Early this year, we decided to – from time to time – highlight some of our most spectacular past journeys under an "Awesome Adventures" heading. To qualify, the journey has to be the best of the best. There aren't many. So far, we've only gotten around to sharing details from our visit to Antarctica. Today, there's a new Awesome Adventure to share.
Here's a secret: We're Northern Lights chasers.
Seeing the mysterious Northern Lights has always occupied a top spot on our travel wish lists. A few years back, we made it up to Iceland in the dead of winter and were hoping to see them. No luck. Thankfully, Iceland rocks, so there was plenty of other stuff to keep us occupied during our 20-hours-of-dark-a-day visit to Bjork's turf. But that's a different post.
In honor of our upcoming visit to Alaska, we want to share some of the details from the time we did catch the Northern Lights. It happened last year, just outside of Fairbanks. Thanks to the (rare) clear weather that also allowed us to check out other sites like the city and the pipeline.
Why is weather/timing so important? The Northern Lights, also known as Aurora Borealis, are the result of a complicated atmospheric phenomenon that involves particles thrown from the sun colliding with the Earth's atmosphere. Yep, brainy stuff. Add to that the fact that actually seeing the Northern Lights can be tricky. Some years are better than others and, of course, weather conditions are a huge factor. 2010 was not labelled a "good" year for seeing them, but we took a chance (based on some websites' viewing predictions) and lucked out.
Ideally, when plotting your visit to prime viewing spots – between latitudes 65 to 72 degrees, to be exact – you can plan on a few days. Those crisp, cold and cloudless nights are an important factor. On our first night, we sat in our rental car on the outskirts of Fairbanks waiting for the magic to happen. Rather than seeing the Northern Lights dance above us, we saw clouds roll in. Womp womp.
Plus, we weren't prepared. We were parked on the side of the road in the freezing cold in the middle of the night. What were we thinking? On the second night, we brought snacks, coffee, a meal for the middle of the night, music and a computer for journaling. Our preparation was rewarded.
From the journal…
Waiting for the lights to happen, we kept commenting on some strange shifts in the sky. Little did we know that those "strange shifts" were the first stages of the Northern Lights. All we knew to expect and look for was color. When we saw a golden arc come across the sky as though it were being etch-a-sketched on, we thought the world was ending.
What we saw over the next hours was baffling and nothing like we expected. It was as though the sky was an artist's canvas, and we saw an ever-changing display of light and movement. These pictures don't do the experience justice, but they give you an idea of what we witnessed that night. (Despite how some of the pictures appear, it was pitch black.)
We didn't see the violets and indigos that can appear from time to time, but that didn't matter.
From the journal…
The lights just kept getting brighter and more spectacular. We spent the next several hours watching them move across the sky. Disappearing and reappearing. Shifting and dancing. We saw greens and yellow and pinks. We saw them create arcs and curtains and streak across the sky in balls of light. It was both eerie and amazing. We could not contain ourselves even in the constricted space of our economy rental. Talk about a perfect night. Sitting there, watching the lights, eating, listening to great music. Seriously fantastic.
I think it's one experience that neither one of us feels able to communicate adequately. To see the wonders of our planet, our world, our solar system. It made us feel extremely lucky and very overwhelmed with appreciation for life.
You can't beat that feeling and the mind-set shift that occurs when faced with such a natural spectacle.
We're gearing up for what we hope will be another Awesome-Adventure-worthy visit to Alaska. Watch for more details in a few days.
Have you seen the Northern Lights or do you want to? Let us know!