Attaining a lifelong dream — who doesn’t want to? — can prove difficult when your efforts are taken hostage by nature’s whims. I know this from personal experience. After two well-planned trips to take in the magical glow of the aurora borealis, I still rely on photos and YouTube videos, representations that only tease.
My quest began in earnest when an email from Astronomy magazine offered a tour to Iceland, a trip designed for aurora viewing. I had been fascinated by the Northern Lights since childhood, and a trip to Iceland offered the prospect of two adventures in one package, since I had never been that far north. The email took pains to point out that aurora viewing was not guaranteed, but this trip had also occurred in previous years and there were photos to prove that the glorious dancing auroras had been seen. A tour affiliated with Astronomy magazine should have some sort of cosmic connection, shouldn’t it?
So I signed up. Our tour group of thirty, all interested to some extent in seeing the aurora, met in late January in the airport in Reykjavik. We immediately set off by bus for the Blue Lagoon, soothing the effects of jet lag in its warm turquoise waters heated by the thermal energy that permeates Iceland and supplies virtually all of its power. We again took in Iceland’s thermal bounty en route to our aurora viewing spot, stopping to visit the spouting Geysir (after which geysers are named). We marveled at Iceland’s numerous waterfalls, trekking several hundred meters to one that spills over a cliff in such a way that you can walk behind it without getting wet. We waved to E15, the infamous volcano that fouled up air traffic in 2010, known to tourists as E15 —E followed by 15 letters — because we cannot pronounce its name, Eyjafjallajokull.
Among our tour leaders was a professional photographer with years of experience capturing the aurora in digital splendor. Many in our group were armed with cameras and filters and tripods, ready to do the slow filming that brings out detail in the aurora’s shape. I planned to use my smart phone — all I wanted was some sort of documentation. We were to spend four nights in the Laki area, where there are no city lights to obscure the shimmering colors. The first night was cloudy, so we spent the evening indoors, gathered around the bar drinking Egils lager, brewed with Icelandic water (though I couldn’t taste the difference).
The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) knows there are many of us thirsting to take in the Northern Lights, and has created a no-cost app that displays an exact location at any given time along with the predicted location over the next twenty-four hours. Sparked by interplay between magnetic particles from the solar wind and the Earth’s magnetic field, the aurora is always somewhere around the poles; the trick is to make your somewhere the same as the one the aurora is occupying when it is dark enough to see it. Iceland is considered one of the premier spots becauset he aurora frequently lies directly overhead — as it did when we were in Laki. The best viewing times are between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m., and though I am usually in bed by 11, I figured staying up to see the aurora would just be an extension of jet lag.
Our second day was spent walking old volcanic fields around Laki, rain pattering over eroded mounds frosted with soft green moss. No aurora viewing that night, either. The next two days were much the same — and so were the nights, with clouds everywhere overhead. Dennis, our photographer, said he had been on at least a dozen of these Iceland trips in late January, and never had he failed to have at least one night of aurora viewing. He supposed there really was a first time for everything. But why did it have to be now?
We returned to Reykjavik without even a glimmer of shimmer overhead. Iceland had been interesting, and really not terribly cold (it was in the 40s in Reykjavik). I would go back again, given the opportunity. But I was sad to be aurora-less as I boarded the plane home.
Determined not to let the weather gods defeat my quest, I began considering another trip for the following winter, again when nights are longest and darkest near the polar region. I knew solar maximum was drawing down, meaning the chance to see exceptional auroras was waning. Solar maximums occur in eleven-year cycles — the reason remains a mystery — when high-energy flares and coronal mass ejections explode plasma and electromagnetic radiation into space, creating — if they are aimed in our planet’s direction — a show worthy of Cirque de Soleil near the Earth’s poles. In solar minimum, the sun simmers much more quietly, limited to infrequent little flares.
My second trip again was based on an email notice, this one announcing a trip to experience the Northern Lights in Alaska under the auspices of the Planetary Society. If Astronomy magazine didn’t have enough cosmic cachet to produce a night or two of aurora viewing, perhaps the Planetary Society would. Accompanying us on the tour would be a Planetary Society representative well-versed in aurora trekking. Ever hopeful, I sent in my deposit.
Our trip began in Anchorage, in brilliant sun. We spent our first day in nearby Seward at the Alaska Sea Life Center, where rehabilitating puffins dove, murres cuddled, and kittiwakes nested in an enclosed area meant to resemble the spectacular Alaskan scenery. Sea lions swam in constructed tidal pools. Extensive exhibits described the five types of salmon found in Alaskan waters (chum, sockeye, Chinook, coho, and pink). The view across Resurrection Bay was glorious — achingly blue water, clear skies, and a fractal shoreline devoid of signs of human encroachment.
Early the next morning, we boarded an Alaska Railroad train for Fairbanks, a twelve-hour passage through a beautiful wintry diorama: moose meandering across snowy fields, hoar frost that turned trees into crystalline sculptures, majestic Denali reigning over neighboring mountains. Justin, our tour guide, said he had never taken this train trip on such a cloudless day. An auspicious beginning to our time in Fairbanks and aurora hunting. Guaranteed. Or so he said.
Our first day in Fairbanks was clear — and so was the night sky. This was encouraging. At about 10 p.m. we gathered in an empty snowy field on the outskirts of the city and, bundled to the nose-tip, cast our eyes upward, willing the initial green of an aurora to foreshadow a lengthy, vivid display.
We saw nothing. Back onto the bus, Justin ordered less than an hour later. Our driver was approaching the limit of consecutive hours that he could work, so we had to leave for our hotel. At least we were having clear weather, we told ourselves, grumbling only a little at having to turn in at a reasonable hour.
The next day also was sunny, the snow sparkling beneath our feet. We spent the afternoon at the University of Fairbanks, listening to lectures about the aurora from faculty who study the phenomena. As the day wore on, clouds began to cluster, and soon the sky was covered. No matter, Justin reassured us, Alaska weather is fickle. Wait ten minutes and it will change.
It didn’t. Even so, we spent much of the night standing outside, waiting, waiting. The temperature was minus twenty, so we returned to the bus every fifteen minutes or so to warm up. The bus had to keep running the entire time; its engine would freeze if the driver turned it off. We gave up around 2:30 a.m. Back in my hotel room, I fell into bed exhausted and disappointed — but took a few seconds to plead with the weather gods for clear skies for the rest of the trip.
We are made of stardust. The atoms in our bodies were created in the explosions of stars. This may be why I ache to see the aurora — it is a direct message from our own star, the sun, telling us that the universe is beautiful, and that we are an intimate part of it. Those shimmering waves of color, dancing as electrons collide, offer hope and continuity. We are part of something so much grander than ourselves, more wonderful than we can imagine. Experiencing the aurora would be like communing with the universe.
For our last two nights in Fairbanks we were on aurora watch inside a ski lodge equipped with an outdoor camera that beamed the sky onto a screen in a bar area. Beer, wine, tea and hot chocolate were offered. No more standing in sub-zero temperatures to wait for the aurora; technology would give us the signal to bundle up and head outside when that initial green glow appeared.
But the fervently awaited signal never came, even though we stayed at the lodge until about 2 a.m. both nights. All we saw on the screen was a sky covered with clouds. Not even a star was visible. We tried to make light of our disappointment, reminding each other that the weather was beyond anyone’s control. I’d have settled for just a few minutes’ worth of glimmer, but I didn’t even get that.
The next morning we left for the Fairbanks airport, and once again I was traveling home aurora-less. I sat disconsolately in the airport lounge watching a snowblower spew sparkling white confetti into emerging sunlight, the overhead clouds beginning to clear — too late for me to catch the exquisite magic of the aurora borealis on this trip.
Sometimes I recall those nights in my childhood when my brother and I could see the Milky Way from our backyard. Now there are so many city lights that 80 percent of the world’s population has never seen the Milky Way. That was the beginning of my fascination with the universe and all it contains. Over the years, I had become too busy with work and family to think much about anything beyond my own little patch on our planet. But now, with my children grown, I had time to return my gaze, and my thoughts, to the night sky.
The aurora offered a visible connection between the billions of stars twinkling overhead and my little self here on Earth. I desperately wanted to be a momentary participant in its grandeur. I have vowed to travel again, and again, until I can see it shimmering overhead. Norway? Canada? Greenland? Wherever and whatever it takes. My dreams don’t die easily; my quest will continue.