Quest to See the Aurora Borealis, Part 1
Above the trees and the clouds and the sky and the moon, something powerful this way comes.
Spawned in the million-degree heat of the sun, it races silently through space at inconceivable speeds toward our fragile blue-and-white ball.
When it nears the Earth, it will be trapped by our magnetic field, shunted to the north and south magnetic poles and accelerated toward the ground. It is the solar wind, and when its particles collide with our atmosphere, energy may be released in the form of green or red auroras.
At the North Pole, they are called the Aurora Borealis, or northern lights. At the South Pole, they are called the Aurora Australis. These light shows are among nature's most magnificent spectacles, something I have only seen in photographs.
And so, tonight, your faithful narrator is flying north, above the great, frozen state of Alaska. I'm on my way to the Chena Hot Springs Resort, an hour outside Fairbanks, and a hoped-for rendezvous with the northern lights.
It takes 3-4 days for solar wind to reach the earth from the sun, so any lights I see will be created by solar wind that is already en route to our planet.
An hour ago, we passed over the fjords and peaks of Alaska's Inside Passage, a place of magic and majesty in the life-giving summer. Whales return to frolic and feed, seal pups and bear cubs take their first breaths, and bald eagles pluck spawning salmon from the streams.
It is perhaps the greatest cruise destination of all for nature-lovers, and I have fond memories of my voyages there.
But when the winter arrives in Alaska, life must hunker down to sustain itself. Seasonal residents -- human and otherwise -- are gone, and the populations of the tiny port towns are greatly diminished. Black bears and grizzlies slumber beneath the snow. The cold and the long nights engulf those who remain.
From my window seat, I can see blackness only, but soon we will be standing on the snow below, in the stillness of the primeval forest, with moose and foxes and wolves to keep us company.
Though we will put ourselves in position to see the northern lights, there are no guarantees. The intensity of the solar wind varies greatly and may not rise to the level necessary to create an aurora visible from the ground. Even if the lights are there, a winter storm could block our view with clouds or fill our world with swirling snow and bitter cold.
In fact, the record-low temperature at our destination is -65 degrees F, but I've been watching the Fairbanks weather all month and the lowest I've seen is a balmy -37 F.
I'll sign off now from this blinking light in the Alaskan sky, thankful as always to live in an age when such journeys are possible.
If we are lucky, we will see the storms of the sun dance in the heavens, but either way, the next few days will bring a new experience. I'll check back in a couple of weeks with the results of our quest.
As the last hours of 2010 slip by, I want to thank you for letting Vacations To Go help you navigate the constantly changing world of travel possibilities. This year alone, we helped more than 600,000 people from around the world plan an international vacation.
On behalf of everyone at Vacations To Go, I wish you a happy, healthy and prosperous 2011.
We'll be here to help you rendezvous with something new.
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Quest to See the Aurora Borealis, Part 2