I’d been plotting my socially distanced trip to chase the northern lights for about three months. I scored a great deal on Alaska Airlines in December and booked my tickets to Fairbanks, Alaska. I planned an excursion around the time of the March equinox. The northern lights tend to be especially active around the spring and fall equinoxes thanks to something known as the Russell-McPherron Effect.
I booked a cheap hotel, worked with the ever-patient folks at Alaska Airlines to get myself on what I deemed the most favored flight to Fairbanks, secured a north-facing window seat and began charging my cameras. Two weeks before the trip, my friend Allen, a consultant and musician, decided to make the journey with me.
We flew Alaska Airlines flight 223 out of Seattle on Saturday night, departing at 9:22 p.m. Already, a geomagnetic storm stemming from energy hurled off the sun was triggering the aurora across Manitoba, Canada. I told Allen to look out the right window about 90 minutes into the flight. Right around then, the aurora appeared.
It manifest first as a distant glow over the horizon, akin to that of a faraway city. It was white and monochromatic, eventually taking the form of a ghostly arc. To the naked eye, the display was impressively unimpressive at first. Eventually, it got brighter.
Thirty minutes later, curtains appeared, with ebbs and flows of auroral plasma waving across the sky. They still shone white with only a tinge of green. In most cases, cameras capture colors better than we can see. Tendril-like wisps of glowing material reached down over the aircraft. While most passengers slept, I pressed my face against the window and continuously clicked my camera. All told, it wasn’t the proverbial postcard-quality episode that most associate with the northern lights, but it was a good first taste.
The display was waning by the time we touched down in Fairbanks, but Allen and I made plans to venture out again on Sunday night. We knew downtown would be too light for good viewing, and had planned to rent a car to escape city lights. The only issue? We’re both 23 years old, and that would mean paying an arm and a leg for a “young renter’s fee.” Fortunately for us, U-Haul doesn’t care about age.
We left Fairbanks around 10:30 p.m. Sunday in our newly named “Frosty the Snow Van” U-Haul cargo van, drove 15 miles west of town and waited. After an hour of shivering and staring at the sky, we gave up hope and began heading back to the hotel. That’s when bands of light began dancing across the sky.
They remained as arcs for the next 90 minutes, occasionally tinged with color. Around 1:15 a.m., we finally called it quits, sure we had seen the full show. We got back to Fairbanks, and that’s when the sky exploded.
Pillars of green brushed with purple towered overhead, materializing suddenly out of thin air. We whipped the van around and aimed back to our secret aurora lookout spot. Green smudges shuffled overhead as if dancing an elegant tango, with swirls and eddies rippling through the northern sky like giant phosphorescent cinnamon buns. By now the colors were visible to the unaided eye, and the lights were bright. It was the show we had been waiting for. Allen craned his neck to look out the window as I focused on our two-wheel-drive Frosty in the icy grooves of prior motorists.
By the time we settled into our spot once again, the show had simmered down dramatically. Cold air sapped the juice out of my camera batteries and also eroded my will to be outside.
It’s a reminder that some moments aren’t meant to be photographed or recorded; some of the most special ones are those we hold simply as fond memories.