Wednesday, 19 September 2012


It's been, for many years, my dream to see the Aurora Borelais (the Northern Lights,) and finally last night, that dream became a reality.

Yesterday's long and eventful day really required a good night's sleep, but a fellow hosteller, Joe, was offering to take quite a few of us staying at Billie's Hostel, to the Aurora Mountain. It's a sight famous for great views of the aurora, although the 'aurora web-forecast' reported a quiet night; in other words, there wouldn't be much activity worth going to see. Despite the forecast, the offer of a free-trip to the aurora mountain was too tempting to deny, and so off we went, just before midnight.

It's impossible to predict when the aurora will happen, and for how long it will last, so when we reached the viewing point, it might have been a few minutes wait, or a few hours. To make the experience more grilling, the temperature was about -5 degrees C; I wore three layers, gloves and a beanie hat, and still I was chilly! I kept reminding myself though that it was all part of the experience. There were quite a few of us in our group, and the night's tranquility was further withdrawn by three campervans. At least one thing was in our favour- the night's sky was perfectly clear; astronomers would have had a field-trip!

After about 1/2 an hour- although it seemed like 1/2 a day- a faint glimmer of green light emerged from the sky, and I could hear professional photographers unpack their equipment; cameras were being turned on, tripod legs were being extended, buttons were being frantically pressed- everyone in anticipation to see these faint glimmering lights become more strong and electrifying. And there was I, with my little Lumix Panasonic. I was having problems, though, in adjusting the shutter speed. To achieve a half-decent image, the shutter speed I am told needs to be set for about a minute. Unfortunately, my efforts on adjusting this vital function were not successful and with my gloves off, all I was doing was getting more and more cold.

I can't decribe just how bright the lights were, and no words can really do justice in explaining the spellbinding patterns that the aurora provided. It was like someone was spraypainting the sky green; I realised I was experiencing one of the seven natural wonders of the Earth. Others in my group were getting some lovely photos; these are the best in my collection. (Since last night, I have worked out how to adjust the shutter speed and I am ready for next time!)

These really don't do it justice. But you get the idea.

We all arrived back at the hostel, as Del Griffiths said in 'Planes, Trains and Automobiles', "bushed". Many of the group retired to bed, but my adrenaline was pumping, and I stayed up until 4:00am, before finally making my way under the covers.

Waking up at 10am by noises of hostellers coming and going, zipping bags, and brushing teeth, I opted for an easy day in Fairbanks and decided to explore some of the university and the woodland trails that lay beyond it. The university sits at quite a high elevation in comparison with the rest of the city, and therefore, provides fine views of the boreal forest. I found that walking in and amongst the students at the university, I seemed to 'fit in' but I assumed my age probably helped a lot with this. Finding myself a seat in what looked like the main hub of the university, I observed Alaska students going about their university life; not once did someone question why I was there and what I was doing. Some were puzzling at their textbooks; some were staring deep into space, probably working out perplexing mathematical problems. Some were just chatting with friends, either face to face, or on the phone; some were queuing up for what looked like a free BBQ. My success with blending in made me consider queuing myself, but the people serving were in army uniforms and I wondered just what fate would lie for me if I was caught.

My walk around the university was a pleasant experience. The buildings actually are reasonably close together, unlike some universities in England that I have visited. Unlike Cambridge and Oxford, most of the university campus lies on the edge of the city. Although I suppose it's handy for students to be close to the CBD for weekly shopping, having a campus in the suburbs offers a more peaceful and relaxed study experience. Some of my Oxbridge friends are probably closing this internet tab about now! The periphery of the campus is actually having extensive construction work; this sign caught my eye, and made me chuckle.

I decided to do a few of the woodland trails through the boreal forest that lies behind the campus. In the winter, most of these trails are 'groomed' for skiing, and a sport called 'power-rolling'. In the summer, dog walkers and cyclists can use them for recreation. Today, I didn't pass anyone, which ultimately made my experience much more magical. The trails are well maintained, and you can use the carpet of golden crisp leaves as a guide, but deeper into the forest, branches have fallen (sometimes whole trees are down) and there is a sense of nature in control here.

Sometimes permafrost can make the top layer of unconsolidated soil very unstable, and can slide, literally ripping trees out of the ground. Trees fall on trees causing more destruction and soon the forest floor is blanketed by not just the 'herb layer' but also these fallen trunks. I noticed 'sheets' of white birch (which is probably why it is sometimes called 'Paper Birch', and cones from spruce, pine and fir trees.

To round off my walk, I spotted a squirrel in the understory. At first, it was alarmed I think to see a large bright red coat making its way through the greens and the browns of the forest; I sat down and we stared at each other for some time; not one of us moved an inch, not one of us made a noise; we both enjoyed the boreal forest together.

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