Learning to love the lights again
It’s funny how complacent we Alaskans can become after living here a long time. For at least the past five years, I have been underwhelmed whenever the Northern Lights come out. Following particularly active aurora spells, friends and family often excitedly ask: “Did you stay up for the lights last night?” It takes me a second or two to realize what they are talking about – What lights? I left the kitchen lights on? – when I finally catch on. Using a disappointed tone that is nowhere near sincere, I answer, “Oh, darn, I fell asleep and missed them.”
The thing is I am not disappointed. The pull of a warm, downy comforter overrides standing on my front porch in sub-zero temperatures to stare at the night sky. Partly, I think my lackluster relationship with the aurora is due to the fact that I’ve been blessed with too much of a good thing. Back when I had a full team of sled dogs and would routinely go on night runs into the woods with them, I often watched light shows that lit up the sky so brilliantly it felt like we were running in the shadow of a full moon. Once, while running my team along the frozen water’s edge of the inlet behind Beach Lake, the lights literally fluttered in the sky, a brilliant pink and purple that outdid any of the usual green-yellow activity that is so common here. I stopped the team, planted the snow hook, and even they seemed intrigued, even subdued, by the lights before us. At that moment, I was indeed awestruck, frozen in my tracks at the ethereal beauty in front of me.
Since then, though, I’ve become quite “meh” about the lights, while my friends are still going strong, staying up late, setting their alarms and manipulating their cameras to complicated settings designed to capture the natural beauty. I feel like I’m missing an “Alaska” gene or something to not be so moved by the aurora.
Having recently returned from a trip to Japan, however, I was asked about Alaska’s Northern Lights no less than a dozen times in 10 days. When answering that, “yes, I can watch the aurora right outside my window,” I received envious stares, confirming that I indeed am an idiot to underappreciate such ethereal displays.
This past week, there was an aurora forecast predicting high activity in my area. Fresh off the Japan trip and with the memories of those wonderous, wide eyes of envy, I decided to rediscover Alaska’s Northern Lights. For several nights, I searched in vain for the lights. – well, to be honest, I sent Andy out to look first before getting out from underneath the covers. Friends from Talkeetna to Kasilof had been posting photos of their Northern Lights photos and I was starting to get anxious, even anticipatory.
But Chugiak, where I live, seemed to be an auroral desert. Andy came back in with no good news to report; just another chilly Alaska autumn evening with nothing to see. I dug deeper under the down comforter, surprised upon realizing that I was actually a bit disappointed that they didn’t show.
Then late Sunday night – or the wee early hours of this morning – I woke up and could not get back to sleep. I picked up my book, crept to the downstairs bedroom and turned on the light to read myself back to lala-land. The house was silent; the family slept, the dog slept. My mind raced.
I decided to try one more time. Out on the front porch, it no longer felt like autumn, rather full-on winter. Already, ice had formed on the wooden boards and it melted through my hastily pulled-on socks. I ventured out to the edge of the deck and peeked up at the night sky, and there they were, weak and puny but glistening all the same. And I had a small feeling of triumph, as if to confirm all I had told my Japanese friends the week earlier. Indeed, I can see the Northern Lights just outside my house. It’s just that I had forgotten how to appreciate them for so many years.
May this winter be filled with the rediscovery of all that makes the coldest time of the year in Alaska also the most precious. Welcome to winter.