Sunday, October 2, 2011

Arctic Hikes and Northern Lights

I started the day with a very simple, relaxed plan:  read a book, catch up with my blogging, and maybe write a few letters. 

I ended the day in the back of a police vehicle, looking out the barred windows as the northern lights set the sky ablaze.

Do I have your attention now?

My plan for a quiet Saturday away from the school was effective for about 2 hours.  I slept in until about 10:00am, ate some breakfast, and read a book for an hour or so.  I know you’re thinking that this is boring stuff to blog about, but de-stressing time happens so rarely that I view it as a blog-worthy event. 

It wasn’t meant to last, though, because Mary Ellen called and invited me on a walk.  If you know Mary Ellen, then you know  that she actually means ‘trek’ when she says ‘walk.’  I should mention that even a small walk requires preparation on the Slope  Our winter is starting to set in (think snow-covered tundra, iced-over ponds, and twenty degree weather), so we put on our early winter outfit.  I wore my silk long johns, jeans, wool socks, hiking boot, two hats, snow mittens, fleece jacket, and parka (with my new fox fur ruff).  In a few weeks I will need to add a layer, but it’s not that cold yet. 

Once Shannon and I had geared up for the walk, we met the rest of our walking party at the principal’s house (where Mary Ellen also lives).  Mary Ellen’s boyfriend (a local native) and the principal Kathy also joined us on the walk.

The snow is perfect for packing and shaping!  I made little snowmen during the first half hour of the walk and left them on posts on the side of the road. 

There was about an inch on the ground, though there was up to four inches in places where the snow gathered in crevasses.  All of the tundra streams and ponds froze over about two weeks ago, so it’s a bit easier walking now. 

We meandered outside of the village a ways with no clear destination in mind.   We took a Honda trail south of Atqasuk, and then went west a little to a small fishing hole.  We stopped to take pictures because it was absolutely gorgeous.  You could see right through to the bottom where all the arctic grayling were swimming.

We then backtracked east and walked right past the airport just as the afternoon flight was arriving.  We stopped and waved our arms really big, and the pilot tipped his wings side to side in response before landing on our little gravel airstrip. 

A faint Honda trail led us to one of the old coal mining sites.  Atqasuk was a coal-mining community in the 1940s and 1950s, and all of the old buildings and equipment was just left abandoned when the coal mine closed.  There are old stoves and machines everywhere in this area . . . even inscriptions in coal mining shack walls that date back to the 1940s. 

We even saw some people out ice-fishing (quite successfully).

By this point, we were hungry and sore so we headed back to town.  We all changed into warmer (and dryer) clothes, and then met back up for homemade pizza and card games.  The villagers on the Slope are big Nertz fans (though they call it Snertz), so we brushed up on our nertzing skills.

It was a long and satisfying day that left us all exhausted and tired.  We put in an episode of the Big Bang Theory, and planned to call it a night after the episode ended.

Of course, plans in the Alaskan bush never go as scripted.  At about 11:30 pm, my cell phone rang.  We have no caller ID in Atqasuk (really, I’m grateful that my phone even works at all), so I had no clue who was calling me.  I mean, who do I know that would call me at 11:30 pm Alaska time? 

I thought I recognized the voice as Ray, the police officer on duty.  However, I couldn’t figure out how he would have got my cell number . . . so I wasn’t sure that it was him.  He never identified himself on the phone, either.  He kept saying he was coming to pick me up and wanted to know where I was. Strange, right?  I was even more confused when he said he was going to leave Dave (our counselor) behind so there was room in the vehicle.

Mary Ellen and Shannon were listening to my end of the conversation, and asking me what was going on during this whole time.  They asked me who it was, and all I had to say was ‘I’m not sure; this conversation isn’t going well.’  They asked me what was going on, and all I could think of to say was ‘I’m not sure, but he wants to pick me up and I think he already has Dave hidden somewhere.’

About ten seconds later the police cruiser drove up with red and blue lights shining.  Naturally, we threw on our boots and parkas . . . and jumped in the back of the police car.

Sure enough, it was Ray.  He was out on patrol when the northern lights started up.  He picked up Dave, drove out to the airport (where ironically there are the least manmade lights) to watch them, and decided that I should see come out to see the northern lights, too.

Once we got all the sheer ridiculousness straightened out, we all drove out to the airport where Dave was standing on the runway watching the northern lights all by himself.  (Good thing there weren’t any bears around today, right?)  We watched the lights through the bars of the car windows until Ray let us out of the back cage. 

It was well worth the craziness, as I’ve never seen northern lights of this magnitude before!  They were bright green, white, and sometimes purplish.  It is so hard to describe the movement . . . the lights actually dance and twist across the sky.  It looks so alien and foreign—like if you close your mind to everything you know is true about your place in the universe, you might be on another planet somewhere out in the void.  The whole thing seemed so beautifully unnatural.   

My camera doesn't even begin to do it justice.

We probably stood out there half an hour, just watching the dance.  The lights would form a tight, twisting tunnel from one end of the sky to the other, and then spread into a starburst across the entire sky within moments.  The colors rippled across the sky with increasing levels of brightness and intensity.  We are so far north that the northern lights are directly overhead (not in the northern sky).  They fill up the entire overhead dome in the most incredible and dreamlike way.  It’s impossibly surreal.

Ray drove us home after we were too cold and too tired to stand on the runway any longer.  I can honestly say I’ve been in the back of a police car more often since I moved up here than in my whole life prior.

I fell asleep about five minutes after getting home, without writing a single letter or blog post.

Life in the Alaskan bush is outlandishly unpredictable – and that’s half the fun of it.

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