The Most Amazing Photo I Never Took

And then there was one.

Only one item on my Antarctic Wishlist remains unfulfilled. I’ve already been able to see both species of penguin that roam these parts, walk among pressure ridges, do the Polar Plunge, watch Erebus send up great puffs of smoke, be awed by nacreous clouds and harassed by skua, visit one of Scott’s historic huts and even smell the residual seal blubber smoke on a sweater left behind by an early explorer.

And last night Antarctica treated me to a breath-taking display of Aurora australis.

Fewer than a dozen of us piled into the back of a Nodwell, one of McMurdo’s many peculiar treaded vehicles that is more tank than bus. Seasoned veteran Kelli, who had volunteered to lead the expedition, drove us up the trail to Castle Rock, a mini Devil’s Tower-like volcanic plug on a ridge a few miles north of town.

Officially it was a “stargazing” trip, but we were all hoping for one thing.

Out of the warmth of the Nodwell and into the Antarctic night–which is surprisingly bright due to light reflecting off snow–I followed the others up a short, slippery incline to a saddle just below Castle Rock. I was wearing my Bunny Boots for warmth (I didn’t check the temp, but it was a cold, clear night, probably around minus 35 Fahrenheit).

Bunny boots are great for staying warm and for making an interesting fashion statement but as traction, ah, not so much.

I ended up crawling the last several feet because I was tired of falling.

All of us stretched out on the snow and volcanic rock, more comfy than it sounds, and stared up at the sky. The Southern Cross glittered, the Milky Way was a silky ribbon stretching over us and, at the distant southern horizon, a faint green glow shimmered and then faded.

I thought well, if that’s all I get to see of the Southern Lights, at least I can say I’ve seen them, more vividly than the wisp of light I saw one night at WinFly back in September.  I doubted anything could top the first time I saw the Northern Lights, flying at night over the North Atlantic en route to Iceland on a cloudless night, when the sharply-defined, vivid green curtains and ribbons of light seemed to be around me rather than merely above me.

One of the guys recited an old Alaskan gold miner’s poem  for atmosphere. We were all too bundled up for me to be certain who it was, but, despite my general attitude towards poetry, it set the mood.

Apparently, auroras like poetry more than I do.

As if on cue, as he finished, the entire southern horizon erupted in a bright green glow that shifted and waved. Auroras resembling spotlights shot upwards and then swayed like flames, or seemed to hang down above us like giant, ghostly-green icicles.  The auroras grew in intensity, long serpentine curves undulating across the sky, tight little balls of light suddenly uncoiling like a stretched spring, bolts of bright, eerie green rising from behind the dark bulk of Castle Rock, looking for all the world like the wraithlight that spirals up from Minas Morgul as the Witchking leads the orc armies through the Morgul Vale to fight the Men of the West on the Fields of Pelennor.

Yes, yet another Lord of the Rings reference. Deal with it.

(As an aside, my most recent LOTR reference before this was “The Deep Breath Before the Plunge.” The scene in which that line is uttered by Gandalf in the movie The Return of the King immediately precedes the scene mentioned above. Coincidence? I doubt it. Clearly Antarctica is an LOTR fan, too.)

I had my camera with me but never took it out. It’s a little point-and-shoot that does a fine enough job for most things but is terrible at night. Trying to capture the beauty and scale of the auroras would have been like trying to recreate Everest with an Etch-a-Sketch.

A couple other folks with much better cameras tried to take a few photos but then gave up, all of us content to stare up at the sky and just enjoy the show.

We watched the lights scamper and dance for more than an hour, transfixed. Even though I know what auroras are, scientifically speaking, I don’t think you can look up at that kind of display without feeling a primal sense of wonder and the belief that you are seeing something supernatural.

I also found it hard not to think I was witnessing some kind of Pink Floyd laser light show meets Disney’s Haunted Mansion extravaganza.

Sitting on the icy volcanic rocks above a blank and endless snowfield in the darkness, the auroras overhead, I felt once more the puny human. Antarctica can remind you of your utter insignificance in the universe in the nicest way. I think all of us felt humbled. And then we started to feel cold.

After more than 80 minutes, as the auroras faded, we slip-slid back down the slope to the Nodwell and climbed aboard, bumping back over the roughy snow track towards town.

About ten minutes into the half-hour ride, the Nodwell stopped suddenly. The driver’s cab is separated from the “people carrier” box, which has poor visibility. We looked around wondering what was up. Kelli threw open the back door and said “Get out! Get out! Look above your heads!”

We clambered out and stared upwards.

The auroras now were bright white and a pale lavender, stretching in layers across the entire sky. It was like looking up from the bottom of a waterfall.  More snaky lines of light seemed to spell something in Arabic. Others puffed like smoke from a chimney. It was beautiful.

Alas, puny humans are not immune to the cold. And we are shackled by work schedules and the need to sleep, at least occasionally. So, when the auroras faded again, we headed back to town. The display was so brilliant that many who stayed in town saw it. A few took photos and put them on our shared network. Here’s one, taken from right in the center of town, that I think gives a sense of the size of the auroras, and their intensity, but alas, like any photo I’ve ever seen of them, just can’t quite capture their otherworldly spirit.

Auroras over McMurdo Station, taken by someone with a better camera than mine

I may venture out tonight to Hut Point to see if the spinsters come out to play again… in Inuit lore, auroras are the spirits of women who never married or had children. When you think of all the possible fates eternity has to offer, that’s not a bad one. Not a bad one at all.

But whether or not I see more auroras, I feel last night’s show more than satisfied that particular item on my checklist of Antarctic “musts”.

So that leaves just one box not yet ticked. I want to experience a full-on, screaming, ferocious Con1 (Condition 1, the most severe weather rating).

Antarctica, you’ve been generous to me. All I ask now is that you throw one big hissyfit.

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One thought on “The Most Amazing Photo I Never Took

  1. Pingback: Groom with a View | Stories That Are True

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