Sunday, March 29, 2009

Staying up late to see the Northern Lights

Did you know that the intensity of the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, follows an 11-year solar cycle because it is influenced by sun spots and solar winds, and that we are currently in the low point of that activity? Neither did I. At least, not until I had already booked my flight to Alaska to see the Northern Lights this year.

Even though the odds of me seeing the Northern Lights this year were not that great, I figured that I would go to Alaska anyway, thinking (correctly, as it turned out) that there would be plenty of other great stuff to see and do. And, if I didn’t see the aurora, I would be okay with that; that would just give me an excuse to return in 2012 at the peak of the solar activity cycle.

So, I signed up for the Chena Hot Springs 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. Aurora Viewing tour, for the adventure of it. Since Rebecca and Ray see the aurora about 100 nights a year, they chose to sleep that night instead.

Our tour group met at 9:45 p.m. When I walked in wearing my smile-inducing “Eskimo Michelin Man” outfit, the first person who smiled at me was Elias Arias. Here's a photo of Elias in the “Snow Coach” vehicle that the resort used to transport about 15 of us to the top of a mountain, so we could be away from all other light, where aurora viewing would be at its best.

Elias and I chatted as the rest of the group was gathering. He’s from Queens, New York; which is a place I feel connected to because of my parents’ two year missionary service there. Elias was traveling alone; his friend who had planned to come was in the hospital getting knee surgery, and so Elias was happy for some conversation. He asked where I got my serious snow outfit, and I told him about Rebecca and Ray. We talked about our cameras. He had four of them with him along with a tripod. He works for Consumer Reports, testing video camera equipment. His coworkers who test standard camera equipment for Consumer Reports had lent him a camera to use on this trip.

When everyone was present, we climbed into the snow coach for the 30 to 40 minute ride up the mountain. Elias sat in the front with our driver, Rob. I sat with 8 other people in a separate trailer in the back, which had an intercom so we could contact Rob if needed. The trailer had windows in the ceiling, so I enjoyed looking at the starry skies and watching the lights of the resort recede into the distance and finally disappear as we bumped along to the yurt (an insulated tent) where we would spend the next four hours.

When we arrived at the yurt, it was very dark. I aimed my camera in the general direction of the snow coach, and here is what the flash found:

Elias took this photo of me in front of the coach, both with my camera and with one of his, since he wanted to show his friends my outfit as an example of the way to stay really warm in Alaska:

Rob, the driver, hurriedly ran around to prepare things for us. He turned on two fireplace-like looking propane heaters inside the yurt, and set folding chairs around them. He started lights and heaters in two outhouses nearby, one for the men and one for the women. Last, but not least, he started boiling some water for us, so we could drink hot chocolate and eat “Cup-A-Noodle” soup while we waited for the aurora to appear.

When all was ready, we filed into the yurt, which would be our shelter for the next three-and-a-half hours. Here’s a photo of Elias and me, that also shows the interior of the yurt:
Hanging out in the yurt was kind of like having a sleepover when you were a kid. Yeah. Just like that. Except in the middle of nowhere. And you’re clomping around in snow boots and heavy winter gear. And the temperature is 15° F below zero. And if you need to use the bathroom, you have to use an outhouse with a Very Cold Seat. And you are with people you’ve never met before. And every few minutes someone has to run outside to see if the aurora has appeared.

It was actually totally fun, because Elias, Rob and I all sat together and chatted. Elias whipped out a brand spankin’ new netbook computer that he had purchased for the trip, which he used to show us the photos he had taken in his exploration of Alaska so far. I pulled out my camera and showed my pictures, too. Elias and I rejoiced in our common geek-hood, although I told him I could only dream of becoming as much of a geek as he was, because being a geek was not my natural state and is something I have to work at, as much as I wished it were otherwise. We exchanged contact information, so we could become Facebook friends and share our photos once we returned home.

Here’s a picture of Elias and Rob:

Rob told us about what life was like as an employee of Chena Hot Springs. At one point I asked him “What brought you to Alaska?”

He sat there, for at least a whole minute, thinking.

His long pause caused me to remember the conversation Rebecca, Ray and I had over dinner. They had told me that Alaska was the “end of the road” for a lot of people; that if people needed to hide from the law, they often came to Alaska because it was so costly for police in the lower 48 states to come and find them. There are many places in Alaska accessible only by airplane, and so it’s an easy place to get lost. Rebecca said that Alaskans are often suspicious of people that suddenly show up there, without any family or work connection to the area.

While I was discussing this with Ray and Rebecca, I was making a note to myself: “Self, if I ever become a fugitive, I’ll plan to flee to Alaska.” [Editors Note: Not really. I just made that up. I was actually thinking: “Hmmm. What an interesting place this is”.]

But now that Rob was sitting there in front of me, thinking hard about how he came to Alaska, the note I was making to myself was: “Self, maybe it’s not so smart to go out into the middle of nowhere at night with a bunch of strangers who might be fugitives.”

But then Rob started talking. It was, after all, one o’clock in the morning when it can take a minute to gather your speaking faculties. And, Rob was a storyteller, and was pondering the best way to tell his tale.

He turned to me and said “How old are you?”

“Thirty-seven”, I told him.

He asked if I remembered the financial crisis and recession of the early 80’s, which I did. He then told me about being a construction worker in Oregon during that time, and slowly over the course of the recession losing his job, his home, and eventually even his car. He had a family to support, so that was very traumatic. His sister lived in Anchorage, and was building a house, and so she invited Rob and his family to come up and help her build it. So, he did. Then he got a job driving a fish truck, and so on. I’ve never been more happy to hear the specific details of someone’s life story than I was right then. Rob wasn’t a fugitive after all, just a nice guy taking care of his family. Phew!

So, we alternated between chatting inside the yurt and going outside to check to see if the aurora had appeared. Because of our very interesting conversation, the time flew by quickly for me.

And, as it turns out, the aurora never did appear that night.

But the good news is: the next evening, Elias went on a tour up across the Arctic Circle, and did see the Aurora there. Here’s a fun photo of him there:

I also had the opportunity to see the Aurora, through an unusual sequence of events, which I will include, along with aurora photos, in a blog post coming soon to a browser near you.

If you are interested in learning about the aurora, check out this fabulous website:

1 comment:

Grandma Kate said...

So very scary - at least until you found out you weren't on the top of an isolated mountain peak in the middle of no-where, in the dead of night with a possible axe murderer, .... just saying!!!

Wow, you couldn't even make up a story that entertaining. What a fabulous experience - you are a real pioneer woman!