A symphony of lights

So I was lying in bed Friday night, my condo faces east towards the Chugach Mountains in Anchorage – only a half a dozen blocks from the end of the city. I live on the edge of night pollution. The dark mountains rise just outside my window. My room on the 3rd floor and the hill that the condo sits on puts me above the neighborhood with an unobstructed view of the night sky. Sometimes I sleep with the curtains open – like Friday night. Facebook friends had reported Northern Lights activity from Anchorage to Fairbanks, and I wanted to keep an eye out. I checked the Poker Flats webcam, and the lights were “singing” brightly far north.

A phone screenshot of the Aurora Web Camera: The latest photo shows bright green in the sky

Poker Flats web cam is located 30 miles north of Fairbanks, AK.

I woke up with a sudden start at 3:00 am, and found my eyes opened to an amazing display of green lights moving across the night sky filling my window… with magic. I jumped out of bed and texted my friend Marla who had flown up from Portland for the weekend. She was staying downtown in a hotel – in the middle of light pollution. She looked out the window and texted me back that “Ur dreaming.”

Screenshot of texting conversion as follows: Judy - "Are u watching these lights! Nice shower over anchorage" Marla - "Ur dreaming." Judy - "No! I'm outside fully wrapped" Marla - "No lights downtown. :(" Judy - "Greens! All over east side mountains. I want me to come get u fast?"
By then I was running to the car in jammies, with hastily grabbed hats and mittens and my nice long downed dress coat (it was about 22 degrees). I was in the car and headed downtown to get Marla. She needed out of the light pollution. I texted back to be ready in five. Plotting where to go quickly above the city lights where I would not be met by a locked gate at 3:30 am, led me to Far North Bicentennial Park.

Of course, 20 years ago, I would have found a nice clear area above the city, but housing development has made it more challenging. We found a spot in total darkness above the city lights, outside of light pollution, with a grand view. And grand it was!

The northern lights bright green in the sky

The lights of Anchorage are seen beneath the aurora in this view from the Glen Alps overlook. The Northern Lights gave a strong showing over Anchorage on the evening of October 12, 2012. Dozens of sky watchers gathered at the Glen Alps Trailhead of Chugach State Park to watch the green ribbons dance over the peaks and the city. MARC LESTER — Anchorage Daily News

Friday night’s display was oxygen driven, but what was unique about this display was the pulsing that the lights seem to exhibit. The familiar experience I can describe best – imagine your mother’s sheer curtains draping across the sky in an almost ghostly green effect. This night, however was more like flames. There are no words to describe what the lights look liked. I’m not even going to try, lost cause. You just have to put it on your bucket list and become a “hunter” – term used to describe people trying to figure out where and when to see the lights. Hunters flock to Alaska every year with lots of website URL’s and tools to help narrow down the hunt, but there is always a certain amount of luck. You have to be up.The lights pulsed across the city Friday night in a way I have never seen. I’m accustomed to shimmering and iridescent movement in Anchorage often characterized by green and white. The northern lights come in a variety of colors that are dependent on different gases getting excited/ionized by incoming charged particles. When oxygen atoms and molecules get bombarded they release green and red photons. When nitrogen molecules get struck they release the beautiful and rare purple light.

Marla and I watched the lights for nearly two hours, something also rare. Usually you get a short lived experience before they move on. Friday night they hung out for hours allowing us the opportunity to explore them and discuss the qualities of the display from the ones of the past (Marla is a successful well-seasoned huntress). The warmer temperatures, in comparison to 30 below, allowed us the luxury of having conversation about the lights, not impeded by arctic gear. Also, it took a lot longer before my feet were cold.

The lights on this instance pulsed sometimes in rhythm, sometimes not, similar to a symphony playing across the sky: violins (in allegro) and cellos (beginning in andante, ending in lento). The overall composition reminded me of Tchaikovsky. Marla brought up the resemblance of these pulsing lights to time-lapsed photography, of the streaking clouds and car lights in a cityscape. Except, these lights were occurring in real time. I also saw a resemblance to flames. When you watch a campfire for hours and see the gaseous flickering at the perimeter of the fire; blues and negative space dancing at the whim of the wind, distorted visual space. The lights on Friday were like that. We had a discussion about how no medium can capture and convey the essence of the Northern Lights, no matter how technologically advanced. Video, cameras, even words, all dimensionally flat. We thought music was probably the only thing that could come close. By then we were cold, so we climbed back into my truck.

I renamed my sun roof to the aurora roof. I opened the aurora roof. I could only shut off the truck lights and the dash lights; the clock light seemed so bright in the dark. I covered the clock. I turned Yo Yo Ma on. It was magical! Music is the closest thing to describe the lights. We watched the lights to the cello. The lights moved to fill the space created by the “aurora roof.” They lingered and combined with Yo Yo Ma. We enjoyed the gift for quite some time. We made the conscious decision to leave the symphony before the piece was over.

We drove off the mountains with the lights still performing. By the way, Marla brought me a resupply of huckleberries!

Sex, motorcycles, and leather
End-of-summer blues
About Maya

My name is Maya, and I wander.


  1. Very poetic. Thank you for trying to capture the experience in words.

  2. The comparison with a campfire is pretty good … mesmerizing.
    Nice description of the lights for your friends. And you're right, an actual experience is the only way!

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