It’s that time of year when the nights grow longer and city-dwellers grit their teeth when the weather forecasters talk about the beautiful Northern Lights.
People in rural areas and even those in some fringe portions of our cities often get great views of those celestial light displays but city-dwellers like me look up and see only light pollution. Seeing the aurora is one of those things you give up when you buy a house in most urban areas.
There are many places in Alaska where you can get an incredible view of the night sky, mostly in the Arctic. That’s not to say that most Alaskans who live away from urban areas can’t see the Northern Lights. They can. But the clear, cold air of the Arctic is something else again.
A few years ago I was staying at a friend’s lodge in Kiana on the Kobuk River when someone called me outside to see the Northern Lights. I stepped onto the deck and was blown away. You could see the aurora off to the North but that wasn’t the most spectacular sight. Looking straight up you could see a vast and endless vault of brilliant white stars. It was the most spectacular view I’ve ever had of the night sky, of anything for that matter. The only thing I could compare it to was being an astronaut traveling through space but somehow still standing on Earth.
Until then I had no idea what I was missing by living in the city, where my wife and I bought a house so we could live near our offices. Living in a remote village in the Arctic is not possible for most of us — and would require a lot of sacrifices many of us are not willing to make. But knowing that Kiana and those in the rural Arctic can see the night sky helps me remember what a special place we live in and near.
There are ways to improve the nearby view and cheer things up in urban areas. One is by decorating your home or business with tiny white lights, a practice that was once endorsed by the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce and later adopted briefly by the Anchorage Downtown Partnership and the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation.
I’m not sure why the City of Lights program was abandoned. I doubt that the little lights contributed to the pollution problem. They throw very little light. Officials cite the expense and electricity consumption, but it’s difficult not to assume the reason was actually that it seems politically incorrect in today’s climate. I chaired the City of Lights program one year back around the dawn of time, and was one of its biggest fans. It pains me to see the program fade.
There are, however, many people who still put the little white lights on their homes and businesses. We do at my house and, of business buildings that light up, my favorite is the Anchorage headquarters of the Bristol Bay Native Corporation at 16th and A Streets. Each year BBNC puts up a display that resembles a school of lighted fish swimming around the building. It brings a smile every time I drive by. Here’s hoping they do it again this year.
Light pollution won’t go away and is probably an inevitable downside of civilization. Fortunately those who live in Alaska are never too far from wild country, places where the night sky is visible on a regular basis.
And if you ever get the chance to be in a remote area of the Arctic on a clear and dark night, take it and be sure to look up. You’ll never forget the experience.
Tom Brennan is an Anchorage columnist and author of five books. He was a reporter/columnist for The Anchorage Times and an editor and columnist at The Voice of The Times.