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Postcard from Alaska: The Dream of an Arctic Winter August 25, 2015

Posted by Editor21C in Social Ecology.
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from Carol Birrell

Have you ever had a dream of doing something in your life so so special that you can hardly imagine it? We ask young children, ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ In classrooms, we explore imagination, through reflecting on dreaming the future. We smile at those grandiose plans, and reflect on our own lives where many of those dreams were shattered.

I was recently in Alaska, on a very small island in the south-east of the state, as part of a month long Writers’ Fellowship through The Island Institute. For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to come to Alaska- in winter! Many think I am crazy, but trained as a geographer, landscapes vastly different from our own have always fascinated me. But most of all, I have harboured this desire to see the Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights, as they are more commonly known.

Twenty years ago I bought a book on the Aurora, hoping and wishing that one day I would get to see it. Of course, there is a snag here. Even if you do make it to Alaska, there is no guarantee that you will see the Lights. First of all, it depends on the sunspot activity of the sun, producing streams of charged particles hurtling towards earth at a great pace, and this happens in 11 year cycles, with a peak at about 5 years. 2014 was the peak. Ok so cross that one off the list. Next is the weather itself. Clear skies, no wind, and that usually means temperatures below freezing. And where do you find that? Best chance is inside the Arctic Circle with temps at this time of year down to minus 60F. Now the exact translation of that extreme temp to Celsius is beyond me, but I do know that at about minus 40 both F and C scales converge. I am no scientist, but I can tell you that it is some of the most extreme cold on the planet. What is the coldest I experienced? Maybe minus 1C, hardly in the same category.

Next box to cross off? Even when those conditions have been met, you never know what time the Aurora will turn up, if at all. It is more likely in the wee small hours of the morning, like 1 or 2am, when the temp has dropped even further. A 15-20 min stint is all our human body can take at that temp. Eyeballs can freeze then, so you have to constantly blink, and whatever you do, don’t cry! You cannot breathe in that cold air, or ice could freeze not only the back of your throat, your nasal passages, but also your lungs.

The place I chose to stay was a hop in a plane over the Arctic Circle at a little village called Bettles, occupants 14 in winter, swelling to 30 in summer. No roads in or out. Sometimes it is too cold for planes to fly as the fuel freezes, or the engine freezes, or everything freezes. We were doing well to get in and out of Bettles in a small 6 seater. This is the only way food and provisions get to small places like this in winter. Imagine the costs! Naturally, not much in the way of greens provided but we had hearty bowls of moose and reindeer sausages.

Now, even if the Aurora does show, it may be a weak night of only one colour (mostly green), or it is rather a still show- more like bands of green light that are stationary across those starry night clear skies…

All this is to say, it is quite a palaver to get to see the Northern Lights.

Besides being a Geographer, I have a commitment to experience based learning. In most of my classes at university, I take advantage whenever I can, of introducing experiential learning. There is no substitute. You can ply me with all the apps in the world that simulate all the things that we cannot directly experience, but I know that the direct encounter leaves the most profound imprint. It is learning par excellence.

And there is no comparison between reading about the Aurora Borealis (or seeing youtubes of it) and experiencing it. Sometimes those experiences do not have words, cannot so easily be translated into language that others can comprehend. But they exist, nonetheless, and you know it has changed you, in the deepest way possible.

So I cannot, and would not, try to describe the actual experience to you of being present with the Aurora Borealis on a night so clear and burning that all my hair, eyebrows, eyelashes, became frozen solid. Rather, I want to encourage you to hold on to your own dreams, and chase them, encourage our children and young (and older) students in our classes to seek out their dreams first hand, rather than vicariously, through others. And never, never lose hope.

 

Dr Carol Birrell is a former lecturer and social ecologist in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. She has written several other posts for this blog.

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