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I didn’t tell you what I was going to do over Christmas because I didn’t want to jinx myself. A couple of people who learned about it tried their hardest to talk me out of it. I took their concerns seriously and thought of canceling, but decided to do my best to reassure them and go ahead and do what I wanted.
I went to Alaska for a week with two dear friends in hopes of seeing the Northern Lights! I had seen them in Maine as a kid – Northern Lights, not my friends – and remember them as being beautiful. I would lie on my back on the grass and watch them partially obscure the zillion stars visible on dark nights. They looked like sheer white curtains edged in green, waving slowly in the breeze. I knew that, if I saw them again, they wouldn’t look like my childhood Northern Lights, but I was sure they would be gorgeous.
Our adventure started off inauspiciously. We had to change planes in Portland to get to Anchorage. The flight we were supposed to take was canceled because of mechanical problems. There was no back-up plane available, no empty seats at all on any flight on any airline to Anchorage . . . for the next three days. It took us a while to figure out that we couldn’t return home unless we could score a rental car. So it was probably Portland for the next few days, like it or not, assuming we were lucky enough to find a hotel with unbooked rooms. Luckily Portland is the home of Powell’s Bookstore, the world’s largest independent bookstore. ( https://www.powells.com/ for those planning to visit Portland soon.)
Suddenly the airline agent announced that there was a “Christmas miracle.” A free plane with seats for all of us was on its way from Seattle! Talk about pulling a rabbit out of a hat! We got to go, after all, just a few hours late. Happy, happy, happy.
As we landed at Anchorage, we were welcomed with Solstice fireworks celebrating the slow return of real daylight. We grabbed some food and staggered into bed for a few hours’ sleep before getting up at five to be driven to the train station for the nine-hour trip to Fairbanks.
There were only about four hours with enough light to see the scenery. Dawn faded into twilight, and the sun never got over the horizon. I love trains so much! It would have been a treat even if it had been pitch black the whole time. It had a proper dining car and a cafe with snacks and cards and toys for the kids.
We saw a bald eagle, a lot of large ravens, and eleven moose. The moose were in pairs, a mother with her calf, pawing the snow to uncover small trees with tender bark. No bears; they are all asleep this time of year.
Another quick dinner and a few hours of sleep. We spent the next day on a small bus to Coldfoot Camp, which is half-way between Fairbanks and Deadhorse, on the Arctic Ocean. That’s where the oil in the Alaska pipeline originates.
Alaska is vast and sparsely populated. An Internet search yields these statistics: there are only 736,855 people in the whole state; 297,832 of them live in Anchorage, the largest city; 33,645 in Fairbanks, the second-largest; and 84 in Coldfoot. (By the way, there are about 750,000 caribou and 200,000 moose in Alaska.) The reason Coldfoot is that big is that it is the only place to get gas in the 500 miles between Fairbanks and Deadhorse. It also provides amenities for the truckers: overnight truck parking, a restaurant, a bar, showers, parts for minor repairs, and a chance to connect with old friends. Recently, small rooms for tourists chasing the Northern Lights have been added.
On our first night in Coldfoot, we joined a group of young Chinese tourists who had come to see the Northern Lights. Our group had the use of a small log cabin with a wood-fired stove to hang out in. Every now and then, somebody would go outside to see if there was any action. At times, there were very faint lights, barely visible to the naked eye. They looked better in photos with a ten-second exposure, but not by a whole lot. We amused ourselves with short trips to the outhouse. It was thirty below zero – I kid you not. The trick is to sit on your mittens, so you don’t get stuck.
At about three in the morning, we were ready to give up, when the sky exploded with green streaks. They rose from all parts of the horizon and met at the top in swirls. They moved slowly and changed shape for about ten minutes and then faded away. It was absolutely breath-taking.
During the day, we caught up on sleep and took a dog sled ride. Fun but bitter, bitter cold, what with the wind chill factor. Those puppies run fast! The next evening we went back for seconds on the Northern Lights, but there was nothing. It’s okay. I got my wish, and it was far better than I had imagined.
We took a small plane instead of the bus back to Fairbanks, which was fun. Christmas day, we were planning to visit some hot springs outside of Fairbanks, but we were so sleep-deprived that we settled for watching “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” and a nice meal at the hotel. And then it was time for Anchorage and home.
Now that I am home, how do I feel? Very grateful, but still sleep-deprived! And all sneezy from a head cold. Happy to be back in familiar surroundings, with my cat and my very own bed and temperatures well above freezing. I’m still feeling high from being out of my comfort zone, proud of my courage, and sated with beauty. I’m not 100% percent home; I’m startled that the sun rises at 7:30 and doesn’t set for nine and a half hours. The Internet feels like a luxury – one click of the mouse brings me contact with survivors, my people, my kin. I know there are survivors in Alaska, but I didn’t know how to find them. The days of feeling crazy without constant validation of my past are long over, and I do fine on my own now. But it is so nice not to be alone!
When I sort through our photos, I’ll try to put something up on the blog header, replacing the Christmas tree. I hope there’s a good picture of the Northern lights that will fit the space. No promises – these are amateur photos, remember!
Oh, a note about the reading by Joy Hargo. The first poem she read was the one I posted!!!! My heart swelled, and I burst into tears. She was speaking directly to me, “Put down those potato chips…”
1/13 Satanic New Year
1/17 Feast of Fools/Old Twelfth Night/Satanic and demon revels
1/20 St. Agnes’ Eve
2/2 Candlemas/Imbolc/Satanic Revels
2/8 Full moon
2/14 Valentine’s Day
2/25 Shrove Tuesday/ Mardi Gras
2/25 Walpurgis Day
2/26 Ash Wednesday
3/1 St. Eichstadt’s Day
3/9 Full moon
3/13 Friday the Thirteenth
3/17 Spring Equinox
3/17 St. Patrick’s Day
3/24 Feast of the Beast/Bride of Satan
Dates Important to Nazi and Neo-Nazi groups=
1/30 Hitler named Chancellor of Germany
2/10 Tu Bishvat/Tu B’Shevat (celebration of spring)
3/10 Purim (Deliverance of the Jewish people from Haman in Persia)
(NOTE: Not all groups meet on Jewish holidays. Some groups also mark Candlemas, Beltane, Lammas, Halloween, the solstices and the equinoxes)