When you’re sailing in the Aleutians, Kodiak, and Prince William Sound, common wisdom says you need to be out of the Gulf of Alaska by September first at the latest before the hurricane-force winds of autumn arrive. So, you could just head south to Mexico, escape the band of ice and snow, and set sail for a margarita. Or you can settle in for the winter.
At 60 degrees north, the endless light days of summer start closing in rapidly. By late October, there’s a skim of ice in some anchorages. There’s no one around. We can hear the howling of coyotes in the forest and the snuffling complaints of sea otter pups as they drift by the boat. As sunset approaches, we look at the sky with a critical eye. If it’s a “we live at the northern edge of a rain forest” cloud and drizzle evening, we retreat to the heater-warm cabin and read books while the kids do their homework.
But if a few stars are visible in the sky, there’s an excitement. Do you think it will stay clear? What was the forecast? Auroras come when the electrons and protons discharged by solar storms—coronal mass ejections or solar flares—line up with the Earth’s magnetic field. There are commercial aurora forecasting options online, but out in the wild, off the internet, the most reliable thing is to go outside and look. One clue is the sun’s rotation takes twenty-four days, plus another three for it to catch up with the Earth’s advance, so when we see a fantastic aurora, we’re on the lookout 27 days later when we’re lined up with that same sunspot. However, even if satellite cameras track the flare or ejection, it can take between one and three days for the solar wind to reach the Earth, so the best forecast nights can be a black-sky disappointment.
Like being on watch at sea, we take turns crawling out of our warm beds, bare feet sticking to the cold deck, checking the sky, looking into the depths of the Milky Way, seeing thousands of stars and distant galaxies. They get a brief admiration, before we hustle below to the warmth, unless there is a shadowy green loom to the north. Sometimes it looks like a pale greenish rainbow, nothing much.
I hesitate. Should I drag my kids out of their beds tonight? Will it be worth it? I stay up a minute more looking at the green tinge. Will it do anything? A sliver shoots out from behind a mountain, green-white, fast, and disappears.
That’s all it takes for us to dig out Arctic fishing boots, layers of thermals, woolly hats. Hamish’s tripod is already on the foredeck, camera batteries charged. Maybe this will be the night when the green and red pulsing aurora snakes across the sky. Still photographs can’t do justice to the streaks and bursts of light, the fast-changing swirls, faces, and enchantment. Some nights, it looks like a green cloud; others it’s a nonstop light show for hours, necks stiff with looking up, conversation restricted to, “Wow.” We’re seeing into the universe, to the sun chucking its plasma at us and our planet mounting a defense. Behind it, the galaxy arcs across the sky. Out here, in the clean cold air, there are as many as five thousand stars visible to the naked eye. In a city, there might be thirty-five; perhaps five hundred in a dark suburb.
It’s easy to shift into prehistoric awe.
Rolling waves of green pulse outward from the north, sometimes covering the entire sky. One second, it’s a shining cloud, then the edges shimmer and break, and a starburst shape crinkles pink at the edges. You can’t go below and warm up cold feet; it’s changing too fast. With our raised saloon windows, we can actually see some of it from inside, but the magic is lost indoors, so we stay on deck, where we can see the full bowl of the sky. We will feel leaden in the morning, but who can go to bed when the universe is dancing?
Kate and Hamish Laird run charters in Alaska aboard their 56ft aluminum cutter, Seal. Contact them at expeditionsail.com