A Clear Night

You step out of the cabin, moving the blanket covering your door aside as you continue out of the entryway.  As your eyes adjust to the darkness, you take a few more steps over the snow, gazing up at the trees silhouetted against the dark night sky.  White spruce and balsam poplar trees, dominating this region, rise up.  Between their branches are dots of light.  A hint at what lies above.  On this Arctic night, towards the end of January, the sky is littered with stars. With no light pollution of any kind in the area your view is untainted.  To the south lies Orion’s belt, left of that you are able to easily pick out Auriga and Gemini.  Above is the W formation of Cassiopeia. And finally to the north, you spot the big dipper.  It’s handle is pointing down to the horizon and the upper edge of the cup draws a line up towards the North Star.  This far north, above 67 degrees latitude, the North Star is almost directly overhead.  Or more precisely, it is just over 67 degrees above the horizon.  You observe no clouds, a completely clear night in the Arctic.  Clear skies generally mean colder temperatures and tonight is no exception.  You are all bundled up in your winter gear.  A heavy parka, winter hat, big mitts and big boots make up your ensemble, allowing you to withstand the -45 degrees below zero temperature.  Not only do you notice the cold, but also the silence.  Outside of the faint wind that rustles through the trees and down the river valley, there is not a sound. On such a cold night, it is not the stars that draw you out of your warm cabin a few feet distant.  Amidst the stars, painting across the sky like a giant rainbow lays the aurora borealis or the northern lights.  Out of the east, from behind the snow clad mountains, on the opposite side of the valley, you see a green band of aurora rise up, continue directly overhead and disappear beyond the hills on the western horizon.  Another faint band exists slightly to the north.

This far north, you find yourself under the auroral oval, a magnetic band that encompasses the northern hemisphere and its where the aurora occurs.  On a clear night like this, there is no indication what you will see.  You have witnessed nights where this faint band you see now is all there is before it fades away.  Often, others have yielded much more promising displays, building up in activity before bursting across the sky, moving at speeds of greater than 1000 km/hr (600 mph) and offering a dazzling display of bright greens, yellows, pinks and for those who are able to see it, a red background.

You’re brought back to reality as you feel a prickling sensation on your nose.  The faint wind has been gliding across your face, chilling the exposed skin.  You think of the warm cabin as your hands start to become cold.  Yet with the aurora’s fickle nature, you don’t wish to head inside and run the risk of missing a major display.  Almost as if on cue, the aurora begins to brighten behind the mountains across the valley.  Your hope of a surge appears to be coming true.  Over the next few minutes, you watch as the bands become wider and brighter, illuminating the snow on the mountains and at your feet.  The aurora transforms from its horizontal nature to more obscure formations.  Light curtains shimmer in the north and the band overhead seems to head vertically in the sky before continuing its path towards the opposite horizon.  As you scan back and forth at the bright green and yellow display, the cold continues to seep into your gloves and underneath your parka.  There is almost no escape from it when the mercury dips this low.  The display begins to lose its power.  Colors dim and the bands shrivel over the next few minutes as it takes up its faint nature once again. Content, you retreat into your cabin.  Huddling next to the woodstove with a hot cup of tea, you marvel at your experience of witnessing this spectacle and mystery of the north.

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