Making peace with the darkness

by • February 15, 2016 • Feature, Feature Photos, HighlightsComments (0)1082

Kevin G. Smith/ AlaskaStock The northern lights dance in the night sky in southcentral Alaska.

Kevin G. Smith/ AlaskaStock
The northern lights dance in the night sky in southcentral Alaska.

Being far from the ambient light of a city’s glow, with its sharp illumination of street lights and commercial signage, is one of the pleasures of rural living.

Here, in our remote corner of Alaska, we are encircled by mountains, hills and forests that outline the winter sky, sprinkled with stars and painted by the Aurora Borealis.

One of my most startling realizations upon moving here was the basic observation of when and where the sun rises and sets (visit As a Southern city person, I took a predictable east-west arc for granted. Obviously, though, the closer one lives to the equator, the more constant is the trajectory of the sun, year-round. Up here, at Latitude 61, the winter and summer suns are like two totally different seasonal visitors. The winter sun traverses only about a third of the sky, from south to west for four to eight hours of daylight before dropping precipitously behind a 4,500-foot mountain. In summer, the sun ambles around three-quarters of the sky, from east to north west, over the course of a 20-hour day.

Because of the earth’s tilt, Northerners enjoy gorgeous, protracted sunrises and sunsets that last much longer than in lower latitudes.

This time of year (early February), as I sip a steamy mug of coffee, I peer through the windows to watch colorful striations from about 8 to 9:30 a.m. In the afternoons, we plan early dinners to take advantage of the lovely light between 4:30 and 6 p.m. Surely this is the pink light that Sydney Laurence captures in his astonishing “portraits” of Denali.

During the long winter nights, we naturally generate less power from our solar panels than in summer months (but make up for it in wind power). Our power needs are low and we make our peace with the darkness. Other than sticking a hand in the knife drawer, it is fairly easy to function in an orderly home by the flickering light of a candle or the warm yellow glow of propane lamps. In pitch dark during the night, I can negotiate the steps to my dresser, the chamber pot and avoid garotting myself with the laundry line that divides the room in winter. During the full moon, that surreptitious visitor illuminates my way, with both light and shadow. Each morning, after I awaken enough to venture downstairs, I reach my hand to the match case nailed to the window sill, light the gas stove, and by that dim flame move the cold brewed coffee pot onto a welcoming flame while I wash my face and teeth. Really, who wants bright light first thing in the morning?

Mid-afternoon, I ignite the propane light to illuminate the kitchen corner for cooking. Our dinner and breakfast tables are festooned with candles. Meanwhile, like some “Miner ‘49er,” my husband wears a headlamp draped over his neck all winter, for projects both inside and out. As you can imagine, our purchased power usage is low. Bryan estimates 20 gallons of gasoline-fueled generator power per year (mostly during multiday rain or snowstorms).

Alaska is famous for the Aurora Borealis (called the Aurora Australis at the South Pole) but I see it less often than one might expect, even though I have signed up for an “Aurora Alert” email. For one thing, the lights are visible only on clear nights, not when it is cloudy or snowing, and for another, their activity is partially governed by an 11-year cycle of sun spot activity. The most recent stupendous year was 2013, so the next is expected to be 2024. Points further north, like Barrow, offer prime viewing, and Poker Flats, a facility outside of Fairbanks, conducts research on the auroras. Lodges around Fairbanks (such as Chena Hot Springs, have a booming tourist business for some Asian tourists who, apparently, regard a marriage consumated or a child conceived under the aurora to be especially blessed. On the other hand, I – not looking for either benefit – sleep so soundly in our dark and quiet home, that I rarely notice nocturnal lights unless my husband prods me awake for a spectacular display.

The colors – white, green, red, and purple – indicate different gas particles colliding in the atmosphere at various distances. White and green northern lights are most common, because these are created by oxygen about 60 miles above the earth. These are ones I have seen twirling like the Nordic version of hula skirts. Nitrogen causes blue/purple auroras. The color least often observed, red, is created by oxygen 200 miles above the planet. Imagine being awake for that.

Some people who have no desire to visit Alaska invariably wrinkle their noses and say, “but it is so dark up there in winter and so light in summer.” Ah, yes. I appreciate both, and take neither for granted.

Aren’t I lucky?

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