“Oh My God, it’s full of stars”… These were David Bowman’s last words as he moved toward the monolith orbiting Jupiter at the end of Arthur C. Clarke’s classic work – “2001: A Space Odyssey”. I loved this work, as well as many written by Mr. Clarke, and I’ve never forgotten that incredulous statement made as Dr. Bowman was being prepared to ‘enter’ the monolith. Flash forward to this past week in south central Alaska and the amazingly clear nights we’ve experienced; living semi-rural I’ve been able to view the only recently returned dark night skies every night for the last six evenings and they have been spectacular!
Initially I was looking to view ‘Nature’s light show’ – the Aurora Borealis – and I was just blown away by the displays from Tuesday late evening right through early Wednesday morning. It was the best display I’ve observed since I moved up here in August of 2013 and second only to an incredible display I viewed with a friend up on The Haul Road (aka ‘The Dalton Highway’ AK 11) in early September of 2000.
Alaskan aurora courtesy Jan Curtis
But the aurora are fickle and despite forecasts from UAF of ‘high+’ (between 6 and 7 on the 0 to 9 scale) across the next four evenings I never saw any additional displays. But every night I was treated to a star filled sky; in the early evenings I could easily see the edge-on view of the Milky Way. As the night progressed I saw many of the now familiar constellations such as Ursa Major – the same depicted on the Alaska state flag – and Ursa Minor along with Cassiopeia, Cygnus and Pisces. By early morning when the air temps hovered around -6.67° C (20.00° F) the night sky was often crystal clear with the stars twinkling like icy diamonds. Although I’ve seen this sight many, many nights now it still never ceases to evoke a sense of awe and wonder to realize as I view the incredible night sky I’m looking back in time and any given point of light could be a star now gone due to novae or supernovae but the light of said destruction has yet to reach Earth. So just by looking up at the clear night sky I could easily utter those now famous words from David Bowman’s encounter with the monolith. But I feel more comfortable with a line from a favored Enya song named, appropriately enough, “Paint The Sky With Stars”:
Place a name upon the night
One to set your heart alight
And to make the darkness bright
Paint the sky with stars.
The amazing view of our spiral galaxy – The Milky Way!
Although it is actually St. Patrick’s Day as I write this piece my thoughts have already drifted forward this week to Friday, March 20th which is the Vernal Equinox or at least it will be at 14:44 AKDT here in Talkeetna. For me this is a much more significant date as I have no known Irish blood and I long ago gave up the need to drink green beer all day long especially as I usually had to go to work the next day. This Vernal Equinox will be the second one I’ll experience since I relocated to ‘The Great Land’ in August of 2013. This is meaningful to me because many of you have asked when will I no longer be a ‘Newbie Alaskan’; I arbitrarily decided that after I’ve experienced two complete years in my new home it will be time to update my moniker. As such I have just the upcoming spring and summer before that time occurs. Okay, one could make a case for me not having actually experienced a real Alaskan winter, let alone two, but that is not my fault; I was here and ready but Mother Nature had other ideas.
With the approach of this equinox I find myself once again trying to prepare for what it means; the beginning of some of my least favorite seasons. Indeed, I find the spring up here to be my least favorite season followed closely by summer. There are a myriad of reasons for my feelings but the single largest centers on daylight or, more accurately, the inevitability of almost 20 hours of direct sunlight by the Summer Solstice. Already we are seeing 11 hours and 56 minutes of direct light and that will reach 12 hours and 14 minutes in just three more days before maxing out at 19 hours and 55 minutes on the Solstice which falls on June 20th. To many people it will seem strange that I find so much light to be a negative; for them I can only present this scenario – there is no night sky, no stars and no aurora from mid-May through mid-August! Initially I do not mind the ever-increasing light but by late June it is wearing thin and by mid-July I’ve had enough. I know I’m a sky watcher and that’s especially true of the night sky but somehow it escaped me that I’d be doing without for almost a quarter of every year!
Some folks find it strange I can be so negatively affected by long periods of light yet have no issues with just five hours of direct sunlight in December. Indeed, most folks I’ve spoken with think that much darkness would drive them insane but I don’t even notice it until I begin to see the days lengthening in early January. Of course other factors come into play; the darkness happens during winter and I live for cold and snow. The lengthening days promise the coming of mosquitoes and tourists; both are aspects of Alaskan living I’m still coming to grips with and not all that successfully at least to this point. I have learned how to deal with the mosquitoes – it’s called ‘Deep Woods Off’ in copious quantities along with long-sleeved shirts and long pants – such that I am beginning to develop a somewhat sanguine outlook regarding these little bloodsuckers. Last year I learned that the best way to minimize the impact of the tourists is to completely avoid the village from May through early September just as the locals do. We basically surrender the village to the masses during that time period knowing that without those tourist dollars Talkeetna would not be half the place it has become. What I have yet to discover is a way to ignore all the noise they create. One of the joys of living here is the ‘immense silence’ that surrounds us in the off-season; sadly this disappears as the numbers of tourists increases. And along with the warmth comes the ever-present dust; this entire area sits on land that was riddled with glaciers which have since retreated. In so doing they grind up stone and earth and create a very fine dust called ‘glacial flour’ and it is everywhere. This is a dual edged sword as the abundance of this material allows water to quickly drain away which helps make break up less muddy and wet. But said ‘flour’ is blown around by even a light wind and if there’s a way to keep it out of one’s home I have yet to learn the secret.
So all told it shouldn’t be a surprise that I so favor the winter and find some aspects of the warmer months a bit less than ideal. But life in Alaska is really all about making compromises; far more so than anywhere else I’ve ever called ‘home’. Because I so love the semi-rural lifestyle, the majestic landscape, the incredible wildlife, the wonderful albeit quirky people and that amazing winter night sky I am okay with having to deal with mosquitoes, noisy tourists and dust come the spring and summer. There were a myriad of possible retirement locations I considered before settling on Talkeetna and almost all of them in the Lower 48 would have been much cheaper in terms of the COL but I had been well and truly bitten by the ‘Alaska Bug’ in the fall of 1996 so once I realized I could retire up here there were no other options for me. And as I continue to settle into this lifestyle and learn more and more about me new home I am always reminded that just like life, Alaska living is all about making choices and living with the consequences. As such I think I can deal with some mosquitoes, noisy tourists and dust..!
How would you like to see this kind of light at 04:07 in the ‘morning’..? This was the Summer Solstice +2 hours in 2014.
Not at all pleased I missed what my neighbor described as an ‘awesome’ show of the aurora late last night; its significant that she’s lived up here for over fifty years and in that time viewed a number of truly spectacular shows. I’m dialed into the auroral forecasts produced by the UAF (University of Alaska Fairbanks) and had heard of Tuesday’s ejection of a lot of stellar matter; because of this I checked their forecast for Wednesday and saw a rating of just ‘1’ – said scale is rated 0 through 9 with the higher numbers indicating a greater likelihood of stronger auroral activity – and in addition said if there was any activity it would only be visible in the low northern sky in Talkeetna. Because I’m surrounded by tall boreal forest I decided it wasn’t worth arising around 23:00 to check for activity. Don’t ask me why but it seems that so much auroral activity, at least in the northern hemisphere, takes place between 22:30 and 01:00. To then learn today while briefly shopping at the local grocery/convenience store that last night’s display had been ‘awesome’ was very disappointing as I love the aurora and intend to try to catch them on my DSLR and my video camera.
This same website is forecasting a ‘3’ – ‘moderate’ level activity – for this evening with the chance to see the activity directly overhead in this area. My alarm clock is already set and my cameras charged; I’ve even cleared an area on the back porch for tripod placement. At least the weather appears to be cooperating with the forecast calling for clear skies; in addition the moon will not rise until 00:41 in this area so we should have the dark skies needed to really enjoy the aurora. I have come to truly enjoy night sky gazing up here on cold, clear nights as with no light pollution and clear skies there are more stars than I ever imagined possible and if I stare at the sky for even just a few minutes I’ll eventually see a meteorite blazing by. With all this said it’s still a real crap shoot as to whether I’ll see anything; often its tough to stay awake for a couple of hours largely watching the sky when it’s around midnight. In addition I see the lows tonight will be dropping into the minus single digits. While this definitely helps one remain awake it also decreases the amount one can spend outdoors; thankfully my place has many large windows from which I have good views of the western and northwestern skies once I clear the local tree tops.
It occurs to me this is yet another example of this amazing location ‘molding’ me to its ways; I’ve always been a sky watcher but much more in daylight as I watch clouds and other conditions for a clue as to the upcoming weather. In addition I love to look for atmospheric anomalies like sun dogs, sun pillars and similar. But Alaska has charmed me with her incredibly dark night skies alive with millions of hard white pin points of light. I’m learning to recognize not just the major constellations – I’ve been able to do that since a child – but now many of the less obvious constellations along with the planets. For the first time I’m beginning to ‘feel’ the lunar rhythms and be aware of where I am with respect to the lunar cycle. All this engenders a true sense of being ‘one’ with this incredible natural world just as does observing the myriad of wildlife that visits my little piece of the huge boreal forest that extends for hundreds of miles. It’s very easy to really become immersed in this ‘natural world’ and as I do so more and more I find I have less and less interest in technology and all ‘artificial’ things. Without question I still favor technically oriented things like electricity, broadband connectivity, a septic field and a well pump but my dependence upon satellite TV and radio is slowly diminishing. And to be honest I’m very much ‘okay’ with this trend..!