Saturday, March 23, 2019

Aurora Borealis Tonight!

Back in the 50's when I was a kid, the U.S. was just in process of building its interstate highway system. My parents had money back in the day--my dad was one of those "Mad Men"--and good at his job--so every winter Mom and her annual bronchitis and me went for a month or so to the West Indies. It was good for her health; it was also very cool thing that no one else did. In those days, the West Indies were truly paradise. There were no high rises, no mobs on those pristine, pre-plastic white beaches; it was our Island in the Sun.

One March, while flying home, we had to lay over in Bermuda because of a huge winter storm that hit the coast. The next day we flew into what was then Idlewild airport (JFK now). First adventure, we got stuck upon landing, in a snow bank, and the next plane coming in flew right over us in order to use the runway to land. We were sitting there, feeling the pilot trying to move the plane--this after a very rough flight--when the other guy roared over our heads. We already had stuff in the aisles and people screaming, and that sound, of another plane approaching, set off more noise. I didn't scream; I was too busy puking into one of those brown bags.

Then, after finally reaching the terminal, Mom and I found my Dad, who'd spent the night there waiting for us. He, of course, had to return home after two weeks and get back to work, leaving Mom and her yearly bronchitis, and me, in the West Indies. He'd driven from Syracuse, NY the day before to pick us up.  Now we'd have a long haul home, through a snowed in world.  The Thruway A.K.A. I-90 was still in pieces of construction, so we'd drive through the city until we could connect with one of the sections which was complete and open to traffic. With all the snow and the blowing, we found ourselves following snowplows more often than not. Progress was slow.

The sun had gone down. We were still not home. Dad drove and drove. Mom was asleep in the back seat. The snow was in high banks all around us, glittering, while a northern high drove it in long moving snakes across the road, the surface of which began to vanish as fast as the plows passed. That night was the single time I've seen Aurora. She appeared as the post storm high moved in. Pale red curtains that moved and shook across the sky; my Dad explained what they were.

We were absolutely alone on the nighttime highway, so he stopped the car and told me to roll down my window. White snow! Black sky and stars like jewels! Hallucinogenic blobs of red--and a faint crackle and hiss, as if we could hear those heavy curtains shaking! I've never forgotten it, this other worldly phenomenon. I'd love to see Aurora again before I die, and I know that the NWT, about which I've written, is THE place to go to see this wonder.  So I'm adding to my "dream trip" list--because today, Aurora tourism is now a "thing" in the NWT.

Circumpolar folk stories are very similar. There are lonely spirits trying to speak to the living; there are spirits of animals and ancestors, some of them dancing, some playing games. Europeans told of the  shields of the Valkyries gleaming, or saw a rainbow bridge to Asgard where dwelt their ferocious Gods. The Inuit tell of walrus skull games played by the dead. The Athabascans speak of ancestors who are ever present, looking down upon their children. Northern people world wide gazed into the aurora filled sky and made stories to explain what they saw.

"The ends of the land and sea are bounded by an immense abyss, over which a narrow and dangerous pathway leads to the heavenly regions. The sky is a great dome of hard material arched over Earth. There is a hole in it through which spirits pass to the true heavens, only the spirits of those who have died a voluntary or violent death--and Raven--have been over this pathway."

We know more about what causes Aurora today than was known in my childhood. We've discovered that this phenomena is caused by our solar wind, constantly blowing from our own mighty local star, when it collides with Earth's magnetosphere. In a way, the original inhabitants of the land are correct--the "hard material" arched over Earth is our planetary shield--and we can see the lights dancing as the solar winds strike.

NWT has plenty of aurora tourism available for the hardy traveler, from Yellowknife to places north, closer to the magnetic pole, where the magic is most reliably to be seen. You can fly or snowmobile or travel in great ice road vehicles farther north; you can even, I read in my wishful thinking ravel brochures, sit in hot tubs and watch the skies, which has to be the height of blissful decadence. I hope to see Aurora again, before I check out, and NWT is clearly the place to go.

Coincidentally, tonight will be a good night to look out for Aurora, perhaps dancing in a cold clear sky over your fortunate head! If you are in Canada, keep a sharp look out! It seems that Old Sol has actually sent a Coronal Mass Ejection our way. Maybe I sensed Aurora coming, dreamer that I am, as I pondered what to write for Canadian Historical Brides...

~~Juliet Waldron
For all my historical novels:

1 comment:

  1. great story and it brings back some memories of my childhood. Unfortunately when I spent time in upstate New York we never saw the northern lights nor in our layovers in Alaska. thanks for sharing.