The Wonders We Never Look For: Seeking the Northern Lights in Alaska
One of the things my wife and I share is a dislike of cold. Another is a dislike of snow. But after a friend rhapsodized about how easy it is to see the Northern Lights in central Alaska—stay three nights in autumn or winter, and there’s a 90 percent chance of seeing something wondrous—the two of us devoted our next 18 months to plotting a trip. We saved up our money, we squirreled away our rare holiday time, and we pretended not to listen when a warm friend told us that the high temperature one recent day in Fairbanks was minus 41 degrees Fahrenheit.
Last January, my wife flew all the way over the Pacific from Osaka, and I drove from Santa Barbara to the San Francisco airport so we could take the two flights up to Fairbanks together. It was 10:30 p.m. by the time we arrived in the snow-encircled dark, and poor Hiroko had been traveling for around 27 hours, across 16 time zones. But I excitedly began to show her all the websites kind friends had recently shared with me for getting a preview of Nature’s daily miracle; my local alternative newspaper in Santa Barbara had actually—propitiously!—run a cover story on the aurora just two weeks earlier. Not long before that, an artist from Iceland had abruptly pulled out her laptop, before I’d said a thing about the Lights, and shown me mind-expanding showers of colors above the rooftops of Reykjavik in mid-September.
The Journey Begins
The new friend who greeted us at the baggage claim area in Fairbanks drove us 90 minutes through the silence—thick forests all covered in snow surrounding a small black ribbon of tarmac—and we trudged through heavy drifts to our modest room in Chena Hot Springs, arriving just after midnight, minutes too late to sample said springs.
But when we awoke the next morning and spent long minutes getting ourselves up in the layers of long johns and undershirts and snow boots and down jackets, of gloves and extra jackets and snow pants we’d bought for the occasion—each of us was wearing 13 pounds of clothing—it was to stumble into a whole day of activities beyond anything we’d dreamed of.
Suddenly, we were racing through the woods behind a team of Alaskan huskies, as a seasoned dog-musher explained to us what he looked for in a lead dog. We were sitting in a wild, huge mineral bath far beyond any such outdoor facility we’d visited in Japan, reddening from the warmth even as our hair turned white within seconds. We were walking through a cathedral-like space made of ice, with shrines and sub-chambers glitteringly fashioned out of ice (and an ice bar in which appletinis were served in goblets of hard ice). We were driving snowmobiles at high speed through the dusk as indigo skies cast an eerie light over the snow.
Looking Above for Hope
That evening, our gracious host drove us back to Fairbanks to spend the night in a remote hillside cabin built entirely for seeing the Lights. The owner of the cabin showed us stunning slides of all the auroras he’d seen from his perch. But by 1:30 a.m., we were exhausted and had seen nothing, so we headed home. The next evening, after a rich and magical day, we were taken to another celebrated aurora-viewing cabin, and we stayed there for four hours. Nothing—though we were told we could have seen something the previous night if we’d just hung around for 30 minutes more.
And so it went, evening after evening. Smiling front-desk women offered to call us in the middle of the night as soon as they spotted the Lights. They never called. We were flown out to an isolated lodge 98 miles from the nearest road, where conditions were perfect for aurora-viewing. One night the skies lit up and the owner of the lodge jumped out of bed, speedily put on all his clothes, and rushed out to alert us—but by the time he arrived at our door, the Lights were gone.
A Mythical Wonder
The last of our seven days in Alaska was crystal-clear—ideal for Lights viewing, we were assured. But suddenly an ice fog descended in the unseasonably cold afternoon and as we watched, Providence literally swiped an eraser across the skies before our disbelieving eyes.
I thought of the book that had been my talisman for 30 years and more, and through eight or more readings, Peter Matthiessen’s majestic The Snow Leopard. The seasoned traveler goes all the way to Inner Dolpo in search of the famously shy and elusive cat, even extending his trip on the special scientific expedition with the result that he has to miss Thanksgiving with his eight-year-old son, who’s just lost his mother.
But he never sees the rare cat once. Instead, he sees himself. He sees the limits of his ambitions, his projections, his griefs. He sees the folly of expectation. He sees that life always gives us the things we never thought to ask for. He learns about the illusions that his recently deceased, Zen-minded wife had wanted to teach him about—and the impermanence.
It’s never what we’re looking for that’s important, so much as the eagerness and hopefulness that animate the looking. Our Alaska trip was one of the most memorable and otherworldly of our lifetimes. And Hiroko tells me now—since we’re both human—that we’ll return to Alaska soon enough, in March, when the prospect of seeing the aurora is said to be even greater.
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Pico Iyer is the author of twelve books, most recently The Man Within My Head and The Art of Stillness.
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