Part I: Coronal Mass Ejection
Thursday, January 9th, 2014, 9:52 pm; Alaska Airlines flight 129, somewhere over Canada
I saw the Northern Lights once, for 5 or 10 minutes, in May of 2005 on the road into Happy Valley-Goose Bay in Labrador. That fleeting experience came at the end of 800km of a road made mostly of loose rocks that passed through some of the most beautiful and otherworldly surroundings I’ve ever experienced: pristine lakes and huge old-growth forests on every side; mining communities in the middle of the tundra; a huge forest fire that turned the sky orange for two days; an ore-red lake just outside Labrador City; and a modern-day company town called Churchill Falls where the employees lived in row houses with their families but everything else, school and stores and library and gym and restaurants and hotel and all, were contained within a single dystopian-looking concrete box in the center of town, like a sci-fi experiment gone awry or the final bastion from which the last straggling remnants of the human race might someday be called upon to make their stand against the unrelenting hordes of the zombie apocalypse, hoping against hope to survive the winter.
And at the end of all this was a little town, the furthest point to which you can drive on a road in North America and the first place I ever ate poutine; and it was briefly joined in the upper atmosphere my first night, while I was driving around looking for a place to pitch my bivy, by a shimmering green curtain of light dancing above the treetops, otherworldly in the truest sense, the visible projection of a secret unseen world of solar wind and radiation and space weather, the very appellation calling to mind comic-book images of lonely astronauts sailing the vast reaches between the planets on favorable tides, and I spent 2 more nights in the area—car camping off remote logging roads in the wilderness in the hills around the town and worrying about bears, watching from my bivy sack as the sun dipped slightly below the horizon sometime after midnight before beginning its ascent a few hours later, and enjoying the skyful of stars that came out when the weather and the lack of sun collaborated—without glimpsing any more cracks in the curtain between this world and the other.
The experience has stayed with me, though, and it holds a special place in my heart, combining as it does the African-game-park-style thrill of the hunt—in which victory is the capture of a rare experience, a thing that most people will never see and you will only if you have enough luck, which is what happens when opportunity meets preparation, and preparation in this case means a lack of guarantees, a throwing yourself into the unknown and accepting that you can’t get back what you put in, a form of one-way existential gambling—with the deep sense of inner peace and connectedness that a clear night sky has always inspired in me, going back to my childhood in rural Texas and the nights I used to spend lying on my back on my parents’ driveway staring up at the stars with the family cat curled up asleep on my chest and purring contently.
I trot it out in conversation from time to time, as I do with so many of the experiential trophies of my youth, and last week when I brought it out in a conversation with a friend she told me that this year marks the peak of an 11-year cycle for the aurora borealis. That fact was like a spark dropped onto the dry kindling of my post-election [f]unemployment—the spark became a flame, the flame began to spread, and since this isn’t 2005 anymore I checked the space weather forecasts and looked at average temperatures and number of clear days out of the year and ticket prices and frequent flier availability and hotel prices, and I signed up for text message alerts and a mailing list as the idea of a trip became a constant background process, and at first I thought that I would time it around whatever worked best for my schedule…but nature had other plans for me, and besides, that was before I learned the term Coronal Mass Ejection (CME).
Two days ago, on Tuesday, January 7th, the sun shot out an X1-class solar flare (which sounds impressive, even if I have no idea what “X1-class” signifies) while it was facing Earth head-on, something that apparently happens only very rarely. That night was also a great night for the aurora—coincidentally, as it turns out, but being a Google-educated aurora-watcher with only a couple of hours’ worth of education I conflated the two based on circumstantial evidence—and after reading all the forecasts and looking at all of the data that I could make sense of, I concluded that I’d missed what was likely to be my best bet at seeing the aurora through the end of the month. Then a delightful little email popped into my inbox telling me that the good stuff from the solar flare Tuesday night wouldn’t reach the Earth until tonight (what had actually happened on the 7th was that an earlier Coronal Mass Ejection, which had been forecast in advance, had hit the earth’s ionosphere that morning), and that the effects would probably last for 2-3 nights. The aurora forecast for the area just south of the Arctic circle tonight and tomorrow flipped from “quiet” to “extreme”, which was more than enough provocation for me—in spite of weather reports that showed cloudy to partly cloudy conditions in Fairbanks, I booked a ticket leaving two hours ago and returning via Anchorage on Saturday, two days from now.
Today at 12:43 pm I got a text message from the Alaskan aurora-watcher SMS service I signed up for yesterday with the frankly pretty awesome pronouncement “A CME has just hit Earth’s magnetic field. Check spaceweather.com for details,” which erased any doubts I might have had about the trip and put me on an adrenaline high that I’m still riding.
I have no idea what I’ll find waiting for me at the Mount Aurora Lodge later tonight and tomorrow, or whether we’ll end up flying through the lights on our way in like the couple from Fairbanks a few rows ahead of me did on their flight into Seattle and like I would give almost anything to experience myself…but I’m really looking forward to finding out :) Stay tuned for further updates…
Part II: Aurora Hunters
January 10th, 2014, 6:03 pm; Mount Aurora Lodge, in the hills above Fairbanks
My immediate post-college life plans were nice and crisp and well-defined—things like “start over from scratch somewhere I don’t know anyone,” “travel around the world without flying,” and “live in New York City for a year, then live in Anchorage for a year,” the last of which I never got around to because, when push came to shove, in Seattle I found one of the best possible combinations of urban (New York) and rural (everything around Anchorage) of any city I’ve ever been to. While I’ve spent plenty of time in New York over the course of my life, though, I had never been to Alaska until the plane touched down on a runway covered in packed snow last night at Fairbanks International. I’d always told myself that I’d never go until I could take the time off to drive here myself, but the lure of the aurora was stronger than my resolve in the end.
I’m not the only one—the Alaska Geophysical Institute’s aurora forecast website has been down or reduced to limited functionality since yesterday afternoon due to the high volume of traffic from people eager to take advantage of a great viewing window, and a lot of the lodges around town are full of out-of-towners like me hoping to catch a glimpse of the lights. I was lucky to find a room at the Mount Aurora Lodge, a truly wonderful little spot 20 miles outside of Fairbanks that’s part upscale hostel and part bed & breakfast and that I would heartily recommend to any of you who are considering making a trip to the area; the owners are wonderful, the food’s fantastic, the views from the property are amazing, and the fire is nice and warm. When I arrived last night around 11 pm I couldn’t get ahold of the long-distance cab company that services the airport; when I called Laurie at the lodge to get her recommendation on another cab company she said that her husband Jeff would just come pick me up, and I ended up having a great 30-minute conversation with him on the drive up here.
First, though, Alaska. I’m glad I’m getting to see it in the wintertime, because it’s been a great opportunity for me to de-exoticize the far polar north: it was -2 Fahrenheit when we arrived yesterday and colder than that today (it’s supposed to get down to -17 tonight); the runway and all of the non-arterial roads in town were covered in a layer of packed snow; the sun barely came up around 10:30 this morning and started heading back down around 2 pm…I’ve hit a lot of the meteorological phenomena that have always fascinated me about this part of the world, and that’s before a totally clear night tonight in the coldest temperatures I’ve ever experienced with a strong possibility of seeing what I came here to see, in addition to a sky full of stars. I now know what winter in the far north feels like— the feeling of a full breath of subzero air in my lungs; losing sensation in my fingers from taking my gloves off to snap pictures outside, and my phone dying after being exposed to the air for about 30 seconds; free-falling backwards into a snowdrift wearing full snowboarding gear and coming to rest naturally, like sitting in a recliner made of snow; hiking up through waist-high drifts to the top of a ridge and marveling at the frozen landscape in all directions; and tracking the aurora with a group of like-minded allies, joined together by the kind of fleeting but rock-solid bond that’s forged in the furnaces of lodges like this.
My fellow guests all men (names changed to protect the innocent)—Jacob, from Portland, and John, from Melbourne, two friends who met up in Fairbanks on Monday to see the lights and brought the menfolk from each of their families with them, both of their dads plus John’s brother Mike. We’re all heading back to Fairbanks tomorrow, so there’s a shared sense of urgency around what happens in space tonight; we talked a bit last night when I arrived (the CME missed the North American night—although it was apparently amazing in Norway—so I didn’t see anything from the plane, and it was totally overcast last night until 3 am, so most of the guys went to bed by 1 or 2), bonded over breakfast this morning, and then took off and spent a good portion of the day playing in the snow, throwing a frisbee around in the frozen parking lot and then hiking up to the top of a nearby ridge for a good view of the area. We’ve been warming up back at the lodge since then; the plan is for dinner around 9:00, followed by snowmobiling back to the top of the ridge and setting up camp until 2 am or so to see what we can see (or possibly hanging out here at the lodge if the colder-than-any-of-us-have-ever-experienced weather turns out to be too much).
They’re an interesting bunch of guys—John went to college with Julian Assange and is now working on a PhD in Germany; James helps his dad, who’s a physicist by trade, run a walnut and truffle farm in southern Australia; Jacob’s dad is a community organizer and an epidemiologist who makes the combination seem as natural as can be—they’re both about ensuring the long-term health and viability of communities, after all—and it’s clear that he’s raised Jacob with a similar set of values, in addition to being prone to making great statements like “sulfur once saved me from dying of malnutrition in the Bolivian rainforest.” It’s been a lot of fun spending the day with them, and I’m looking forward to heading back up to the ridge before too much longer—the sky is clear, the space weather forecast looks promising…even without seeing the northern lights, I think it’s going to be a great night.
Part III: The Lights from the Ridge
January 11th, 2014, 4:35 pm; Anchorage International Airport, en route to Seattle
We saw the aurora last night. It was just before 2 am, we were in the common area of the lodge reading and getting up occasionally to go up to the second floor and look out the north-facing window, and most of the guys had already given up on seeing anything. Jacob’s dad Steve [all names changed except the proprietors] suggested one last walk up to the top of Blueberry Hill, as Jeff and Laurie had christened it, a little ridge with a 360 degree view of the area about half a mile from the lodge that we’d trekked out to earlier in the evening for an amazing view of the stars (I took a snowmobile ride up with Laurie, spent 30 minutes or so alone with the stars, the wind, and the snow, and then snowshoed back with everyone else after they walked up). It was around -15 Fahrenheit outside, and with a pretty stiff wind on top of that, but I’d been contemplating one last ridge walk myself to cap off the trip, so I suited up and joined Steve while everyone else decided to stay put. He headed out while I was still bundling up—there was a bright half moon out in a totally clear sky, so the reflection of the moonlight off the snow meant that visibility was great and he was easy to follow—and when I caught up to him at the beginning of the little path that led to the top of the hill he was standing still, looking back in the direction of the lodge. He said he thought he could see the beginnings of a display; I wasn’t sure, but I knew the view would be better from the top regardless, so I suggested that we keep going…and by the time we got to the top of the ridgeline it was clear what we were looking at.
The northern lights are a phenomenon that you experience differently with your eyes vs. with a camera. With the right setup and the right photographer the images a good camera can capture win every time in terms of sheer visual beauty, according to everyone I’ve ever talked to who has experience with both, but travel experiences have never been fundamentally about pictures for me; I’ve seen plenty of pictures of the aurora, but I was in it for the experience of watching them dance across the sky again with my own two eyes. My iPhone wouldn’t have been able to capture anything except a dark landscape anyway, so instead of attempting any kind of a picture I braved the freezing winds with my bare fingers for perhaps 25 seconds to do two things, both of which seemed important to me at the time: tweet to the local Aurora notification service that they were visible in the sky, in case any fellow watchers were glued to their computer screens searching for clues like the younger guys back at the lodge had been most of the night; and post the simplest and most subtly contrarian message I could think of to Facebook, simultaneously a tiny permanent blog post, a real-time connection both to all of you and my future selves, a record of me on the mountain looking at a faint green light dancing slowly and ethereally out in the cold night air, and a commentary on my tendency, which I assume others share, to focus on the superficial goal but often miss the deeper themes and experiences that underlie it: “Mission accomplished.”
It was important to mark the occasion because it was a moment in time that I’ll think back on for the rest of my life; but it was also worth reflecting on more deeply because the lights, as nice as they were and as happy as it made me to see them—especially because of the dramatic way that it happened, only at the very end, just past the point of having given up—were only one part of the equation, and frankly not even the most important part. The phrase “the journey is the destination” is so overused these days that it’s become a cliché, but like most clichés there’s truth to it, and one of the lessons my experience last night drove home to me was that just as the open road was the best part of the unconstrained traveling days of my youth and some research has suggested that planning a vacation often gives you more happiness than actually taking one, my joy these past two days has been firmly located in the thrill of the hunt, not in the trophy I have to show for it at the end of the day—even if I wouldn’t have been there at all without the promise of the trophy hanging over the whole thing. I came to Alaska to sit with nature outdoors, on colder nights at the end of shorter days than anything I’d ever experienced, to expand the limits of my experience and try with no guarantee or reasonable expectation of success to catch a brief glimpse of a vast hidden system without which I wouldn’t exist, to see the joy and gratitude of organic life translated into something my visual cortex could understand implicitly…and it was the anticipation—riding the wave of my attachment to suffering, to co-opt a Buddhist concept—that gave the whole thing its delicious flavor, caused me to open myself viscerally to the worlds outside of what I can see and taste and touch and smell and hear on a daily basis and made my heart rate tick up, first as I stared out the window of an airplane before it dropped below the clouds into Fairbanks airspace and again as I gazed across a vast frozen unobstructed landscape on a clear starry night standing next to a community organizer and epidemiologist my dad’s age who I didn’t know existed 26 hours earlier as we shared a moment that both of us will still be talking about until our grandkids get sick of hearing the story.
But of course the experiential trophy itself is also worthwhile, and I paid attention so that I could write about it, paint you a picture with words to attempt to capture some of what it feels like to have started idly considering something on the first Friday of the year, which is also your third day of unemployment after working at one place for four years, longer than you’ve ever done anything with the exception of going to college, and even then you had breaks over the summers; to have started looking into it on Saturday, given up on it for the near-term Tuesday morning, and seen a window Tuesday night, a possible path, and changed your mind and booked a ticket on a whim, more or less, in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, 72 hours ago from where you’re standing shivering in the early morning cold, because you wanted to see the lights, true, but also because you wanted to experience everything that came along with wanting to see the lights, the discomfort and uncertainty and pushing of personal boundaries derived from that primal longing for victory and new experiences and seeing as much of the world, broadly defined, as one lifetime will hold.
So all of that is what’s led you to this ridge, borrowed rubber snow boots buried up to the ankles in the deep drifts that you and Jacob and John were jumping into around sunset 12 hours ago, post-frisbee, from the rock ledge that’s blocking the wind for you now just like it blocked the wind for you 7 hours ago at 7 pm in the pitch black when you came back and stood and watched the starry night sky, alone for 20 minutes or so and then with everyone else, when it was still just a night sky because it was too early in the evening to see the aurora, an enjoyable break during which the present was all that was important, no fixation on a possible future event, and it was the cold creeping slowly into your body through the tips of your toes that finally made you head back for the lodge for reading and chatting and dinner, the best copper river salmon you’ve ever had with fresh homemade cheese-and-chocolate danishes for dessert, so warm that the cheese practically melted in your mouth, and then settling in and waiting, checking the various space weather forecasts from time to time with the guys and reading Underworld and checking to see how many people liked your last post on Facebook, and because your toes were what betrayed you last time you swapped out your trusty Eccos for these white boots that belong to the lodge for the final ascent, because John recommended them highly, and they work; your feet are nice and warm, and so is the rest of you, wearing as many layers as you could fit into your trusty old Timbuk2, and it made you happy to hear Jeff marvel at how lightly you packed.
The ridge you’re standing on is maybe a few hundred feet higher than the lodge but that makes it the highest point in the immediate area, and you get there by walking down the long driveway past the coal-fired generators that power the lodge and across the “road” that looks more like a groomed cat track, made entirely of snow that’s alternately packed and not so packed, and then up the snowmobile track that you used this time, no snowshoes necessary since you stuck to the trail, maybe half a mile all told from the warmth of the lodge and the bed that’s waiting for you at some indeterminate point in the future, and the ridge itself, the highest point on the hill, is maybe 400 feet long, completely exposed to the wind with the exception of the sheltered little area next to the rock outcropping on the east side where you’re currently standing, facing north and sheltered from the winds whipping in from the southeast. The entire landscape is spread out at your feet and covered in evergreen trees, sloping down from the high ground you and Steve are temporarily occupying on behalf of mankind: to the south is Fairbanks, even colder than where you are thanks to its inversion layer, throwing up its lights onto a small patch of the only clouds visible in the sky; to the east is the moon, illuminating the entire landscape enough that you don’t need the headlamp you have strapped to your head but casting in particularly stark relief a frozen river winding its way through a frozen river valley; to the west is the road that leads back to town; above you is a sky full of stars, somewhat inhibited by the brightness of the moon; and to the north, directly in front of you, is the hill on which the lodge sits, with the lodge and a few houses nestled on top of it…and above them in the sky is a faint green curtain of light, shifting in intensity as it sways slowly in the solar wind.
It starts out subtly, somewhere near the boundary between objectively observable reality and your mind’s ability to influence it, but after a minute or so it becomes clear that this is what you came for, a vertical slash of pale green light that a good photographer with a dSLR could coax and draw out and talk to, but all you have is your eyes, so you do what you can and meditate on the experience, the meaning of the light, both as an indicator of you getting what you wanted and as one of the invisible forces that protects us and shapes our lives regardless of whether we believe in it, and it shifts as you’re watching it, subtly, one vertical tendril becomes two, faint enough in the beginning that it could almost be a small patch of cloud that got lost somewhere in the night sky, but then it gets brighter, and a horizontal flourish fades slowly into existence, like God underlining the sky, if you believe in God, and it shifts almost imperceptibly slowly, changing intensity and shape and position for 10 or 15 minutes, the sun slow dancing with the earth, and then it fades and disappears and is gone from your world once more, your sacrifice accepted and your journey at an end.
And you and Steve wait for it for another 15 or 20 minutes, and then when his feet start getting cold you head back down the hill, go to sleep, and wake up this morning and start heading Seattle-wards, hoping to arrive in time to catch the 10:30 14/48 and wholeheartedly in love with the world.