The wonder of the northern lights, or aurora borealis, has been captivating people for millennia. When electrically charged particles from the sun slam into gases in Earth’s upper atmosphere, they create sparks of colorful light. When billions of these collisions happen one after another, they make waves that look like they’re dancing. These dancing waves are most visible in northern latitudes, such as Alaska and Canada.
I knew that seeing the northern lights during a summer visit to Alaska wasn’t likely. After all, you need darkness to witness this phenomenon, and it doesn’t really get dark in Alaska in the summer. But we watched a video in which an Alaska visitor glimpsed the northern lights one night in September on his way back home. We had planned to leave Alaska in September, so that gave me hope.
Generally speaking, the best times to view the aurora borealis are between late August and mid-April on clear nights between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m.
Third Time’s a Charm
After two failed attempts to witness the northern lights while camped 20 miles south of Tok, Alaska, in late August, I didn’t have much hope of spotting them. I did my due diligence anyway and checked the weather forecast for a clear night for yet another opportunity.
That chance came our first night out of Alaska, in Destruction Bay, Yukon. The forecast called for mostly clear skies between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. Tired from a wind-induced, sleep-interrupted night before, I just wanted to go to bed for the night. Knowing this might be my last opportunity to see the spectacular display, however, I set my alarm for midnight.
At 11:45 p.m., I woke up for some reason. Although tempted to go back to sleep, I decided to get up and peek out the windows. That way, I could return to bed for the night. With our bedroom slide closed for our overnight stop at a pullout off the highway, I had to crawl over Bob to get to the window, waking him in the process.
Glimpsing out, I saw a full moon lighting up the night sky and the lake beneath it, seemingly nullifying my chances of viewing the aurora borealis.
I decided to check another window anyway, facing what I thought to be north. All I saw there was a cloud with the moon reflecting off of its outer edges. As I stared at the cloud, I noticed a greenish hue. “I think I see them!” I told Bob. He looked and agreed we had spotted the northern lights.
We went outside in our bare feet for a better view. As soon as we passed the front of our trailer and looked to our left, any doubt disappeared. Cloudy wisps of light emanated from the horizon, dancing in slow motion to create amazing shapes and sights. The longer we watched, the more the lights changed, stretching across the sky.
A Divine Appointment
After flashing a few pictures using the night sight setting on my phone for longer exposure, we returned to the warmth of the trailer. Still enamored, we continued peering out our northern-facing window, enjoying the light show that lasted about 15 minutes.
Looking out the window I had originally peeked out showed no signs of the lights. Had I not awakened until my alarm went off, I would have completely missed the magnificent display. I believe God woke me up to see the amazing presentation I had been longing to witness, a reminder that he cares about the little things in our lives. I’m grateful I didn’t go back to sleep until my alarm went off.
We had thought the sky had to be completely dark in order to see the northern lights, but the brightness of the moon busted that theory. It was as if our trailer created the dividing line between the full moon over an expansive lake and the aurora borealis shimmying across a starlit canvas: two pictures in one sky on the very same night.
The spectacle left us in utter awe, huge smiles beaming across our faces. I found it difficult to sleep after that. What an amazing experience! I’m glad God woke me up when he did.
You might also like 5 Amazing Things to See on the Alaska Highway.
This is the travel blog of full-time RVers Bob and Lana Gates and our truck, Gulliver, and fifth wheel, Tagalong.