Under the Northern Lights

For many college students, top spring break destinations include Cancun, Miami Beach, Las Vegas – essentially cities where sun is abundant, the beach is prime and bathing suits are the appropriate dress code. Traveling to Fairbanks, Alaska might round out the bottom of this list where temperatures can fluctuate between 30 degrees during the day to below zero at night, beaches are covered in ice and showing some skin would not be the best idea. However, on the morning of March 19, I hopped on a plane headed to Fairbanks, Alaska for my spring break.

Upon landing in Fairbanks, I quickly realized that I was the youngest person in my traveling group by 20 to 30 years. Now, not only was I heading in the wrong direction for spring break, but I was also hanging out with the wrong age bracket.

What would I have in common with these people? Most of their stories started with “I remember,” while my stories started with “I’m planning on.”

Van Van Matre from Wofford Heights, California, still commands the respect he gained as an Admiral in the Navy. He looked over the top of his glasses and asked me, “Wes, are you having fun? I’m a fun-checker so I’m going to ask a lot.” I replied with a stock answer, “Yes,” though I was questioning if this trip was a good decision.

Roy Adams traveled from Borrego Springs, California. He remembers graduating from USC as an engineer during the height of the space race in the 1960s. “Kennedy told us we were going to space, now we just needed to figure out how to get there, and that’s where we came in.” He then asked me what I wanted to do with a degree in literary journalism. I admitted, “I really don’t know.” His ice blue eyes met mine when he said, “Just set a goal, Wes. Kennedy told us to get to the moon. We worked to get to the moon. Set your goal. Get there.”

Cross-generational interests are few and far between. Van remembers gas costing 17 cents. I remember gas costing $1.50. Roy helped develop the first space shuttles. I hope I can one day write about humans living in space. But when it comes to the chance of seeing the aurora borealis, one of the most beautiful, yet unpredictable, events in the world, we were one in the same.

We resembled an athletic team in a locker room before a major game, except our uniforms consisted of parkas, snow pants and gloves; our equipment did not consist of shin guards, hockey sticks or pads, but tripods, cameras and batteries instead. Yet, everyone still said a silent prayer – not for a win, but for the Northern Lights to ignite.

Then we waited.

The Geophysical Institute based in the University of Alaska, Fairbanks runs a website that predicts the aurora activity level on a scale of 0-9, from minimum to maximum respectively, factoring in sunspot activity and atmospheric conditions. The university gave the night of March 22 a 2, or low activity.

While sitting at the long tables within the warmth of the Activity Room of Chena Hot Springs Resort, we ensured that our cameras were securely fastened atop our tripods and confirmed that our exposure, shutter speeds and apertures were set correctly. Then Van entered the room slowly and calmly said, “Lights on.”

We clambered out of the room like soldiers called to duty, armed with tripods rather than rifles.

The runway is silent. Jaws drop. Knees weaken. Tears fall and freeze to cheeks. Emerging over the ridge, the soft green lights appear and transform from forest greens to electric greens. Still, no one speaks. The body goes numb, not because of the -2 degree weather, but because the mind is processing a sight that few have the opportunity to see in person. The lights form curtains that wave across the ridge of the mountain before us. Then form a blue green ripple as though the night sky was actually the surface of a lake after a rock had been thrown in it. A whispered “wow” breaks the silence.

If Van had asked me again if I was having fun, I would have said “yes,” but with confidence, even if the Northern Lights had not appeared. Though the travelers I met may have been beyond my years, their impact on me will last even longer. As Van and Roy retire from the working world and I attempt to enter it, the stories they told, the advice they gave and the laughs we shared will all be taken to heart. I knew seeing the Northern Lights would be unpredictable, but I didn’t know I could have an unforgettable experience with people more than twice my age. Differences in age and interests were insignificant once those magnificent lights danced across the sky.