NORTH TO ALASKA

The other midnight sun

Posted Sept. 16, 2011, at 3:32 p.m.

It is very much fall here on the banks of the Yukon River. We have actually passed the peak of leaf season, and winter is knocking heavily on the door.

I caught myself grumbling on a particularly cold, rainy and windy day that it had gone from feeling like late September to late November in just three days. Snow is on its way; you can feel it in the air, and what’s more, winter in Alaska means it’s time to see the aurora borealis.

When it first started getting dark, we began discussing aurora borealis sightings. About two or three weeks ago, I had my first: a faint milky-white that stretched across the sky, lapping delicately at the stars. I thought it was a cloud until Joel told me otherwise a few days afterward.

Sometime later I saw it again. Derek and I were leaving the TV room at about 1:30 in the morning and we looked up at the night sky with too many stars to count, and stretching from northeast to northwest a light green wave of light shimmered.

I pointed at it and looked at him questioningly. He grinned and nodded, “It looks like it’s trying to drop curtains over there,” pointing to the northwest where we could see more solid green dancers intertwined with each other in a feeble attempt to move downward. Five minutes later it had progressed to a bright green bolt straight down, and by the time I was back outside with my camera in hand, it was completely gone.

Last night was different. The northern lights forecast in the paper said “active,” and we were graced with our first clear day (and night) in about a week. When I stumbled outdoors at 10:30 p.m., I was hit first with moonlight, and then with a brilliant green river running clear across the sky — east to west. Curtains were down; you could see them billowing, as though a light breeze gently blew them back and forth.

Above us it was even more magical: A hundred fluorescent green strings were hanging down above me, gracefully dancing with each other. As I watched more streams developed, merging and forking to and fro from one another.

I grabbed my camera in the vain hope that a photograph could capture this moment, the feeling of cold hands grasping at my arms and legs while my eyes devoured this sight before me. It was surely impossible, but I had to try. Because I had to open the restaurant in the morning, I had to get to sleep. With considerable regret, I tore myself away from this natural light show and fumbled my way to bed.

This morning everyone was talking about the display regardless of whether they’d seen it, and the question was: What was your favorite aurora viewing experience?

I had never seen it, even though from time to time it can be viewed in Maine, because it always was cloudy on those days. But boy, have I ever seen it now, and boy, do I ever want to view it again.

Catie Zielinski graduated from Bangor High School in 2007 and is a recent graduate of Cornell University. She is working this summer 120 miles north of Fairbanks, Alaska, at the Yukon River Camp.

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