For the past ten years, on the things I hated list were: cold, dark and 3am. I was afraid of night, especially winter ones.
But something happened this year. Maybe it was the nutritionist who helped my liver function, allowing me to metabolize fats and not be freezing all the time or maybe it was a readiness to walk into the unknown.
This past week, I sent myself to Alaska, to walk out into the unknown and gaze at the Northern Lights. A doctoral student with no "right" to take a glorious vacation, I decided to be unreasonable. NASA said this year was the end of the 11 year Northern Lights peak. I wanted to see them...
With 70,000 flights cancelled around me I flew out of D.C. into Chicago, Seattle and then Fairbanks Alaska all on time and all with out a hitch. Well, we were 5 minutes late.
By the time I landed, I didn't really care about the Northern Lights. I just wanted to breathe the fresh air and gaze at the night sky. Within 12 hours, I found myself at a local dog mushing competition...then at "Jester's Palace" a local bar Nenana, a native village somewhere far north of Fairbanks. I talked to the locals and bet on when the Tripod would fall through the Yukon River, an annual tradition. When I win (I bet May 5th, 5:55pm), I will receive a $300,000 check. Fantastic.
The next day I found myself at Chena Hot Springs. A 106 degree hot spring on a -20 degree night.
But here's where courage and magic took over. I had to walk into the hot springs, in the dark, unable to see the water or the stars. The mist covered my view. So I walked, half-naked on a -20 degree night somewhere near the arctic circle into warm water. The handrail was covered with ice, otherwise your hand would have stuck to it. I wade into the hot springs, dunked my head and within minutes found my hair stark white covered with icicles.
The next day, we drove to the Arctic circle. Hundreds of miles along the Alaskan pipeline with nothing but snow, spruce, birch and moose (actually, apparently some native people still brave the winters in this territory)
Joseph, sweet man who had moved from Texas 20 years before drove. He told me how he met a polar bear. He used to deliver mail via plane to remote locations; the bear was waiting on the tarmac, I guess for his mail.
We drove 3 hours past the Drunk Forest (the snow laden trees lean on each other), Beaver Slide, a hot springs that has become a red light district for local tribes. Parts of the road were named by Alaskan oil truckers: Oh Shit, Roller Coaster, and Beaver Slide.
Magic was everywhere.
Ahead of us a rainbow hopped over the sun in a single arch in what's called a "sun dog."
By nightfall, we reached the arctic circle.
I found a quiet place alone and looked up at the stars...there are about 100 billion in our galaxy alone. (and I hear about 100 billion galaxies)
It takes courage to be alone.
My thoughts were not profound. I just stood there looking up...palpably aware that we are floating among all those strange glowing orbs and that, left alone, I would die within days.
We saw one strip of Northern Lights as we passed by the Yukon River.
It wasn't until the 4th night that the skies danced.
The image above was taken by Joyce, my fabulous local guide, on our night out. It's called a Corona..it happens overhead. It looked like a photoshop version of space. But it was real. I was either dying and seeing the "light" or just remembering our connection with all that is.
I stood alone in what serves as a hayfield in the summer and looked up as the Northern Lights put on a rare display.
Apparently, on the light activity scale that runs from 1-10, we had a 10...this means full lights activity. This was an anomaly because there were no sun flares at this time.
A clear night and more lights activity than anyone ever expected.
Guides were telling us that only 2% of tourists see the activity we saw.
One said in 25 years of watching the sky only 3 nights had been that wild.
...Joyce was so excited she drove our car into a ditch. She called a tow truck but we didn't care. The skies danced, swirled, looped around all right before us.
They are warm and friendly lights. A soft green glow. But I was delirious... you stay out all night and go dog mushing during the day. There isn't much sleep and the cold takes a toll.
I drifted in and out of consciousness not having words for what I was seeing.
There was no comparison. There were no metaphors, similes or other analogies...it just was. We were seeing it.
Here's a poetic try: it felt like being alone with the cosmic goo..the primordial soup from which we all came.
It felt oddly home-like, oddly warming.
Standing in the field, I didn't know which way to look. The lights danced everywhere and changed by the second. They would flare, cascade across the sky, meet in the middle and fade. Then do it again.
Apparently whatever happens in the North happens in the South. So the penguins on Antarctica were having the same show.
Animals seem to appreciate these performances.
The sled dogs increased howls as the light activity increased.
Wonder. I felt wonder, awe, peace, and expansion...like layers of bullshit were freezing off me.
Joyce says, "we have no onions in Alaska, what you see is what you get."
And what we saw was quiet enough.
Sarah Federman, PhD
Enjoy these short blogs and videos designed to bring you a little cheer.
My other blog Language of Conflict addresses the importance of word choice and narration in conflict.
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