Kesugi Ridge and the Northern Lights

It has been a month since 2016 "magic week" and my trip on Kesugi Ridge. I wrote this post right after my trip, but have been waiting to share it until I got my film back from the lab. I am currently en route through Canada, getting close to my winter home in Montana. With two thousand miles and four weeks between myself and this trip, I am still reeling from the magic of it all.

 

    Anybody who has lived in the mountains knows: sometimes they’re there, and sometimes they’re not. This seems to be particularly true of the Alaska Range. One day you’re treated with the most brilliant and blinding views of great white peaks before a vibrant blue backdrop, and the next day you can hardly tell that mountains even exist in the vicinity. I think that the more time one has spent in Alaska, the more appreciative one becomes of those spellbinding bluebird stretches. In the spring, bluebird days are cool and crisp and whisper softly through the leaves of the budding trees, little promises of the magic that will come over the next few months. At the summer solstice, they treat you to endless hours of golden-hued ridges set against flaming pink skies. In the fall, they kiss your cheeks with the last bits of summer warmth, and they tease you with the possibility of ghostly lights dancing in the night sky. 

    After a particularly wet summer, a fall bluebird spell was naturally welcomed by all in Denali. To me, it was like a drug: I couldn't get enough of the weather, the sun, or the sky. I got to spend a spontaneous and incredibly perfect evening running around the tundra in Hatcher Pass with Matthew Junior. The next day, a sunset bike ride on the Denali Park Road offered alpenglow views of Denali and Mount Deborah, soft pink skies, and a velvety-red tundra. As dusk crept in, a willow Ptarmigan flushed and flew right alongside me, matching my pace and laughing loudly in my ear. Barely an hour later, the northern lights graced us with their presence; my first viewing of the season. They began their dance above my cabin before the sun had even finished setting. 

 A perfect sunset on two wheels. 

A perfect sunset on two wheels. 

 The early show: northern lights from my backyard, shot on 35mm.

The early show: northern lights from my backyard, shot on 35mm.

    Since 2010, I’ve had a motto for September in Alaska: say “no” to nothing. If I’m tired, if I’m injured, if I’m hungover or in a bad mood, it doesn’t matter. These are the last days, the most brilliant days, as summer quickly fades and my time in Denali comes temporarily to an end. So after my few spontaneously perfect days, I went ahead and planned a few more. I was able to squeeze in a late-night tundra romp/hike after work with my friend Michael. From beds of lichen we watch the stars fade from focus as bands of green began to appear above black ridgelines for the second night in a row. It was a late night, but the next day, I packed up my pack and Matthew Junior, and headed for the Denali State Park.

    I’ve always known of the Kesugi Ridge hike, but for some reason, it never really interested me. I suppose it sounded too “easy”: a popular, on-trail hike isn’t typically my idea of a good time in Alaska. But with this weather window, I knew the views of Denali couldn’t be beat. A little over an hour’s drive got me to Byers Lake, and a quick hitchhike dropped me and MJ off at the Ermine Hill trailhead. The hike turned out to be more perfect and more magical than I could have hoped. The fall foliage in the state park is far more vibrant than what we’ve been seeing a few degrees further north. The walking was pleasantly strenuous, and the weather could not have been nicer. And, surprisingly, I never saw another soul between the Ermine Hill Trail Junction and the Cascade Trail Junction. I had, on a perfect bluebird Friday, Kesugi Ridge entirely to myself. 

    I’m glad that I had very little idea of what I was getting into with this hike. I knew to expect about 20 miles from trailhead to car, and I had a topo map of the area, but I had not realized how much elevation gain and loss was involved, nor did I expect how spectacular the ridge itself would be. The drainages were filled with autumn-tinged ferns and golden birch trees, while the tundra wore a thick blanket of red as the blueberry bushes and dwarf birch pulled their chlorophyll in preparation for winter. Having gotten a late start, I made a very quick pace for the first five miles, but as I began my second climb back up to the ridge from a drainage, I began to take a little more time to shoot photos and appreciate my surroundings. The wide ridge was dotted with tarns and alpine lakes, and the trail wove back and forth, climbing through spongey tundra and huge, granite boulders. Matthew Jr.’s energy and enthusiasm were contagious as always, and plentiful blueberries provided trail fuel without the need to stop to dig snacks out of my pack. I was determined to camp at the highest spot along the trail, so that I would have the best views of Denali and the night sky. My legs were a bit tired after eight fast-paced miles of repeated climbing and descending, but I knew that there was magic to be had after the final thousand foot climb to the summit of Golog.

 Matthew Jr and Denali in the late afternoon sun. 

Matthew Jr and Denali in the late afternoon sun. 

    I slowed my pace for the final climb, appreciating the silence and the views and the soft breeze that gently blew my hair back and kept me from overheating. I couldn’t stop thinking about that breeze: it felt like a kiss. Alaska always finds ways to speak to me--or maybe I always find a way to personify Alaska--but as I climbed this hill, I had a sense of finality. This was a goodbye of sorts. Six years ago, I would have told you that this was Alaska telling me to stay. But this year, I read a soft, lingering kiss goodbye. I wasn’t sad, though. My heart swelled at the sweetness of the moment: the smell of warm, dry tundra, the sultriest breeze, and the low-angle sun still warming my bare arms and legs. A proper hug and kiss from the land that I love. 

    I summited Golog and nearly lost my breath. The sun was making its way at a rapid diagonal towards Denali and the Alaska Range. Visibility was entirely unimpeded, and I could see in every direction. My view stretched way back into the Talkeetna Mountains at Hatcher Pass and all the way south to the Neacola Mountains of Lake Clark National Park. I snapped a few photos, made a quick camp above a glassy alpine lake, and walked back towards the summit to eat dinner and watch the sun disappear behind the tallest peak in North America. To say that the sky was on fire would be an understatement. It was ablaze with every pigment available in a pastel-neon rainbow, and wisps of clouds emanated from the range in gentle explosions of color. I sat in silence, and for once I wasn’t sad for lack of company with which to experience the beauty. For once, this was all just for me, and I didn’t really want to share it. Another intimate moment with my terrestrial home. 

 Looking north from near the summit of Golog. My tent illuminated on the ridge to the right. 

Looking north from near the summit of Golog. My tent illuminated on the ridge to the right. 

 Denali sunset from my dinner spot.

Denali sunset from my dinner spot.

    After sunset, I decided to close my eyes for an hour before looking for the northern lights. When I awoke, gentle bands of green were starting to streak into the deep blue of the darkening sky. I grabbed my camera and got ready for the show. What happened next is a story that I do not have the words to tell, but I still want to try. The northern lights are... a force? A presence? A being? Perhaps they are all three, and what kind of show you will get depends on what kind of mood they are in. Friday night’s show started gentle, beautiful. A long band of green stretched from behind the Alaska range and over my camp, dancing modestly over the lingering pinks of the setting sun. The band slowly intensified, and looped around behind the summit of Golog, lingering for a while before slowly shrinking back towards the north. Fully pleased with this exhibit of light and color, I returned to the tent with Matthew Jr, who doesn't care for northern lights, or for being out of the tent when the temperature is below 40 degrees. But right as I sat down and slipped off my shoes, that fading green turned to white and the darkness became bright. “They’re coming back!” I shouted to nobody in particular as I zipped Matthew in the tent and ran back to the tundra. I quickly set my camera up towards Denali and shot just an image or two before I abandoned it completely. The lights became a being. They commanded my full attention, and quiet, cursing exclamations escaped my lips. The curtain morphed, and intense beams of brightness shot down, bellowing “Dance with us!” So I did. And then I stood still, and I reached my hand to the sky, absolutely certain that the streaks of light were reaching down to me, too. They continued off endlessly into the southeast, spiraling and swirling over me and over the summit of Golog. I didn’t have the ability or the discipline to capture the beams on camera, but it was a sight and a feeling that I will never forget. That ghostly movement, and the intense brightness--I could see every detail of the tundra around me. I could have read a book by the light from above. The energy emitted from the swirling particles made my heart leap in my chest as I ran aimlessly around with my jaw dropped open, still cursing in amazement every now and then.  As the lights shrunk back a little, I retrieved my camera and shot a bit more. The show was markedly more calm, but the most vibrant bits of pink and purple I’ve ever seen in the aurora remained for a while. Though I know it to be false, in those moments, it was as though the lights were just for me. No other beings existed in the world apart from me, the earth, and the sky. 

 The sky was so brightly lit that I could see the details of all of the lichen covering the ground. Denali was illuminated, as clear as in broad daylight. This photo doesn't even do the show justice: as you can see, the brightest/most active part was right over head, and behind me, to the south.  I did not carry my full-manual film camera with me on Kesugi Ridge, due to weight restrictions. This image is digital, and a bit weirdly exposed, but gives you an idea of the pure magic I experienced. 

The sky was so brightly lit that I could see the details of all of the lichen covering the ground. Denali was illuminated, as clear as in broad daylight. This photo doesn't even do the show justice: as you can see, the brightest/most active part was right over head, and behind me, to the south.  I did not carry my full-manual film camera with me on Kesugi Ridge, due to weight restrictions. This image is digital, and a bit weirdly exposed, but gives you an idea of the pure magic I experienced. 

    After a bit, the sky was dark again, and everything had mostly returned to normal. Though a small bit of green remained, I headed for my tent in order to get some much needed sleep. But sleeping under the northern lights is like sleeping next to a person you are falling in love with. You’re giddy with the excitement of their presence. You can’t risk falling asleep, in case they move or shift and you’re awarded another opportunity to talk or to touch. I lay in my sleeping bag, shivering under the night sky and watching lights until my eyes could no longer remain open. Nearly ten more miles of trail awaited me the next day, and I would need at least a tiny bit of energy to carry myself and my pack through the warm, red land of tarns, with Denali smiling down on me. 

 

 Goodbye, Denali. Kesugi Ridge morning. 

Goodbye, Denali. Kesugi Ridge morning.