AK 2010, Day 18: The Northern Lights
I’m in some sort of half-sleep-dream-state around 12:30am, just when the sun has finally “set” and the nearly full moon taken over. “The light, the light,” someone keeps saying. I think maybe it’s KB, telling me I’ve forgotten to turn off the light. We are, after all, running on solar power. We have what we need, but there’s no sense in wasting it either. “The lights, the lights!” the voice calls again.
I roll over in bed, open my eyes. Then it registers that the voice is actually coming from outside. “The northern lights!” a woman says. “I know you’re asleep but you’ve got to come see the northern lights!” I sit up in bed and see Amrit, our neighbor from down the path. She’s got her part-wolf dog Towklat with her and together they look like a late-night circus of prancing feet and faces. “If you come out by the train tracks you can see them!” Amrit calls. “It’s the northern lights!”
“Thanks!” I holler, then go wake up KB. (She can’t hear a thing through her supersonic earplugs. Alaskans know about sleep and many, like KB, travel with an eye mask for the sunlight and earplugs for the ever-present hum of planes and trains.)
It’s 38 degrees and likely to frost by morning, but we bundle in down vests and wool hats and dart out the cabin door, heading for the tracks. I’ve never seen the northern lights before but KB promises we’ll get more than one chance during our stay this far north.
A few minutes later, our breath hovers in soft puffs around our faces as we huddle and gaze northward, standing in the middle of the train tracks.
“Oh,” says KB. She’s unimpressed.
“Wow!” I say, marveling at the swelling band of light just over the tree line. “Is that it? That sort of puffy, swelling thing that’s greenish-yellow-kinda-brown?”
“Yeah,” she says. Then she whispers so Amrit can’t here, “but we’ll see the real deal when we go backpacking.”
Still, the night air is sweet and smells of Labrador tea and low bush cranberry—two distinct smells of fall in Alaska. I might be writing the whole day long in Alaska, but it’s moments like this that make the trek all the more worthwhile. We lie down on the tracks, a favorite pastime of mine, and gaze at the stars until it gets too cold to stay any longer.
Back at the cabin, I close my eyes for a second attempt at rest. Behind my eyelids, a pulsing band of light guides me into sleep; this sweet northern initiation I’ve sought for years finally come to fruition.