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Views of Space in a Wild Place


Phil Hunter, Expedition Guide, Safari Endeavour

How can one aptly describe true awe and amazement? Why can we not convey a sheer, dumbfounding reverence for something so ultimately beyond ourselves that we must fathom and grapple with numbers and formula to seek real understanding?

Sunset in Alaska

Two nights ago, I stood on the deck of the Safari Endeavour, just after the final light had drawn from the purple mountains of Southeast Alaska. On that dark horizon a green glow formed, and wriggled, and morphed into the most vibrant, blazing display of aurora borealis I have ever seen.

At the time, I stood looking up, mouth parted in a halfway grin, not really grasping the true enormity of the event as waves of green and red crashed upon the shores of the Milky Way directly overhead.

Northern Lights. Photo by Dai Mar Tamarack

The cosmic kaleidoscopes that grace the polar fringes of our little planet emanate from the sun in unpredictable bursts called solar flares. These unimaginably huge explosions on the sun’s surface send out pulses of energy strong enough to trigger power outages.

In these events a multitude of charged ions are sent hurtling into space, and some come into contact with the upper reaches of the Earth’s atmosphere. Upon crossing that threshold, these ions collide with typically stable molecules of nitrogen and oxygen. Impacted by these extraterrestrial forces, these molecules of NO+ and O2+ are forced into a heightened energy state and in that moment emit waves of colored light that we see in the night sky.

The Northern Lights. Photo by Dai Mar Tamarack

The Northern Lights have enthralled the human imagination for millennia. The myth and legend surrounding the phenomenon are as fascinating as the lights themselves. Athabascan natives from the Yukon region thought the lights were the spirit of a man who broke his bow while hunting and later died in a fire.

Highly visible Northern Lights in Alaska.

The Northern Lights were thought to be the spirit of this man shooting his arrows into the heavens. The Inuit on Nunivak Island imagined that a group of walrus playing ball with a human skull lit the horizons with the green luminescence. The Makah people in Washington State thought the hovering glow came from the dwarfs of the far north stoking their great fires beyond the horizon. More explanations abound.

As I stood on deck that night, I didn’t know I would struggle to relate this experience just hours afterward. What I can say is, at that moment when you are engulfed in this spectral show you almost find a place for yourself among this infinite universe. You are small and big at the same time.

Aurora Borealis. Photo by Scott Russ

I think these are the moments that people search for when they venture into wild spaces. It's a moment that we can somehow define ourselves. May we all find our own moments somewhere out here or up there.

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