In Awe of the Aurora

Feb 15, 2018

Sarah Sinn-White, Expedition Guide, Wilderness Discoverer

Alaska seems to have beauty around every corner.

Views that never stop, wildlife that are the quintessential animals we imagine when thinking of wilderness, and remote raw forest that surrounds you, filling your vision with green.

However, it’s the surprises that bring me back to work here in this beautiful state. Surprises like the bears around the corner during a skiff tour or on a beach they’ve never been spotted on, humpbacks popping up between your kayak and the boat while you’re trying to be on time, or in the case this week, seeing the northern lights twice in a row.

These lights bring out the storytelling from native Alaskans. Some claim that they create a crackling noise on quiet nights and others say they come closer if you whistle. Gold-seekers claimed that it was the light shining off the “Mother Lode of Gold.”

Old legend says the lights are caused by “spirits playing football with a walrus head.” In actuality, the lights are silently beautiful and no walrus was harmed in their making.

Northern Lights, also known as Aurora Borealis, are caused by electrical discharge resulting from solar winds interacting with the Earth’s magnetic field. Solar winds are from the explosions of gases on the suns surface that erupt forcefully enough to splinter gas atoms apart into electrons and protons, these are known as solar flares.

Earth’s magnetic shield acts to block the bombardment from space, concentrating the solar flares to the poles. Strength and frequency of the northern lights are related to the strength and frequency of the solar flares.

Aurora Borealis

Different gases bombarding the Earth’s poles create the varying color we have come to love from the Aurora. Green-yellow, the most common array of colors comes from interactions with oxygen about 60 miles high. Nitrogen molecules create blue light, purples and red edges. All red Aurora is more rare, caused by extremely high oxygen molecules at 150 miles high.

Beyond the technical information, ignoring the gaseous compositions and atmospheric elevations, the aurora is a true surprise to behold. A dancing array of colors draped across the horizon. A darkness surrounds you while rainbows of light sway and move, pulsing and morphing into ever changing views.

Northern Lights from the Wilderness Discoverer's Deck

Occurring unpredictably and needing the clear skies that typically elude southeast Alaska, when the Aurora happens it brings out the whole crew and all of our guests.

A light ding from our “God Mike” and our second mate’s pleasant voice gently waking you indicates that it’s time to get up and get out. When it was announced in the night I shot up, grabbed my camera and stayed up until three in the morning. The changing colors constantly shifting, shimmering and undulating.

Although staying up till three makes for a tired next day, it’s always worth it. And two nights in a row is just as rare as the Northern Lights themselves.

It was worth staying up until 3am

As we continue to cruise Southeast Alaska into the fall, the chances of us seeing more Northern Lights increases, but every night varies and each chance to see the lights needs to be grabbed. But this really is the attitude you should always have when in Alaska, you never know when a surprise is around the corner and it’s always worthwhile to grab it.

Even if that means staying up until 3:00 am to appreciate it.

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