Lots of people have a “Travel Bucket List.” If you are unfamiliar with the idea, it is basically a list of places you would like to go, or things you would like to see before you “kick the bucket.”
One of the items on my wife’s list has been to see the aurora borealis, a.k.a. the Northern Lights. The problem is, they don’t seem to show up here in the Arizona desert, so to see them would require a trip to someplace a little more “Arctic.” Since Scandinavia was unlikely, I thought that maybe we could build that into our recent trip to Alaska.
After doing a little research, I decided that out best chance to see them would be in Fairbanks, so I tacked on a quick two-night stopover there before we flew home. I should probably point out that the deeper into winter you get, the better your chances of seeing the lights. Longer days, darker nights.
September was pretty early to see them clearly, on top of that, the weekend I chose happened to be a full moon, which would brighten the sky and make seeing them even more unlikely. On top of that, add cloudy, rainy skies, and you got the perfect conditions to NOT see the Northern Lights. Good job planning, Brad!
Day 1: When we got to Fairbanks on Friday afternoon, it wasn’t raining, but it was cloudy. As the evening wore on, there were occasional patches of clear sky. I started getting my hopes up. At about 11:00pm, I checked outside, and I could see a few stars. This is it! (Or so I thought.)
Chrissie and I grabbed some snacks and sodas, hopped in the car and drove about a half-hour outside of town to get away from the city lights. The moon was brilliant and lit up the sky. Normally it would have been beautiful and romantic. Not that night. That night it was in he way. We followed a dirt road and found a clearing and pulled off to the side of the road and watched and waited. Nothing.
After an hour or so I got out of the car to look around. I could see a wall of clouds looming – a storm front was coming – so I knew if it didn’t happen soon, it wasn’t going to happen that night. It was about then that it dawned on me that I was standing outside, in a forest, in Alaska, in the dark, after midnight. Adventurous sole that I am, I got back in the car.
A pair of headlights approached. Thankfully, it wasn’t a serial killer, or a bear driving. A man in some type of security uniform got out and told us we couldn’t park there, so I apologized, and we left.
No lights. Bucket List item still unchecked.
What did I learn? It boiled down to three explanations:
- The Northern Lights were a hoax. They simply didn’t exist. Sure lots of people claim to have seen them, but it could be a case of mass hallucinations, or people seeing what they want to see. Sure, there are “pictures” of the lights. But after watching how NASA tweaks photos, I’m pretty cynical about science-y stuff.
- The lights exist, but they just happened to not be “on” that night.
- Conditions weren’t optimal, and I didn’t have the best information on how to find them, so we just missed them.
Day 2: The next night I was distracted by the BYU-Baylor double-overtime thriller. During halftime I walked around outside and tried to see if the weather looked like it might clear.
When I walked through the lobby, the lady at the front desk asked me, “Are you trying to see the lights?”
“Yes,” I said. “No luck so far.”
“Well, it is pretty early in the year, and the weather’s not so good…but good luck to ya anyway!” I went back to our room even less hopeful.
Chrissie had long since fallen asleep during the game. I grabbed my phone and laptop and decided to get serious on trying to find these elusive lights. I would not be denied again.
I logged into several websites that tracked weather, cloud cover, possible viewing areas, the projected intensity of the aurora borealis, etc.. I spent quite a bit of time trying to learn and understand the best way to go about it.
A little after midnight, I woke Chrissie up and asked, “Are you still up for going out?”
She groggily got out of bed and got ready to go. I was a little bit hopeful, but knew the odds were stacked against us. But…the sky was actually clearer, and darker than the night before. The moon was obscured by some clouds on the horizon, which helped.
This time I followed my research and drove the opposite way from the night before. We found a quiet road with no traffic, and parked in a gravel-covered clearing. I positioned the car so that we were looking northward through the windshield.
We sat and watched for a little while, then, above the pine trees, I saw a white whisp of something – a cloud? Smoke? But then it started getting brighter and began to move.
“Honey,” I said. “I think we might have something here.”
We watched as it faded away/ had we seen it? Was that it? If it was, it was unimpressive at best. We got out of the car so we could see a full 360 of the night sky.
Then some more white whisps began rising up above the pines. Chrissie took out her phone and took a picture. When she showed it to me, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The white whisp was bright green in the camera. We had found the lights- or at least one light! Chrissie was ecstatic. I was vindicated!
For the next two hours we watched the sky and saw some of the most ethereal and wondrous displays of nature that I have ever seen. It was magical and beautiful. I’m sure in the grand scheme of things, it was a small display, but for us it was so very cool.
Sometime after two o’clock in the morning we headed back to our hotel, glad we had not given up. Chrissie was thrilled and grateful. I felt satisfied and relieved that we had – against the odds – pulled it off. It was one of the high points of our vacation.
What did I learn? Two things:
1) The aurora borealis is a real thing. The lights do exist. Not a hoax, not the vain imaginings. They are beautiful and ethereal.
2) Our experience required that I actually put some time and effort in to find the time and place where the conditions were right for the experience. I studied, I observed, I read the words of experts and many witnesses. Finally, I acted on what I learned and we were rewarded with a wonderful experience.
I highly recommend that approach when seeking for light(s). Bucket list? Check.