Searching For The Light

By Sherry Amatenstein
  |  Gorp.com

In my years of sky-watching, I'd witnessed crackling fireworks displays, spectacular sunsets, rainbows that could shame the NBC peacock. But the northern lights—undulating, shimmering ribbons of color that flirt and dance their way across the sky—were supposed to be a sight that could make an agnostic fall to his knees and worship God.

The scientific term for nature's most awesome light show is the Aurora Borealis (literally meaning "dawn of the north"). Stretching in an oval band across parts of Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Siberia, these auroral displays are solar powered, produced in the earth's upper atmosphere by electrical discharges in a vacuum-like environment. Myself—I prefer the cultural myths that interpret the aurora as gods dancing in the heavens or angels fighting. These were the visions I longed to see on my trip to Alaska—the lights of legend, the lights that couldn't be explained but once viewed, could never be forgotten.

Maybe I needed so desperately to see the light to offset my feeling of peering blindly into the dark. I wasn't sure what I wanted in my life, but I knew what I didn't want.

So, on Friday, I quit my magazine editing job, and on Saturday took off for 10 days in the most vast, mysterious state in the U.S.

Alaska—over four times the area of Los Angeles, with 5,000 glaciers, and bracketed by the Bering Sea—was purchased in 1867 from Russia by William Seward, Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of State, for 2 cents per acre ($7.2 million in total). Seward purchased a land where you can play sun-washed summer baseball at 2 a.m.; yet in winter, prepare for dusk at 2 p.m. Only 20 years after what many termed "Seward's Folly," Alaska became a land teeming with gold.

My Holland America-sponsored tour begins with an overnight stay in Anchorage. Home to 250,000 (over half the state's population), Anchorage is comfortable and cosmopolitan, the perfect gateway to a thrilling, though primitive expanse. It's also a prime viewing location for the northern lights. Although, traveling in late August, I'm a month from the beginning of "aurora borealis season" (late fall through spring). The lights are most active when the weather is clear and cold. They appear anytime from midnight to 4 a.m., and can peek out for the space of an eyeblink, or remain "on" all night. However, I'm too jetlagged to even leave a northern lights wake-up call with the front desk at the Anchorage Hilton. But my trip is just beginning. Who knows where this inner and outer voyage might take me?

At 8 a.m., my group boards the McKinley Explorer, a full-domed railcar for an eight-hour trip to Denali Park, site of Mt. McKinley, which at 20,320 feet is the highest peak in North America. It's also the most elusive: A dense cloud cover hides the ice-topped mountain all but about 16 days of the summer. Our train guide tells us that no one knows how visible it is during the brutally cold winters, because no one's around!

The scenery outside my domecar is a breathtaking blur of blue lakes, green mountains and eccentric, empty-looking burbs with names like Wasilla ("All I saw" spelled backwards.) Our waiter encourages us to give a two-fingered "moose" to a passing train.

Denali, at last. True to it's reputation, it's mired in mist. (Alaska humor: Our guide points to Mt. McKinley's alleged location and says, "Mountain is on vacation.") The fog means the northern lights will also be on vacation tonight. But at least in Denali I get my first description of the lights from someone who's seen them.

I'm at a luau. (Alaskans look for any excuse to party. They've designated next weekend Christmas.) I pepper Ed, a lei-draped park ranger, with questions about my latest obsession. He chuckles, "First time I saw them, I'd been drinking—heavily—and I thought I was hallucinating. The other night they were a vermilion green, folding out like the spokes of an umbrella . . . Man, they were awesome."

I say, "Hey, I'm single. Is it true men are dying up here for a few good women?"

"Yeah. I live in Fairbanks. Wanna come up for December, and bring a few friends? We've got low crime... and plenty of lights. In fact, Denali and Fairbanks are usually your best opportunities to see the aurora."

That's good news. Tomorrow we're reboarding the McKinley Explorer; next stop, Fairbanks. I take down Ed's number, and we hum along with the band, who are warbling a low-rent version of Kimbaya.

The music's a lot better the next morning. I slip outside for a brisk dawn hike around nearby Horseshoe Lake. The weather is cold, still misty, but the birds—arctic terns?—are in a singsong state of mind.

I hear an ominous rustling and think: grizzly! I try to remember what I'm supposed to do—Run? No, back away slowly, and if it's on top of you—oh, happy thought—don't scream or move. What sadist invented the rules of bear etiquette?

Whew! It's a ground squirrel. I relax slowly, pore by pore—taking in two faraway peaks framed by majestic pines, and the enchanted stillness, finally broken by the bleat of a Dall sheep.

Today is Monday, the first work day since I left my job. My stomach tenses. What was I thinking to give up a steady paycheck for the dream of writing a book? The fog lifts, and my eyes clear as the sky's gauzy haze gives way to a startling iridescent blue. I actually cry for joy, and wish I didn't have a train to catch. I belong here—alone, staring at a mountaintop. I feel alive, hopeful, for once connected to the world instead of battling it. And I haven't even seen the lights yet!

We reach Fairbanks at nightfall. Still in a solitude mode, I duck the group dinner (promising I'll catch up with everyone tomorrow at the dog mushers' museum) and get directions to a locals' hang-out called The Hideaway.

The bar's decor features crossed snowshoes and caribou skins stretched on the walls. Like most of Alaska it's nearly empty, but I recognize the three drinkers at the bar, even though they're out of uniform. They work on the McKinley Explorer. The lone woman in the group cheerily motions me over.

A few minutes later Sharon challenges Ken to a game of pool (and proceeds to "whup" him). Bill, the brakeman, buys me a beer. Originally from Phoenix, he moved here after a two-week visit in which he didn't see Mt. McKinley or the northern lights. "It was such a tease, I had to come back. And I've never left."

He's come to love the challenge of the wilderness—the hunting, fishing, even the long lonely winters are a test of character for this friendly but aloof Alaskan bachelor.

His favorite lights experience? "The first time I saw them, it was winter, '82. I was in my car, wearing an insulated down vest and listening to Sinatra. Suddenly, the stars disappeared, and it was like dozens of overlapping red and yellow curtains covering every inch of sky. I got out of the car, lay down on the roof and just looked my fill for hours. Until I got too cold. Now that's a sight I'll carry to my grave."

I mull over Bill's memories as I head back to my hotel. At 10:30 the sun is just setting on another pretty but foggy northern lights-less night. Tomorrow, we head away from Alaska's interior, which is prime aurora country. I'm beginning to worry that I'll never see the light.

Actually, there's probably a better chance that I'll strike gold, since our next stop is Dawson. Deep in the Canadian Yukon Territory, Dawson, nicknamed Paris of the North, was the center of the Klondike Gold Rush. The town looks more 1895-ish than 1995, with dirt roads, wild west-style saloons, and gold mining dredges in the creek.

Our guide, Buffalo asks, "So who wants to pan for gold and who wants to gamble at Diamond Tooth Gerties?"

My friend, Dana, says, "That sounds great, but Sherry probably wants to hear about the best places to see the northern lights."

Buffalo smiles. "Then we'd better high-tail it later up to the Midnight Dome."

Later means 10:15 p.m., just in time for the sunset. The dome offers the best vantage point in Dawson to see the glistening mountains and mining fields near the Yukon River. With these natural riches, who needs that pesky gold stuff?

The sun dips, slowly at first, then faster and faster as if it has an appointment to keep. A corona of orange forms behind a band of turquoise blue.

I'm awed, but not fulfilled. "This is so magnificent, Buffalo. What are the lights like?"

"They're always different. Sometimes they pulsate and blink on and off. Sometimes you can actually hear them hissing and whizzing. People bring me up here all the time, at two, three a.m., and we sit here 'til the sunrise, watching or waiting. One man demanded his money back because the lights never came out."

The wind is biting, but I'm willing to hang in. Until Buffalo sniffs the air and reports, "We'd better head down. Tonight doesn't smell like a lights night."

I still spend a sleepless night staring out my hotel window, then doze all morning on our "puddle jumper" plane to Skagway.

That sleepy fishing village personifies Alaska. Skagway's winter population of 800 swells to a summertime high of 2,000. Bordered by the Coast Mountains, Skagway has more than its share of knife-edged glaciers... and spawning salmon.

I watch the salmon for what seems like hours—hundreds of wriggling, red bullets that rocket upstream through the water, then slide back down. The few dazed salmon who reach their destination still have to contend with fishermen out for easy catch. I'm glad I'm higher on the food chain than these luckless fish, but grateful to witness their elegance, courage and tenacity.

I know a little about tenacity. That night, my friends and I follow the sounds of music to the Red Onion. The club is jamming. In between sets I ask my dance partners about the northern lights. The harmonica player hears me and says, "If you like, honey, when this place closes at 2 o' clock, I'll take you to the lights."

Watson is true to his word. We drive in his pick-up to the river. The windows are open and I hear the salmon still busily splicing through the water. Watson should be a character on TV's Northern Exposure. He served as a medic in Vietnam, and has a Ph.D. in far-eastern languages. Now he's a trail guide/musician in Skagway. We talk 'til nearly sunrise. There are no lights, but I glimpse a few stars.

The next morning, my tour arrives at Juneau to catch the ms Maasdam for the last leg of the journey: a cruise down the Inside Passage toward Vancouver. The ship is grandly gaudy, a floating hotel featuring a gym with a view, $2 million of artwork and 1,300 guests.

Most of them line the deck the morning we sail by Glacier Bay. I keep my binoculars trained on the massive blue glaciers described by naturalist John Muir as "a picture of ice wilderness unspeakably pure and sublime." The sound of an iceberg crashing into the water (the technical term is "calving") is like 100 champagne corks simultaneously popping.

It's tremendous, but I need something more. I'm introduced to the MS Maasdam's captain. When I pose my burning question, his eyes light up. "Sailing out here, you can go nearly a year without seeing the aurora, then it's visible six nights in a row. It's like you're sitting at the bottom of a cone, looking up through a little hole, watching these waving bright colors that obliterate the stars. When the lights are out, I've thought about waking the passengers to come on deck, but not everyone would throw my head back and face the ceiling. My god, why didn't I notice before: Those neon lights are waving and pulsing like... like the Northern Lights.

I laugh jubilantly. What did the Good Witch Glinda tell Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz? Something like, "Tap your shoes three times and find your way home." All this time, I'd had to power to see the light whenever I chose. All this time, I'd had the power to make my own dreams come true.

Prime Aurora-Viewing Season
I could have made my lights-fixation easier to fulfill if I'd planned my trip for the right time of year. The prime aurora-viewing season runs from September to early April. May, June, and July are the "midnight sun" months when aurora and stars are not visible. Most of April and August (when I was there) are marginal viewing months, because the sky does not get truly dark at night, but bright stars and aurora may be seen.


Writer/New Media Editor Sherry Amatenstein is still looking for the light.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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