Updated: Jun 23, 2020
Last night, the phone rang in our room in Alaska's Denali National Park at 1:10 am. It was the hotel calling to say the Northern Lights were visible. We fumbled around, coming from deep sleep, Jean emerging from the apex of a dream, me asking my brain to work and find my jeans, gloves, shoes, hat. Camera. Warm socks. What else? Get out the door!
Outside, thirty or so people had moved much more quickly than us. I looked up at the sky and gulped. A green-blue-reddish glow lit up the sky in a streak. It plumed up like pictures we see of the deep cosmos. Still, “lit up” is perhaps not the right word. Don’t picture fireworks. The night sky was glowing from within. The jeweled-tone green in particular, created by a mixture of dust and gases and solar flares, was other-worldly. I touched my cheek in a physical gesture: I am here, I am myself, I am seeing this.
A Japanese man beside us with a tripod and big time-lapse camera, we learned later, was a semi-professional photographer traveling in Alaska to take photographs for a contest. The photographer did not speak English; but a few times he tapped me on the shoulder, grunted some Japanese, and showed me photographs from earlier that night. Breathtaking. Stunning. Clearly we had missed some spectacular lights in the moments in took us to get outside. I told the woman I was sure he’d win the contest. She said something to him in Japanese. The man, small, gray-bearded, with a wool cap and wiry frame, shrugged and then grinned. I gave a thumbs up, pointed to his camera and bowed. He grinned shyly again.
Our shuttle driver told me this morning that he’d slept half-dressed so that he could hop up quickly to see the lights. This would not have occurred to me to do. I could not really believe that it would happen. Yes, we had asked the hotel for a wake up call if the lights came out, yes a ranger at the Park said she’d seen them several times recently, yes the night had turned clear as we fell asleep. We’d even said to each other that there might be a good chance. Still. We had already had much good luck; one does not want to count on it. Earlier we’d spent the day on a safari-like adventure in tundra wilderness, where silty-gray arctic rivers stream through orange and golden brush. We were brought close to Mt. Denali, the Great One itself. Once again we had views: brilliant, heart-scratching, soul-bruising views.
It’s said that when white men talked to the native people for their advice about climbing Denali, they scratched their heads, pointed to a ridge that did indeed turn out to be the best route, and said, Good luck to you. They themselves had no interest in climbing the Great One. There was no game up there, no reason to make that big haul upwards. Besides, it was a sacred place, best to leave it to itself. Apparently they had no objection to the white men climbing the mountain. Still, it was a white man telling us these stories. Though the man spoke with respect, I cannot know the truth.
Perhaps my happiest moment out in the tundra was seeing a golden-brown grizzly bear mother with her two cubs. They were far away, foraging in the hills. But through my binoculars I could see them. There was something about the absolute privilege of this, to see the great bear mother there, unconcerned with us, in the wide open landscape of her world. Moving slow and easy, her center of gravity close to the earth, eating the land. The small ones roamed a bit far from her; yet one could tell that they were all in energetic contact with each other. A triad, a triangle, sacred in its form. The mother was so blond as to reflect the sun. The cubs were not so small; they were fat and, I imagined, expert at picking berries in the brush. Preparing to curl up soon in a nest and hibernate; their entire systems slowing down during the long winter of deep and constant snow
Here at Denali in September is constant color: golden aspen and birch leaves, bright red fireweed, black crowberries, wild lilac and lilies and the endless array of plant life. I can hardly believe that all of this, and soon, will be covered with snow. The days have been fluffy clouds open wide in impossibly blue skies. It was too much to hope for; we’d planned on rain, as there’d been a wet summer this year. Being frequent travelers to Ireland, we were quite prepared to enjoy it all anyway. But there has been a respite, day by day, so far.
Beside me at Denali Visitor's Center, a small reddish Arctic ground squirrel hops onto a nearby table. Someone has left a metal napkin container outside, and the squirrel jumps up, expertly claws a napkin out of the box, and uses her small, exquisite hands to wrap it in a bundle–which she holds in her mouth. She jumps down and skitters away. She must be making a nest, I think. Preparing for Winter. People at the various tables point and call out. She runs across the outdoor patio, past many human legs, under a back fence. I follow her but can’t squeeze myself under the locked gate as she can. Still, she shows back up at the table to snag more napkins, following the whole routine four or five times, back and forth. The Japanese photographer from last night spies her. He is as wily as her, follows her with his wide camera, crawls under tables and tracks her atop railings. He calls to her, asking her to pose, to stop. His camera clicks constantly.
Squirrels have lived on this earth for 30 million years. They are the true indigenous creatures of the land, and, we are told, they keep the Arctic itself alive. Everyone depends upon squirrels for food: golden eagles, bears, foxes, lynx, falcons, hawks, wolverines. Like the bees and songbirds who pollinate our world and keep the plant life of the earth growing, small creatures like the ground squirrel keep the hunting mammals of the earth alive. Always on the verge of being eaten, they are careful, skitterish animals. They are known to call out warnings to each other. Many survive for years, living several full cycles of life, building nests, bearing young. Watching this creature get materials for her nest, she is so human-like, or should I say so intelligent and ensouled, it is impossible not to sit back, to sit in her lively and determined presence, and admire.
I have wanted to see the Northern Lights all my life. Last night, the woman next to me under the lights said that she’d read about the high level of solar activity this morning, and, voila, she and her daughter had made the six hour drive from Anchorage to Denali. It was solemn, breathtaking, sacred to her. Wrapped in gloves, coats and multiple layers, we all watched the black sky became a living emerald jewel. It pulsed; it breathed; it clearly lived. I closed my eyes. No camera, no binoculars. Just rest your eyes in darkness for a moment and open them, eyes and heart, to the unreasonable splendor of our world.
In the opposite direction, almost impossibly, the round white moon glowed bright and clear. When we walked inside two hours later a thin layer of clouds bracketed the orb and reflected rainbow hues. Again, the sense of being drunk with beauty and outsized majesty. The cosmos showing us in a thousand ways its own glory. Our corner of the cosmos, the Earth, glittering, glittering, alive and pulsing. My small self alive within it all.
Photographs by the author, Mt. Denali, September 2014.