Steve Oakes from our Main Library is back with another great nature/travel post!
The summer of 1987 was shaping up to be an intriguing one that would have a profound impact on my life. I wasn’t sure “87” could surpass what I had recently done when I spent the summer of 1986 working at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Perhaps it was destiny. The placement organization I had applied with in 1986 originally wanted to send me to Denali National Park in Alaska. But soon after the offer, I had received notice that the situation had changed at Denali, and, instead of a position in Alaska, they were hopeful I would take the job at the North Rim. I gladly accepted Arizona.
I reapplied to the same organization at the beginning of 1987, with my sights set again on Alaska. This time there was not a change of events, and I was off to the Last Frontier.
Luckily, I did not have any pressing commitments which would force me to make an expedited trip up north. I plotted my route and started to make arrangements for my journey that would include some sightseeing on the way. I had a Mazda pick-up truck with a fiberglass camper shell. I figured I would sleep in the bed of the truck to avoid packing a tent. I built a simple frame inside the bed that provided compartments for storage and laid a sheet of plywood on top. I cut the plywood in a way that allowed me ready access to some of the storage spaces underneath. With a camp mattress rolled out onto my platform bed, I was ready for business almost.
Somehow along the way, another truck owner informed me that if I wanted to stay dry in the back of the truck when I slept, I needed to insulate the ceiling of the shell. If I did not, he informed me that the water vapor in each breath I took would condense overhead and rain on me sometime before morning.
I found a local company that sold a spray mixture that would do the trick (this was before cans of expanding foam insulation were readily available at local hardware stores). Regardless, the fifteen dollars I spent was a good investment and prevented the condensation. There would be no dripping during the night.
My 5,000-mile journey began near the end of April. The first significant stop was in Chicago to attend a meeting with others that had been placed by the organization. A night of entertainment included a medieval dinner theater where the food had to be eaten without utensils. I believe the location was at the gothic-looking former Chicago Historical Society building on Dearborn Street, which fit the occasion perfectly.
Next stop was the Science Museum of Minnesota (SMM) located in the city of St. Paul.
For the previous two years, I had a part-time job in the planetarium at the Center of Science and Industry (COSI) in Columbus, Ohio. I wanted to check out the SMM planetarium and space exhibits to see how they compared. It was due to my interest in astronomy that landed me the job at COSI. I thank the space race for developing my curiosity in the subject. Observing the aurora was a bucket list item of mine and one of the compelling reasons motivating me to seek my Alaska adventure.
Thousands of miles still laid before me as I traveled west across Minnesota. I counted the lakes I encountered, and it did not add up to 10,000, but I could see how the state got its nickname. The prairie pothole region followed with a drive through Badlands National Park in South Dakota. Soon after, it was Mt. Rushmore and a stop at the nearby Crazy Horse Monument. En route to Crazy Horse, a hailstorm hit the area. Intense and sudden, it covered the road with so much hail, I thought a plow might be needed to get down the highway. If I had taken a picture, it would appear as if snow blanketed the ground. However, as soon as the storm had developed, it had passed. Driving slowly and carefully, I was able to keep my truck on the road. I made it to the pavement clear of the frozen precipitation. The sky started clearing. A rainbow announced the blue sky approaching.
The previous summer, while at the Grand Canyon, I delighted in adding to my informal life list of birds. This trip would be no exception. As I continued into western South Dakota, I was intrigued by an informational wayside exhibit and decided to pull over and read the displays. After I finished and was headed back to my truck, I noticed a rather large bird attacking the front bumper of a parked car. I kept my distance and continued to observe its behavior. I had heard of birds pecking at their own reflection in windows and suspected that maybe the chrome bumper was acting as a mirror provoking a defensive response. Closer examination revealed that this neotropical colored, long-tailed bird was not assailing the vehicle but instead stabbing at the dead insects. I thought that was a good idea. Instead of wasting energy foraging for bugs, just go to the local parking lot and have your pick of a smorgasbord of dead critters lodged in the grills, cowlings, and trim of the waves of automobiles descending on the parking lot. But it wasn’t just the behavior that fascinated me; it was the species of bird that piqued my interest. I observed it carefully, and it allowed me to get fairly close. After a few minutes, I made my way to the truck and pulled out my bird guide.
My suspicion was correct. It was a black-billed magpie, a member of the Corvid family, related to crows and ravens. What surprised me was it appeared out of place. With the long tail and colorful markings, I thought it belonged in the South American rainforest along with macaws and cockatiels, not on the prairies of the Midwest.
I would learn more of this species as I headed north and it would become one of my favorites among the avian group.
In Alaska, corvids are revered, with many stories of the “Trickster” raven mentioned in Native American folklore. A common use of the raven’s image appears in the totem poles, jewelry, clothing, and baskets of the native peoples of the Pacific Northwest. Known for their intelligence, ravens learned that mountaineering parties on Denali would mark their buried food caches (often to a depth of several feet) with flagged poles. After the depositors left the area, ravens would dig up the deposited storage of calories, much to the surprise of hungry adventurers returning for an anticipated meal. Members of the corvid family have demonstrated the use of twigs as tools to get to food. In an experiment, a thin glass beaker containing water was placed on a table in a room with a rook (a member of the corvid family). Pebbles were on the table as well. The corvid figured out it could get a drink from the vessel by picking up the pebbles and dropping them inside, thus raising the level of the liquid and allowing the bird to get a drink. Outside a laboratory environment, you may find on the internet the video of a magpie in Russia using a plastic lid as a sled to slide down a snow-covered roof. Once at the bottom, it would grab the lid and fly to the crest of the roof to repeat the experience. Not just once, but making several trips!
Interstate 90 took me into Wyoming and provided another opportunity to catch a National Park Service unit. Conveniently located not far from the interstate, the “tower” of Devil’s Tower National Monument is so large that it can be seen, many miles distant. It beckoned me almost as much as it had Richard Dreyfus in the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” (Available from the A/V dept of your Kansas City, Kansas Public Library – KCKPL) My encounter, however, would be in the daylight.
This geological wonder became our nation’s first National Monument in 1906 under the authority of the Antiquities Act. The Act allows a president (in this case, Theodore Roosevelt) to “declare by public proclamation” federal land that has scientific interest (or other reasons as listed in the Act) as a National Monument.
There are several theories of how the tower formed, but the basic question of why is generally agreed upon. An intrusive upward thrust of molten rock, or magma, happened beneath the earth’s surface about 50 million years ago.
As this liquid rock slowly cooled, six and even five-sided columns coalesced, consisting of a rock called phonolite porphyry. Over the millennia, the softer layers of sedimentary rock that covered and surrounded the plug of rock, eroded away revealing the harder, more resistant stack.
The overall formation is 867 feet tall, with columns as wide as ten feet across and hundreds of feet in height. The size and rock type (phonolite porphyry) of the Tower’s columns make this a one-of-a-kind formation; however, tower columns exist in other parts of the world, including Devils Postpile National Monument in California.
I have learned during my park service career, and through my travels, many park units are somewhat freaks of nature. Not every neighborhood are there geysers, petrified wood, bison, giant redwood trees, caribou, mud pots, dinosaur fossils, or countless other unique natural flora, fauna, historical or archeological wonders. Compared to my home state of geologically stale Ohio (all sedimentary rocks, no dinosaur fossils, no precious stones, etc.), the marvelous landscapes and natural, cultural, and historical resources of the west, such as Devil’s Tower, have provided me compelling reasons to seek out new adventures and explore.
Hollywood movies don’t always get it right when depicting historical events. My next stop would provide an example of when a feature film did justice to the subject matter or at least made an impression. The 1970 western, “Little Big Man” starring Dustin Hoffman (considered a classic by some, it also is available on DVD through your KCKPL), did just that. As I drove north from Devil’s Tower on I-90 into Montana, the landscape became hauntingly familiar. Mere minutes from the interstate is a park service site on the rolling prairie. Scenes from the movie flooded my memory, and I recall thinking that what I was witnessing was a snippet of the epic motion picture. Near the end of “Little Big Man” is the battle at Little Big Horn, the site of Custer’s last stand in 1876. The sacred landscape does not appear to have changed at all since the battle, and souvenir shops and tacky tourist traps are lacking. It is easy to imagine the events that unfolded on that fateful day under the big sky of Montana. I felt somber and reflective during my temporary stay. (Years later, I discovered that the battle scene was filmed on nearby Crow Agency land)
For years, the area was proclaimed a national battlefield administered by the Army until 1940, when it was turned over to the National Park Service. In 1946, the site was renamed Custer Battlefield National Monument and would keep that name for another 45 years. In 1989, Barbara Booher became the first Native American superintendent of the site. Legislation signed by George H.W. Bush in 1991 provided another name change to the monument to Little Big Horn Battlefield National Monument. To this day, the park service continues its efforts in portraying a more inclusive view of the conflict.
To walk on the actual hillside where the battle took place, and to see the headstones of those killed in the skirmish (268 cavalrymen and six Indian scouts, plus 31 to 130 Indians, the actual number is unclear), was an eerie feeling. A ghost-like ambiance filled the air when noticing that many headstones were marked as “US Soldier, 7th Cavalry, Fell Here, June 25, 1876.” (In 1999, five red granite headstones were added to the site to mark the fallen location of some of the Native Americans killed in the battle).
I suspect I was moved by the experience due to my interest in Native American culture. When growing up, it was rumored that my fathers’ mother was 50% Indian. A rumor that I very much wanted to believe. In college, I took a course on Indian US history, which required us to read five books about Native Americans including, “Black Elk Speaks” as told through John Neihardt and “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee“ by Dee Brown (both books are available through your KCKPL). Learning about the ordeals Native Americans faced in dealing with European Americans was eye-opening and generally depressing. Regardless, battle sites where lives were lost and visitation is permitted can have a profound impact on a visitor, and I was no exception.
Working at a library provides many resources at my fingertips. Unfortunately, a childhood desire of mine was quashed years after Little Big Horn when I used the Ancestry database to see if there was any truth to the family suspicion. Grandma Oakes is listed as a Caucasian in the 1930 federal census. Furthermore, my discovery was confirmed when my daughter revealed to me the results of her ancestry DNA test, showed no Native American ties.
Side note: In April, a change was made allowing home access to the Ancestry database with a valid KCKPL library or ecard
My next cultural experiences were vastly different. Entering Canada via Alberta Province, I noticed the Canadians had a significantly different approach to their major roads. For one, the road surface seemed to be in much better shape, and the other was the size of their berms was substantially wider. However, the biggest oddity to me was the behavior of the drivers. As I approached from behind my first motorist with Alberta tags, the driver took full advantage of the berm and pulled all the way over so that wheels on the left side of the vehicle were in line at the right side of the road. Was that a signal that the driver wanted me to follow suit and they wanted me to stop for a chat? Initially, I did not pass, and I slowed down, allowing the motorist to get back into the lane. It didn’t matter as the motorist held his ground. After a mile or two (or kilometer) as this non-game of chicken took place with no apparent resolution, I decided to pass S-L-O-W-L-Y. As I pulled alongside, the older gentleman behind the wheel politely looked my way and gave a warm gesture of hello. I waved back and just wondered what happened. On down, the road came my second encounter. The same behavior transpired. Okay. I was somewhat aware that Canadians are some of the nicest people in the world, but I never imagined it affected their driving! Such a refreshing change!
Vast, open plains were on my agenda for the next several hours. I would drive on through Calgary with the sight of the Canadian Rockies on my left. My destination was Edmonton and its infamous landmark, the West Edmonton Mall. When the mall was opened in 1981, it was the world’s largest indoor mall (it held that distinction until 2004). It lays claim to several “largest” honors, including an indoor wave pool, indoor lake, indoor waterpark, indoor amusement park, and indoor triple loop roller coaster. Today the mall attracts 32 million visitors per year and has about 800 stores under roof. While I was there, I purchased a pair of hiking boots and nearly wore them out just walking around the expanse. A fully outfitted grocery store was a welcome sight, especially when I made it to the produce section. I was going on two weeks of road fare, and the fresh fruit and vegetables were appealing. I was afraid that buying food from inside a mall might be expensive, but not to worry, I couldn’t tell if it was a bargain or highway robbery as everything was priced according to the weight in grams or kilograms! Well, at least they had the same denomination of money, which is much prettier than ours, in my opinion
I learned about the mall from a publication that is referred to as the Bible of the Northland, “The Milepost.” This annual publication got started not long after the completion of the Alaska-Canada Highway and the end of World War II.
As you may remember from your US history class, Alaska was still a territory of the United States during WWII (gaining statehood in 1959) and was of strategic importance in the northern Pacific. The United States was trying to stay neutral as Germany assaulted Europe and Japan had invaded China. War seemed imminent, and our leaders and armed forces were nervous, including the Navy’s Pacific fleet. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, US holdings and allied territories received greater scrutiny regarding defenses against further Japanese attacks. Alaska was deemed vulnerable, with parts of the territory only 700 miles from Tokyo.
There were numerous military bases spread out within Alaska’s borders (which were hundreds of miles apart) but few roads connecting them. Equipping and supplying these outposts was a logistical nightmare. The biggest challenge was the fact that there was not a road connecting Alaska with the contiguous United States. Shipping by sea was slow (often four or more days from the Seattle area), and air transport expensive and limiting. Within four months, December 7, 1941, authorization and implementation of the construction of the Alaska-Canada (or Alcan) Highway had begun.
The 1,500 mile Alcan starts in Dawson Creek, in the province of British Columbia, Canada. The project was an enormous task, and a tremendous amount of resources were poured into the area. The population of Dawson Creek went from 600 to over 20,000 during the construction. The conditions, terrain, and engineering of putting in a gravel road in the sub-arctic, made the road-building arduous. In addition to constructing the roadway, the soldiers were called into action to put out wildfires in the area during the summer months. Speculation was that the Japanese were responsible for those flare-ups, with the intent to divert attention and resources away from their efforts (later in the war, the Japanese did use balloons to start fires on the west coast resulting in casualties). In just over eight months, crews that started at the anchor points of Dawson Creek at the southern end and Delta Junction, Alaska on the northern, connected the highway at Contact Creek in the Yukon Territory.
Side note: Some refer to the Japanese bombing and control of several islands on Alaska’s Aleutian chain, the forgotten battle. Six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the invasion began. The Japanese presence of over 5,000 troops lasted over a year before American and Canadian forces eliminated the belligerents or were withdrawn by Japanese submarines. The campaign marked the first time since the War of 1812 that fighting occurred on US soil. The Japanese suffered 4,350 casualties compared to 1,481 American and Canadian. A sense of urgency filled the minds of Alcan construction personnel.
In the mid to late seventies, I worked pumping gas at a service station (when it was illegal to pump your own). I was into cars, and at one point, I owned four of them. I subscribed to Car and Driver magazine, and I vividly remembered one of the issues being devoted almost entirely to driving the Alcan Highway. Back then, the Alcan had a reputation for very rough sections and long stretches where there were no services or even inhabitants. Car and Driver had the audacity of using a Corvette to make the approximately 1,500-mile journey. For some reason, I remember the color of the car was red, and the picture of it was splayed across the front cover of the magazine. The crew took an extra wheel/tire and strapped it to the vehicle. Also, a couple 5 gallon Jerry cans filled with gas were added, which gave the Vette’s appearance a Mad Max vibe. I don’t recall if extra precautions were taken to try and protect the windshield from the flying gravel kicked up by the trucks and maintenance vehicles that traveled the road. Cracked and broken windshields and headlamps were the most common maladies suffered by motorists on the Alcan. For repairs and parts that might be needed, days if not weeks could be added to one’s trip, depending on the location and severity of the affliction.
At the time of the article, the majority of the highway was not paved, and frost heaves created an almost amusement park ride experience in many areas. The suspension on the Corvette was beefed up and modified to provide greater ground clearance to help it handle the corduroy-like surface conditions.
My memory took all these factors into account, and in the end, I added some screening attached to the front grill of my truck. Plus, once on the Alcan, I pulled far to the right whenever logging and other commercial trucks came my way or passed me by.
I was pleased to discover outside of Dawson Creek that the road was paved. My speedometer had markings for both miles per hour MPH and kilometers per hour KPH. I quickly learned that sixty miles per hour was roughly equivalent to 100 KPH. I felt like I was flying down the highway as I often exceeded speeds of 110. That is 110 KPH (about 65 MPH). The lack of traffic aided making good time. Not many RVs were making the trip up north at the beginning of May.
I was getting more acquainted with the metric system each passing day. I was up to four different measures as I drove further north. Measuring the weight of produce was one, speed and distance were two and three, and visiting the gas station was number four. I was a little shell-shocked when I went to fill up the tank for the first time across the border. Instead of selling petro (as they will call it) by the gallon, it was sold by the liter. It seemed like the cost was four times as much. Now, gas does cost more in Canada, but in reality, it was hard for me to determine just how much more, as I tried to figure in the US/Canadian exchange rate into my calculations (back in 1987, it was about 12% as I recall). On top of that, they try to confuse the matter more with signage about “Imperial” gallons. Anyhow, I finally just settled in and accepted that in the middle of the wilderness, I often didn’t have a choice and to just go with the flow.
In Alaska and probably northern Canada, they say there are only two seasons: Winter and construction. In some spots on the Alcan, I was experiencing the shorter of the two seasons. Winter wreaks havoc on those northern roads. The appearance of frost heaves is an annual occurrence. Road construction has improved greatly since the beginnings of the Alcan, and fewer frost heaves happen. Lack of sufficient drainage is the primary culprit, and great measures are put into place in laying down or replacing the roadbed. But they still happen, and luckily road budgets allow for repairs as the spring thaw commences. Until then, many mufflers have come to their demise traversing the washboard asphalt or pitted gravel surfaces.
Three hundred miles or so into British Columbia, I hit the next significant town of Fort Nelson. It would be around another three hundred miles to the town of Watson Lake and its infamous “Sign Post Forest.” I recall during that stretch between the towns; there was about a 200-mile section that was not paved. For my 1987 trip, that would be the longest piece of un-paved Alcan.
My camper shell set-up was working nicely and was comfortably warm at night, even when the temperatures fell below freezing. I was happy with the arrangement as I headed for the Yukon Territory. There were numerous parks along the way, including Liard River Hot Springs Provincial Park. It was a small hike from the parking lot to the pools of hot water, and a boardwalk provided the path. Once again, the metric system was on display as the water temperatures were posted in Celsius. Luckily the wealth of information contained in “The Milepost” detailed in Fahrenheit the temperatures of the various pools, with the hottest one being about 120 degrees and the coolest 104. I tested the waters of the warmest one and settled on the coolest. The 104-degree water felt great for a few minutes, but even the coolest pool of the group was too much for a lengthier stay. It was hard for me to imagine that the interior of Canada could have such a warm location, and it is no wonder the park is a favorite stopping point for Alaska-bound motorists.
At the springs, highway pull-offs, campgrounds, and other area attractions were warnings of being in grizzly bear country. The cautionary notes gave instructions on what behaviors the bears might exhibit and what behaviors humans should undertake if an encounter were to happen. In Alaska, the chance of a meeting is about as likely as being in an auto accident. It was nice to know I had more than a piece of fabric between me and the wildlife when I slept at night. I would stay in their habitat until I left Alaska.
In Whitehorse, I got a reckoning of the opposite extreme of the springs when I pulled into a parking lot. Signs indicated head-in parking only as a short barricade was lined up with an electrical outlet at each parking spot. Of course, this was long before electric cars would practically be a reality. The literal connection between the parking lot and local vehicles was an electric cord dangling from the front of the cars and trucks. Vehicles often had heater plugs installed in the block of the motor, and if you wanted your car to start on a winter morning, you’d better plug it in. During the winter in the interior of Alaska and Canada, low temperatures exceeding 40 below zero are not uncommon. Kids in the “lower 48” (the contiguous US) would probably be shocked to hear that in Healy, Alaska (just north of Denali National Park), school would not get canceled until temperatures dropped to 50 below. My reality of the circumstances occurred my first winter in Alaska when I house-sat at a residence without a garage, and my truck was not designed to accommodate an in-block heater. But that’s another story, for another time.
The spring thaw was loosening the grip of winter as I ventured onward. As the miles added up, an additional five minutes of sunlight were being added each day to the 17 hours the sun was above the horizon. The effects of the freeze/thaw cycle became vividly apparent the last fifty miles of the Alcan within the Canadian border. I won’t soon forget the undulating nature of the broken-up pavement. It was a classic example of what the ravages of winter can impose upon a road. My maximum speed may have been 30 miles an hour. As the two hours elapsed and my hopes were buoyed by the proximity of the Alaska border, I felt a sense of accomplishment of having traversed almost all of the Alcan without a major disruption.
The road smoothed out considerably the moment I entered “The Last Frontier.” I had another 400 miles to go before I reached Alaska’s largest city of Anchorage. I would stop at the crossroads town of Tok and camp for the night. The intersection and my route would have me leave the Alcan. Westward from Tok, the Alcan would deliver me to Fairbanks if that were my destination. My introduction to “The Golden Heart of Alaska” would have to wait.
The owner of the campground was a former longshoreman in the town of Valdez. The town that would become more famous after Joseph Hazelwood had a couple of drinks before taking command of the oil tanker, the Exxon Valdez. In case the year of 1989 is too early for one to remember, the Exxon Valdez left port and became grounded on Bligh Reef and spilled about 11 million gallons of Alaska crude. The ensuing clean-up brought many persons to Valdez seeking work, including women that were heavily outnumbered. When the Anchorage newspaper asked a woman about the prospect of dating a man under the circumstances, she replied, “Well, the odds are good, but the goods are odd.”
Owning and operating a campground was a lot less physically demanding than loading/unloading ships, explained the former dock worker. As I later learned after hearing his story, he went “Outside” (“outside” is what most Alaskans refer to as the lower 48 states) and worked for a few years before returning to his beloved Alaska. He provided me good advice and introduced me to a bit of the Alaska vernacular. For instance, a “sourdough” was someone that had soured on Alaska and didn’t have enough dough to leave, and a Cheechacko is a newcomer that had not lived through an Alaskan winter. Alaskans are a unique, often odd, and independent group of people. Speaking of sourdough, he made me a meal of sourdough pancakes in the morning.
Anchorage is a big city wannabe. One of their claims to fame is that they had a professional orchestra in town before they had paved streets. That was back in 1915. It is a major city by all accounts with all the quirks Alaska has to offer. Not all are so enamored by its attributes, however, as some refer to its location as “Anchorage, just twenty minutes from Alaska.” The Japanese current in the northern Pacific warms the southeast coast and buffers it from the mind-bending cold of the interior. The “Banana Belt” is a reference given, but you will never find such trees, much less fresh produce of the tropical type. Yes, you can buy bananas at the grocery store, but they arrived via a shipping container that left the state of Washington a week or so ago.
Leaves were popping out on the trees as June was approaching. Two hundred forty-one miles north would take me to my site of employment, Denali National Park. When I arrived, spring had not.
I quickly learned my goal of viewing the northern lights would have to wait. It just did not get dark. During the months of May, June, and July, the only star I could see was our sun. The 24 hours of light gave me a whole new perspective on Alaska. It almost felt like an alien country because it was (is) so different.
I was not disappointed to not attain my boyhood dream upon my arrival. There was so much more that was going on, things for me to discover and marvel over, so very different than Ohio or any other place I had visited. A few species of fauna and flora were the same, such as Canada geese (no surprise), American robins, and dandelions, but nothing like moose, caribou, and larch trees (a deciduous conifer), to name but a small few. And then there were the landscapes, the mountains, the glaciers, the unparalleled beauty, the vastness of it all. I realized it would take me a lifetime to explore such magnitude.
For the short term, Denali National Park would have to suffice to satisfy my curiosity. Certainly, it did as I multiplied the number of bird species on my life list. I saw plenty of magpies, ravens and camp robbers (gray jays), and Stellar’s jays. The iconic Dall Sheep, North America’s only all-white wild sheep, was relatively abundant and easy to spot. Perhaps too easy. The park was created in 1917 partly to protect the wildlife in what would initially become Mt. McKinley National Park from the market hunters. To feed the prospectors and Alaska railroad workers, wild game was hunted. The original nearly two million acres of parkland was later tripled in size with the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980. This monumental bill changed the name from Mt. McKinley to Denali National Park and Preserve.
Six million acres is also a lot to see and would take a lifetime to get to know it intimately. I barely scratched the surface during my three summers of employment.
My first summer, I was mesmerized by the sights and sounds, the smells, the atmosphere, the buzz of the park, and the people that visited and worked at Denali. The Japanese current not only tempered the coast but also brought warmer moist air to collide with the ocean of air coming down from the arctic. As a result, I recall the month of July being socked in with clouds most of the time. I heard that Denali made an appearance only about one-third of the days during a normal summer (upon learning that, I took a lot of pictures of the mountain when presented), but this summer was particularly bad. The cloudy weather stretched on into August as the night of darkness started its return. I was getting a little anxious and wondered if the aurora would evade me. Soon my fate would change.
It was not until later in the summer, that during a trip down to Anchorage that I got to see…
THE NORTHERN LIGHTS, shopping center!!!
And wherever I looked,
I could see the northern lights!!!
All kidding aside, I distinctly remember the first night I saw the aurora borealis. I was on a shuttle bus outside the entrance to Denali NP. It was close to 11 pm on August 24, when we were approaching our drop-off point. I recall looking out the window and noticing a shimmering glow. I wanted the bus to stop right away and let me off. I did not want to miss what I thought I was seeing. A minute later, we made it to our destination, and I bolted off the bus. A small crowd had gathered, and they provided confirmation that the aurora was making an appearance in the northern sky. Initially, the display was a greenish-white band, a common appearance indicative of a weak visualization. Quickly conditions began to change, and the lights became rapidly undulating, waved curtains punctuated with colored splashes of purples, violets, and reds. They then moved from the horizon and appeared directly overhead. The entire sky was filled with the aurora, and it seemed to envelop the people, the trees, the mountains. The crowd that gathered outside the McKinley Chalet Resort sounded as if they were observing a fireworks show, hooting, and hollering, with some of them close to tears of excitement. It was a captivating show that lasted at least 45 minutes.
Electricity was in the air, and I felt overwhelmed. It was spectacular, and I was lucky that it was an aurora that evolved into various shapes, forms, and colors.
What I had witnessed was not an every day (or night!) sighting.
Scientists suggest that the conditions are right, and the Northern Lights are possibly visible from Fairbanks 200 nights out of the year. For Anchorage, that figure drops to half that amount. The conditions that need to be present include electronically charged particles being ejected from the sun in the direction of Earth. Plus, the intensity of the energy behind the particles needs to be strong enough that when they collide with gas molecules in the upper atmosphere (about 50 miles overhead), it is with sufficient force to excite the molecules allowing them to emit a photon of light. The stronger the energy source, the more active, colorful, and expansive the aurora becomes. For instance, the aurora has been spotted as far south as Mexico City!
We are fortunate that Earth has a large molten core of iron. The rotation of the earth (and the iron core) acts like a large electric motor, producing magnetic fields of energy surrounding the earth. The accompanying force funnels the solar wind (charged particles coming from the sun) down towards the earth’s poles, typically into an oval configuration.
The effect is so amazing that when an aurora occurs in the northern hemisphere, a nearly identical aurora happens in the southern hemisphere.
The aurora is so diffuse, stars easily shine through. Notice six of the seven stars of the Big Dipper appear in the above photo. However, the overall energy is substantial, and scientists estimate the amount of energy in a “normal” display is equivalent to the amount of electrical energy used by 50,000 US households over the course of a year.
When the aurora is directly overhead, it is referred to as the coronal (think of a crown) borealis with its captivating rays seemingly surrounding the observer. I witnessed a similar effect within Carlsbad Caverns. Wavy, thin, elongated formations are known as draperies (see below).
During intense solar storms, oxygen atoms become super excited and produce photons of light in the red range of the spectrum. Through the ages, these rare sightings were believed to be the precursor of bad things such as deaths due to famine, disease, or armed conflict.
Auroras are not limited to earth. Jupiter and Saturn have very strong magnetic fields and thick atmospheres. The Hubble telescope captured these two images.
The light of their aurora is in the ultraviolet spectrum, thus outside the range of visible light to the human eye.
There is much to learn about the fascinating aurora borealis, and an exhaustive explanation would require volumes of text. What we have learned is that geomagnetic storms must be constantly monitored, and they are by a couple of government agencies. Luckily for us, there is enough of a time lapse between when solar storms are observed to when the ejected particles travel the 93 million miles to reach earth. Not all solar flares or coronal mass ejections (the cause of many of the storms) are pointed towards Earth. When they are, the cushion of a couple of days allows businesses and commerce dependent on electronic communication or navigation systems (radio and cell phone companies, airlines with polar routes) or producers of electrical power time to brace for the possible repercussions as a result of the phenomena during severe “space weather.” Energy from such displays has caused huge power outages, disrupted communications and navigational systems. In fact, on March 13, 1989, a tremendous geomagnetic storm caused auroras that could be seen from Florida and Cuba and knocked out the power grid for the entire province of Quebec, Canada, for 12 hours.
The science of meteorology allows us to “predict” what the weather will be like several days in advance. What if we knew when and where to look for the aurora? Well, space weather can also be predicted, and there are a few aurora forecast sources. I prefer the one from the Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks. In addition, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) offers a forecast updated every thirty minutes. Here is the link: Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) OVATION Aurora Forecast Model.
Of course, you could travel to Alaska and try to experience it in person. There are travel packages available during the prime aurora season when nighttime is abundant. However, the best, easily available location would be the Fairbanks area, and the prime season would be January, February, or March when temperatures could easily hover in the below zero range. Or, you may luck out at the end of summer and catch the many splendid daytime sights Alaska has to offer, then to wait for nightfall, and hope it’s not cloudy, and scan the horizon. The earliest I saw the northern lights was on August 11. And on one occasion in Kansas City, an airline pilot called Channel 5 News to report an aurora sighting, and the weather reporter announced the occurrence during the nighttime broadcast. I quickly went outside and saw the familiar faint green band of an aurora just above the horizon.
The following link is a good representation of an aurora display that started with low intensity and grew with an increase in energy coming into the upper atmosphere. The time-lapse video is not in real-time and was accelerated into a 39-second clip.
I found that viewing the Northern Lights in person was nearly an out of body experience. I would wish that upon anyone that has a spirit of curiosity and adventure.
For more information about the aurora check out these items from KCKPL.
The Northern Lights : Celestial Performances of the Aurora Borealis by Daryl Pederson and Calvin Hall; essay by Ned Rozell,
The Northern Lights by Lucy Jago, a biography of Kristian Birkeland, a Norwegian scientist who unlocked secrets surrounding the lights at the turn of the last century
The documentary DVD Aurora: Fire in the Sky written and directed by Ivo Filatsch
And the children’s books;
A Search for the Northern Lights by Elizabeth Rusch and Izzi Rusch
Northern Lights by Grace Hansen
More images and information will be presented as part of the author’s public program at the Main Library tentatively scheduled for March 2021.
“North to the Future” is the motto for the state of Alaska, and if driving is your preferred method to travel there, I strongly recommend taking the “Milepost” publication with you. Although you could check it out from your local library (hoping to save some money in the process), compared to all the other costs associated with the trip, the price for the latest edition would be minuscule. There is a reason it is renowned for being the “bible of the northland,” and aside from the wealth of information, it contains, it is a great source of entertaining reading in and of itself. However, before you buy a copy, checkout the library copy as research material for your planning phase of the trip.
Postscript: It wasn’t until October that I had my first bald eagle sighting. Since the biggest part of their diet is fish, there are very few bald eagles around Denali NP. However, in the interior of the state, there are plenty of clear rivers, streams, lakes, and ponds sustaining healthy eagle populations, just not many around Denali. At Denali NP, there are so few fish that a fishing license is not required within the original boundaries. Denali’s streams and rivers contain a significant amount of glacial silt in the water. Such conditions do not provide enough oxygen to pass over the gills of the fish; therefore, the fish population is small (Wonder Lake is the exception). Occasionally a bald eagle will pass through, but as far as eagles go, one is more likely to see Golden Eagles than Bald Eagles.
On my return trip to Ohio, I decided to take the Alaska Marine Highway System. To facilitate transportation to remote areas along a portion of Alaska’s coast, the state has owned and operated a fleet of ferry boats since 1948. I planned to catch a ferry in Haines, Alaska, a two days drive from Anchorage (750 miles), with a passage through a small part of Canada (that’s right, to leave the state, I had to leave the country! How wild is that?) Luckily for me, at the edge of Haines is the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. The 49,320-acre Preserve is an important wintering area for eagles, with as many as 5,000 eagles present at the peak of winter. And, the only road into Haines (the Haines Highway) borders the preserve. When I saw my first bald eagle, I was so excited I nearly wrecked my truck, trying to slow down and pull off the road. As I came to a stop (hoping I didn’t lose my sighting), I discovered another, then another, and another. They were all over the place! I nearly wet my pants. I breathed a sigh of relief.
My heart was content and satisfied. I thought if, for some reason, I did not return to the land of the midnight sun, I had fulfilled my top two desires. To see a bald eagle in the wild and observe the Aurora Borealis.
- NASA – Sebastian Saarloos
- Photo by author
- NPS – Rachel Ames
- NPS – Avery Locklead
- NPS – Avery Locklead
- NPS – Avery Locklead
- Photo by author
- Jadecolour at English Wikipedia
- Photo by author
- Alaska DOT&PF
- Photo by author
- Photo by author
- Photo by author
- Photo by author
- Photo by author
- Photo by author
- Photo by author
- Photo by author
- Photo by author
- US Air Force
- University of Alaska – Al Belon
- NASA – Johnny Myreng Henriksen
- NPS – Shawn Thomas
- By S.Qollaku – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19994293
About the author – Main library associate Steve Oakes, lived in Alaska from 1987 until 1996. He was a National Park Ranger and spent three summers at Denali National Park and then six years in the National Park Service Concessions office in Anchorage
© Steve Oakes