Friday, February 22, 2013

Check that off the bucket list

So, I last left you with 2 hours of a sleep and a 24 hour day ahead of me.  It pretty much went according to plan.

I'd hired a car to take me to the airport, which turned out to be a smart move, as I was, indeed, operating on 2 hours of sleep, and I was pretty sure that an SUV at 65 mph counts as the sort of heavy machinery you shouldn't operate drowsy.

I'll spare you the excitement of the two flights and the 3 hours layover in Vancouver Airport.  I eventually found myself, and my friend (who met me in Vancouver) in Whitehorse, up in the Yukon.

Not a big place, Whitehorse.  Population is 27,000, which is pretty small.  Probably only 10 Starbucks here.

The reason I was supposed to be awake until 2:30 this morning is that we were going out to the middle of nowhere (Whitehorse is only nowhere adjacent) to attempt to see the Northern Lights.  The reason I was actually awake until 3:30 is because we did, in fact, see them.

At 9:30, we piled into the van ... I lie.  At 9:30, we piled into a van and several school buses.  I'd anticipated a much smaller tour group.  The operation we're here with, Northern Tales, gives you the impression that it takes a van load of about 12 people out to a field someplace, where you sit drinking coffee and eating cookies in a small cabin, then you run outside to view the aurora when they happen to be aurora-ing.  This is what actually happens:  They own (or rent) three large fields on some farmer's property.  The fields are separated by trees (and, probably, access roads).  In each area, Northern Tales has a viewing area.  There were about 40 of us in our field.  The guide told me that the next field over was 90 Japanese tourists (and three Japanese-speaking guides.)

For the 40 of us, we had one big field with a good view to the north; and (behind it, so as not to interfere with photographs):  a campfire; a little canvas teepee with chairs and a wood burning stove; and a smallish canvas cabin, with another wood burning stove.  Also, lots of hot water for beverages, almost (but not quite) enough mugs for everybody, cookies, chips, peanuts, pretzels, marshmallows (and sticks for roasting them).  And an outhouse (with no heat source whatsoever -- a fact which made me strictly limit my beverage consumption, and balance it with salty snacks).

Once they showed us around, we set up our tripods in the field, and waited for the aurora.

And waited for the aurora.

About two hours into this, I said "fuck it" and went into the teepee, then moved to the cabin.  Look, they rented me a bunch of clothes rated down to -40.  Even though it was only in the -10 ballpark, it was still a bit chilly.  Especially when all you're doing is standing stock still in a field waiting for the heavens to do something.

I also realized that with THAT many people around, someone was bound to outside at all times, and I figured that if the aurora were going to get busy, someone would have the good sense to yell, "Hey!  They're active!"  I mean, it isn't like you're going to scare them off by shouting.

The plan is that if there's no visible aurora activity, you leave the field at 1:30 a.m.  And if there is aurora, you leave at 2:00.  2:10, at the latest, unless they're really going something awesome.

It must've been around 1:15, when I'm thinking, "yay, we can get on the bus soon," that one of our guides popped his head into the cabin (filled with sleepy tourists) and said, "the lights are starting."

It's not the sort of thing you can say calmly.  My parents joke that, when you're teaching your kids to drive, the guidebooks say you're not supposed to say, "stop."  Instead, you're supposed to say, "please, bring the car to a halt."  You know, so the kid doesn't slam on the brakes and send you hurtling into the dashboard.  Well, after we've been waiting for the lights for 3 hours -- and, in fact, some of the other tourists there had been out several nights before, and they hadn't had any aurora action -- saying "the lights are starting" is the equivalent of yelling "stop" at a teen learning to drive.  Instant reaction.  Thirty people stampede the door.

Nobody even went back to where they'd staked out good positions with their tripods, either.  We'd all taken them down, in preparation to leave.  So we all sort of gathered at the edge of the field, found a place with nobody else in front of us, a looked upward, scanning the skies.

It was cloudy.  Really cloudy.  Which meant we didn't see much in the way of colors, because the clouds were between us and the lights.  (I saw one that was vaguely green, but they were mostly just lighter patches in the clouds.  Moving lighter patches in the clouds.)  Still, they were nifty and cool and impressive.  I heard some couples huddling together excitedly.  A few people actually cried.  Collective "ooohs" and "aaahs" from the next field over, as though the Japanese tourists had practiced Synchronized Aurora Appreciation.

I don't get all spiritual in my appreciation of Amazingly Cool Shit -- it just isn't in my nature.  At the same time, when I'm standing there, with everyone behind me (so it feels like I'm quite alone) looking up at these dancing lights in the sky, it does feel like there's something more going on than just light from solar flares doing nifty things when meeting our atmosphere.  The world is full of breathtakingly beautiful things, and even when science provides a perfectly rational explanation, it doesn't make them any less inexplicable.

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