I was cold and tired, lying in my sleeping bag, but as hard as I tried I could not sleep with the sound of the wind buffeting against the thin canvas. I looked around the tent to make sure that the wind had not damaged the frame, but as I did so, I was surprised by several flashes of bright light that lit the tent up. I was camped on a frozen Canadian lake in February, it was minus thirty degrees Centigrade, and there were no inhabitants for at least a hundred miles in any direction, so this naturally made me feel anxious and scared. Reluctantly, I decided to pluck up the courage to get out of my sleeping bag and to go outside to find out what had caused this sudden vivid light. I was not carrying any weapons with which to defend myself, so I picked up a heavy torch, and clutched it with my cold gloved hand
I nervously unzipped the tent door, being unsure what I may find outside waiting for me, the noise of the zip seemed deafening to me, I certainly wasn't going to be catching anything by surprise! As I clumsily clambered outside in my heavy ski boots, I was pleasantly surprised, it was not as cold or as dark as I had expected it to be. The wind was only slight, and it had obviously sounded far worse from inside the tent where the thin canvas amplified the noise. Standing up and stretching out my stiff, aching back I looked around in disbelief, and couldn't believe what I saw; it was magical, just like a Hans Christian Andersen fairy story. Bright streaks of green light were lying in the night sky; hanging like giant lime green curtains, acting as though they were a window to the universe, or maybe as a portal to the gods. The unwritten local folklore suggested that the lights are ‘manifestations of spirits in the night sky’. Staring at the gorgeous sky I could understand why they believed this; it certainly felt supernatural to me.
There was a warm glow around me and I felt reassuringly close to my dad, who had only just recently passed away. I could almost hear him saying ‘What have you got yourself involved in this time?’ I wanted to continue the conversation but didn’t know how, and this made me feel sad. All my emotions felt heightened, to the point that I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Trying hard to concentrate on what I was looking at, I saw that the exquisite heavenly lights were in a fixed position in the night sky. They also appeared to be wispy and hazy, almost like the fluorescent flames flickering out of a log fire. The beautiful luminous rays flickered in radiant grandeur like a scene from an opulent eighteenth century ballroom. Staring at this ethereal dance I could see several shades of bright yellow, coppery red and even a deep purple tinge, all swirling in amongst the exquisite green gossamer twists.
Looking closer I could see that the vivid green trails of light weren’t permanent; they were shimmering and fading. They had sheen like the surface of crushed velvet drapes. This array contrasted with the black sky beautifully lit up by innumerable bright stars, the odd fast moving satellite, and was rounded off by the stunning clear sparkling crescent moon. The pristine white landscape reflected the dancing colours above our heads. I closed my eyes and felt as though I could reach out and touch the plumes of light; they seemed to be so close all around me.
I stood transfixed, enjoying the moment. My knees felt weak and I could feel goose bumps. I wanted to talk but was too emotional to speak, and every sound seemed amplified in the still night. All of my senses were excited. I had never seen the Aurora Borealis (The Northern Lights), but had read so much about them. I even bought postcards depicting them, but now they looked dynamic and so different from the photographs.
It was a very atmospheric and emotional experience and to appreciate it you had to be a part of the whole package, to be there both mentally and physically. Strangely it reminded me of scuba diving in the sea, where everything is so quiet and tranquil and all around there is bright green seaweed hanging from the water’s surface.
The Aurora Borealis is an atmospheric phenomenon which occurs when charged particles are expelled from the sun’s surface. This 'solar wind' reacts with the Earth’s oxygen and nitrogen atoms in the outer atmosphere and makes the particles glow. The Earth’s magnetic field concentrates the solar wind at the magnetic poles, in a similar way to that of iron fillings attracted to the ends of a bar magnet. This is why we see the Aurora only at extreme northern and southern latitudes.
This light show is named after the Roman goddess of dawn, ‘Aurora’, and the Greek name for the north wind, ‘Borealis’. People are prepared to travel thousands of miles to see it, but those who live near to the Polar Regions will have witnessed it from the beginning of time. Interestingly there are some North American Inuit who call the Aurora Borealis ‘aqsarniit’; they say the lights in the sky are the spirits of the dead playing football with the head of a walrus. The First Nation people of Hudson Bay have a simpler explanation; they call it ‘the spirit torches that guide the dead to the land of light that lies beyond the black shell of the sky’. The lights have been observed since ancient times, and the first recorded account was from a Babylonian clay tablet from around 568 BC.
I was lost in the moment, staring incredulously at the stunning scenery, and realised that this no longer felt like a dangerous place. It looked beautiful and appeared so peaceful, inviting and serene. Everything was so clear and bright; it no longer felt cold, harsh and unwelcome, and I was very content.