Columns of Light

The Aurora Borealis lights up the night sky over Minnesota on October 1, 2013. Photo courtesy of Scott Canfield.
The Aurora Borealis lights up the night sky over Minnesota on October 1, 2013.
Photo courtesy of Scott Canfield.

A whisper in the dark: “Do you think that’s it?”

After driving an hour north on Tuesday night, I pulled over on a dirt road in rural Minnesota and got out of my sedan. Matt, who came with me for the ride, followed me to a clearing in front of the car, where the pitch-black night opened up to a million stars.

It was 11 p.m., and our spontaneous pursuit of the Northern Lights landed us on a tree-speckled hilltop near the St. Croix River.

A band of faint green light formed an arch to the north. Hearing nothing but the chirp of crickets and the call of an owl, we walked slowly toward the light. Our view opened up beside a scraggly old tree, and there, we stood still.

As if the Aurora had called out to us, urging us to meet it at a specific time and place, the lights chose that very moment to launch into an awe-inspiring show.

It began with a subtle arc bending over the northern sky. Gradually, the green arc began to move, forming columns of light to the left and to the right. Then the columns expanded, and in a matter of minutes, the lights bounced into the air above us. Before our eyes, each shade of green grew brighter, and the columns blushed into a rouge color.

As we stood there watching, the Aurora Borealis gained strength. Within 10 minutes, it climbed to the center of the night sky, where it could be seen directly overhead. That’s a rare occurrence for Central Minnesota, or any locale near the 55th parallel, but Matt and I were lucky enough to witness the majesty that night. The Aurora even climbed through the center of our beloved Milky Way.

Being the nature-lover that I am, I had a tent and two lawn chairs stowed in the trunk of my car. We were so astonished by the Northern Lights, we set up the chairs and cuddled up together under a warm blanket. Without even noticing the time pass, we watched the show until nearly 2 a.m.

It looked incredible! It was truly inspiring to see such an elusive natural phenomenon in action.

For the first time
This beautiful display of the Northern Lights touched much of the northern tier of the U.S. from the night of October 1st to the morning of October 2nd. It could be seen in Colorado, Montana, Ohio and even Missouri. It was one of the brightest displays of the season so far, and it also happened to be my first Aurora Sighting ever!

Those of you that know me know I am no scientist. I just barely made it out of Mr. Watt’s high school chemistry class, let alone any college science courses. And I chose my alma mater, in part, for its measly math requirement. For the last year, however, I have made it my mission to understand the science behind the Aurora and the space weather that leads to such stunning arrays of color on Earth.

Over the last year, I’ve read books on outer space, watched documentaries about the sun and worked to decipher graphs relating to the magnetospheres of both the sun and the Earth.

The Northern Lights make up a phenomenon that is extremely difficult to predict. The lights originate in solar flares and other plasma flows from the sun that are not always directed toward the Earth. On top of that, they rarely dip below the 55th Parallel, and rarer still below the 45th. Often, the Aurora aren’t even visible to the unaided eye.

While studying the subject, I also soaked up every tip I could glean from the Great Lakes Aurora Hunters, an online group of like-minded Aurora enthusiasts that share their passion — as well as their individual predictions. GLAH for short, this group was immensely helpful in getting me to my first successful sighting.

Now, my score for Aurora Sightings is 1:5. Early on in my search, I learned the devastating effects of light pollution the hard way, on both sides of the Twin Cities. Later, I accidentally slept through the famous St. Patrick’s Day show, despite my ideal location on Minnesota’s beautiful North Shore.

I’m thankful, too, that I was able to share my first sighting with the man I love the most in this world.

An emotional encounter
I first learned that the Aurora could be seen from Minnesota after a powerful display around the world was reported on April 24, 2012, a year to the day after my twin brothers died. That’s when I realized that I, myself, could see the Aurora Borealis if I was patient enough to find it.

In Eskimo folklore, the Northern Lights were said to be the spirits of our loved ones coming down to Earth to make sure we were okay. In one legend, the spirits were said to be those of children.

With respect to legend, my journey to see the Aurora Borealis has also become a spiritual one.

I have kept my love for my late 13-year-old brothers close by me throughout my search, through writing, reflection, and learning to be patient again. I have yearned to see the Aurora dance actively across the sky, and to see this world transformed into ethereal color.

Finally, I saw the Aurora!

On October 1st, following a youthful whim and a flurry of digital alerts, I journeyed out in pursuit of the Aurora Borealis. And I saw the Aurora dance!

The energy, beauty and mystery of the Aurora were a comfort to me. I thought of it like this:
Even when we lose a child, a child’s love never dies.


3 thoughts on “Columns of Light

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