredible natural phenomenon.” Vowing that this would be my final attempt, I signed up for their service.

Those who provide these tour services pick up their customers well into the night. My assigned time was 9:30 p.m. that February night in 2012. The roads were packed with heavy snow, and I did not arrive at the couple’s home until just after 11 p.m. There were only two of us that night, and we each took a turn on the dog sled even though the night was dark and very cold. I was provided with a huge anorak against the wind, but that ride behind the huskies had to be one of the coldest experiences of my life. The night was extremely dark so I could see very little. The eerie silence was broken only by the incessant barking of the dogs. A little after midnight we sat down for a home cooked meal and then settled onto a long, comfortable sofa with an unobstructed view of the night sky, and with the welcome warmth from the nearby fireplace.

The host couple did not help my hopes and expectations on that Friday night when they announced that the lights had not appeared to any of their guests so far during the current week. Of course, they did not want to raise expectations, but that comment did remind me of all my past failed attempts.

We waited and waited and waited. Nothing. Just complete darkness in the sky. By 3 a.m. I was beginning to think I would strike out again. We had walked outside to load up for the return trip to Fairbanks when all of a sudden the sky lit up like it was the Fourth of July. I could scarcely believe my eyes! After a few seconds the sky went dark again. Before I could ask “what happened?” these marvels of nature returned even more dramatically. This time I had my camera at the ready. 

There on that remote hilltop in temperatures that I had just as soon forget, my long quest to see the Northern Lights had finally come to an end. The skies lit up as these charged particles from the sun entering the Earth’s atmosphere created the vibrant colors – green, blue, pink, violet, red, and yellows – that shimmered and swirled against the otherwise darkness of the night sky.

I am not sure if I completely agree with the oft-quoted adage: “The Northern Lights are Mother Nature’s greatest wonder.” But I will say this: the Northern Lights are very close! This natural “light show” is so astonishing, magical, enchanting, captivating, even otherworldly, that I had a hard time describing in the pages of my diary, what I had finally managed to see.

Not surprisingly, the Aurora Borealis is featured prominently in the mythology and legends of most indigenous people living in countries situated within the extreme northern parts of the world. These ancient myths and traditions indicate the role that this stunning natural feature has played in human history. The Romans, for example, associated the Northern Lights with a new day, believing them to be the “sunrise” of the goddess of dawn (Aurora), while certain Indian tribes believed that the lights indicated the location of giants who were the spirits of great hunters and fishermen. The Inuit peoples of Northeastern Alaska, held that these lights were the spirits of the animals they hunted: Seals, salmon, deer, and beluga whales. Other aboriginal peoples believed that they were the spirits of their own people who had died.

Scientists suggest that it is “excited” electrons flying about in a magnetic field that causes this amazing spectacle. The glow of the Northern Lights comes from the collisions between these fast moving electrons and from the oxygen and nitrogen molecules in our upper atmosphere. Electrons transfer some of their energy to these molecules when they collide, and it is this transfer of energy that “excites” them. These “excited” molecules eventually quit thrashing about in the sky and return to a “non-excited state” by releasing light particles. When a large enough number of these light particles are released in close proximity, enough light is created that we may see this activity against the night sky.

The specific colors of the Northern Lights depend on whether electrons collide with oxygen or nitrogen, and how energetically these bombardments occur. Oxygen often times emits yellow or red light, while nitrogen generally results in a blue light. The blending of these produces purple, pink, and white. Oxygen and nitrogen also emit ultraviolet light that can be detected by special cameras on satellites, but not by the human eye.

The obvious problem with getting to witness the Northern Lights is that they are a natural phenomenon and regardless of weather, their appearance at any given time can rarely be predicted much more than an hour in advance. Yet the Northern Lights consistently appear near the top of the “bucket list” of countless travelers. One thing is certain, if you are ever fortunate enough catch a glimpse of these lights, the display you see will be unique. The Aurora Borealis are very much like snowflakes in that no two are identical. I can say in my case, seeing this incredible display of nature was the culmination of many years of trying and failing. On this night, my long awaited experience was finally fulfilled. It was genuinely spectacular!

Next time: “The Serengeti: The highway for more than two million wild animals”

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