Princess Leia sticks her head in the clouds in search of the Northern Lights
I began receiving solar-flare alerts from spaceweather.com about seven or eight years ago. The website might call our attention to, say, an upcoming eclipse, ranging anywhere from solar to lunar to partial to full. Or it might forecast an incoming meteor shower visible largely in the western hemisphere.For many years, I undertook any and all travel for a predicted sighting of the Northern Lights that I could – time and funds permitting.
I do know what you’re thinking but, no, I didn’t become interested in sub-atmospheric weather so that I could cavalierly slip such phrases into conversation or because of my long ago, albeit protracted, affiliation with science fiction – unless it was of an obvious, oblivious sort. Perhaps it grew out of my fondness for sunsets, shooting stars, or good old Erik Satie.
I know that once, many years ago, soon after Roosevelt dominated the American scene, I was on a plane flying west when the pilot pointed out something that could be seen from the windows on the left. It appeared to me to be something along the lines of a sunrise in drag, and I don’t recall being particularly impressed. (Given my dodgy memory of late, I’m amazed I recall anything about it at all.) But to have had the opportunity to have seen the aurora borealis and then essentially missing it – well, my embattled indignation knew no bounds. And while these events are unquestionably compelling in their own way, none has managed to hold my attention with anywhere near the same goofy intensity as news of a solar flare. But what about those solar eruptions that are mistaken for refuelling UFOs? Or those auroras seen on Uranus that were captured by the Hubble telescope for the first time? I agree. Those, in their way, capture the imagination, wrestle it to the ground and dress it in a luminescent chiffon negligee – but would that negligee glow with the quiet dazzle that accompanies fire opals just digested by enormous angelfish? I don’t think so.
So, when I received the alert concerning a solar storm that had erupted on the sun’s surface one Thursday in late April, I knew that this storm would likely – but never certainly – light up the northern latitude skies just south of the Arctic Circle, in two days hence.
Knowing that, did I hesitate, having had several close calls but ultimately missing those lights over the years in Scotland, Iceland and Sweden? Absolutely. I hesitated for just that moment, and then proceeded to attempt to book any available flights to Alaska, the place that would require the least amount of travel to see the aurora the following day. Two days hence, I might finally see the heavens lift up her dark skirts and flash her dazzling privates across my unworthy irises.
Though Alaska was unavailable for entry on the following day, my friend Byron and I managed to scramble our way across the second-nearest location, Canada, with its cheerful, stern borders to that intermittently mysterious land beyond. We flew from Los Angeles to Edmonton on Friday afternoon, where we were due to connect to the town of Yellowknife – population approaching 20,000 – some 500 miles south of the Arctic Circle.
“I might finally see the heavens lift up her dark skirts and flash her dazzling privates across my unworthy irises”
Instead, we remained overnight in that snowy capital of Alberta so we could see a bit of it before moving on to our end game. We could stay overnight in Edmonton and go to the biggest mall outside of Dubai. We could tell people that we were there to see the corpse flower from Sumatra that bloomed for one day once a year, stinking like rotting cattle flesh so it might attract the optimum number of bugs to last it until that one day again the following year. We could pretend we were going to see the local Edmonton topiary to anyone who asked (no one asked) and then go to the second-biggest mall in the world and the local antique mall. And just so you know, we managed to actually see both the mall and the not-blooming corpse flower. We snapped a few phone pictures of ourselves at the Muttart Conservatory, went shopping, and then got to our flight in time to fly to Yellowknife the following afternoon. Byron and I finally found ourselves pacing on the surface of an ice-covered, snow-littered lake at 11:30pm, just outside of the light-polluted skies of bustling downtown Yellowknife, waiting for the sun to completely set so that we might see any and all incoming auroras. Joe, our Northern Territory guide, took the two of us, plus four more pleasant folk including a gynaecologist, about an hour outside Yellowknife, where we sat in Joe’s insufficiently heated Ford Explorer. Anything would be insufficiently heated in the face of -9 degrees – but fuck it, there we all were, waiting for the stars to shut their shiny eyes so we might better see a swirling streak of icy smoke, spiralling up from some unseen fire glowing there beneath the horizon. Yes, we froze there for about two-and-a-half hours, savouring each sip our thirsty eyes might swallow.
I would tell you more but I don’t really have the time! So, in closing, I beg your forgiveness, sing your praises, look for you in other people’s faces, and hope auroras run through your veins until you feel you belong, find your place so close to right that it manages to overlook wrong. I wish you every happiness but one… the messy one that manages to show you in its absence how great a present the joys that are visited upon us actually turn out to be.
Photograph Michael S Nolan
Age Fotostock / Corbis
Carrie is an actress and writer