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Wonders of the Glorious Night

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Awakened in the middle of the night, I get out of bed and stumble, blurry-eyed, to a large picture window. Hours earlier the sky had been dark and clear, filled with sparkling stars and the faintest trace of northern lights.

Now, just above the dark hills, a pale, green, luminous band arches gently across the Alaska sky like a flattened rainbow. The arc seems to be flickering, but I'm not sure, at first, if it's the aurora borealis or my eyes. I rub them and watch more intently. Now there's no question: The band is slowly wavering. This goes on for five or 10 minutes.

Then the aurora explodes and fills the whole western sky. Bright green curtains of northern lights, tinged pink along their edges, ripple wildly above the hills.

I've seen northern lights many times before, but I'm shocked by the deep, flashing brilliance of these.

The bright curtains abruptly vanish, leaving as suddenly and mysteriously as they appeared, but faint patches and bands remain. Paler than the original green arc, they nearly disappear, then grow more intense. Now they are shimmering and jumping around the sky. I try to put words to what I'm seeing to make it more comprehensible.

The lights shimmer, flicker, pulsate. They ripple, explode, undulate. At times they are the embers of a heavenly fire, flickering on and off. At other times they are flames, leaping across the sky. There are moments when they remind me of exploding fireworks. An electric arc. Cannon fire. Or psychedelic lights, of the kind used in discos.

Now they are rippling waves that appear at the horizon and move upward across an oceanic sky. They are the shimmer of sunlight on a river or a lightly rippled lake. These northern lights captivate me in a way that few others have. I lose track of time. How long have I watched? An hour? Two?

I recently finished John Muir's "Travels in Alaska," which includes a chapter on the aurora. Never one to avoid discomfort - or an adventure - Muir in 1890 witnessed an unusually dramatic aurora borealis display in Southeast Alaska: "Losing all thought of sleep," he wrote, "I ran back to my cabin, carried out blankets, and lay down on the [glacial] moraine to keep watch until daybreak, that none of the sky wonders of the glorious night within reach of my eyes might be lost."

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