Denali in Winter

The Night Sky

I'm camped with friends in snow-blanketed spruce-birch-cottonwood forest above the Tokositna River Valley, near the border of Denali State and National Parks. The night is still, clear, and cold. Except for occasional conversation, the only sound is the muted hoo-hooing of a boreal owl. Before retiring to my sleeping bag, I walk to an opening in the woods and look up. The moonless ink-black sky is vibrantly alive with countless sparkling stars. The sky here is completely free of urban glare, and the stars look like swarms of fireflies, blinking wildly in the heavens.

A different sort of light show enthralls me on another winter night near Denali's entrance. Just above the dark Alaska Range foothills, a pale-green luminous band arches gently across the sky. The band wavers slowly for several minutes, then explodes and fills the western sky. Bright-green curtains of northern lights, tinged pink along their edges, ripple wildly above the hills. At times the lights look like the embers of a heavenly fire, or they explode across the sky in an electric arc. I've seen the northern lights many times before, and I'm still shocked by their deep flashing brilliance.

Scientists tell us that these auroral apparitions are atmospheric phenomena, produced when a stream of charged particles from the sun, the solar wind, crashes into the Earth's magnetic field. While most of the particles are deflected, some filter down into the planet's upper atmosphere, where they collide with gaseous molecules like nitrogen and oxygen and produce the glowing colors I saw that night. The science may be complex and difficult to comprehend, but the results are pure beauty. I can understand why the peoples of many northern cultures have created myths to explain the aurora.

Denali isn't widely known for its beautiful night skies simply because most people visit in summer, when the sky never fully darkens. But residents know that for eight or nine months of every year, many of the region's greatest spectacles are found overhead.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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