chasing the northern lights

The yellow sliver of the moon pushes itself up over the mountains, tired and briefly. It's almost morning, the stars are already dimming, and I've missed the northern lights again.

The yellow sliver of the moon pushes itself up over the mountains, tired and briefly. It’s almost morning, the stars are already dimming, and I’ve missed the northern lights again. What’s new? I make another cup of coffee and stare out the window glumly, at darkness smudging to grey.

This is becoming quite embarrassing. Rave reviews and glowing pictures about the latest show of lights keep pouring in from emails, the radio and assorted websites, a constant reminder that I’m out of sync. After all, watching the aurora goes with being a northerner like log cabins, insulated gumboots, wood heat and moose meat. What’s even worse, I couldn’t ask for more perfect conditions: the aurora cycle is at its most productive, there is no light pollution spilling up into the sky except for the moon, and I don’t have to get up early because I have no job to go to.

I could stay up all night, every night, nice and cozy in the cabin and make hourly forays outside to scan the sky – admire the lights, think and write about them, snap breathtaking pictures like everybody else out there. Wear my viewing experience like a badge. Stun southerners with another tale of the Great White North. Brag.

But it just hasn’t happened, unless I count the two occasions of spotting whitish, fog-like veils that might as well have been high clouds. It was hard to see with my eyelids weighing five pounds each and fighting gravity. And with the hours of darkness rapidly funnelling down to the Southern Hemisphere, my chances of still scoring bragging rights are disappearing just as fast.

Mind you, I’ve tried hard, despite being nocturnally challenged. Having never been a night owl to begin with, I’m only getting more comatose as old age and 10 p.m. approach. By the time I’m 80, I’ll probably be in bed by five and up at two. Which might not be a bad schedule for watching the northern lights, come to think of it.

But for now, I’ve tried staying up. In this age of information, even a backwoods hermit can switch on her satellite Internet modem and check the aurora forecast – it’s not a matter of taking your chances anymore. There are statistics, all sorts of measurements tapping into the atmosphere and providing me with a schedule. Easy to pick a night to stay up late. Unfortunately, my animated discussions with Sam never fail to falter into a mutual exchange of grunts by 11 p.m. at the latest, to be concluded with a mumbled “gotta go sleep now” and a stumble of feet towards the bed.

I fell back on drinking coffee at night, but to no avail. The jittery wakefulness bought me an extra half an hour and animated dreams, but nothing else. So I switched to drinking tea, lots of it, trusting that the time-honoured bladder alarm would tear me from sleep and propel me outside when night is at its darkest and the aurora at its brightest. Not so. Instead, I’ve developed an uncanny ability to hold extraordinary amounts of pee until the early morning.

As a last-ditch effort, I guess I could resort to setting my alarm clock. But I know myself too well. Unless it were wired to the solar flares hitting the atmosphere and the cloud cover, providing a 100 per cent guarantee of the viewing experience, I’d just turn the beeping thing off without opening an eye. Once I sleep, only hell or high water can raise me.

It’s too bad our phone is via satellite and battery, otherwise somebody out there could take pity and call us. But we can’t leave the phone on night after night and drain the batteries. It is, however, the solution I’d recommend to similarly afflicted people out there, if there are any, is get your friends to give you a call when the lights are at their brightest.

So this is where I find myself, stuck in aurora-less limbo. I console myself with memories of northern lights past and the unique situation I find myself in. Why be one of the crowd?

It is being left out that lets my experience stand apart. After all, anybody can watch the lights at their peak. It takes real talent not to.

Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.

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