Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Living Off-Grid with Dark Alaska Nights

One of the pleasures of living far from the ambient light of a city's glow, with its sharp illumination of street lights and commercial signage, is seeing the sharp distinction of natural dark and light. Mountains and forests block the sky so their edges outline a gorgeous sprinkling of stars, and sometimes, satellites and auroras.

Here, in our remote corner of Alaska, we are encircled by mountains, hills, and forests which serve to lengthen the long winter nights.

Moon setting, 8 am, February
One of my most startling realizations upon moving here was the basic observation of when and where the sun rises and sets! (visit As a Southern city person, I took that predictable east-west arc for granted. Obviously, though, the closer one lives to the equator, the more constant is the trajectory of the sun, year round. Up here, at Latitude 61, the winter and summer suns are like two, totally different seasonal visitors. The winter sun traverses only about 1/3 of the sky, from south to west for 4-8 hours of daylight before dropping precipitously behind a 4500 foot mountain. In summer, the sun ambles around ¾ of the sky, from east to north west, over the course of a 20 hour day. Because of the earth's tilt, beautiful sunrises and sunsets last much longer than in lower latitudes. This time
Sunset, 4:45 pm, February
of year, as I sip a steamy mug of coffee, I peer through the windows to see the colorful striations from about 8 to 9:30 am. In the afternoons, we plan early dinners to take advantage of the lovely light between 4:30 and 6. Surely this is the pink light that Sydney Lawrence captures in his astonishing “portraits” of Denali.

Because of the long winter nights, we generate less solar power than in summer months. Rather than rely on the generator for additional power, we make our peace with the darkness. Other than sticking a hand in the knife drawer, it is fairly easy to function in absolute
darkness or flickering light if your home is orderly. For example, in pitch dark, I can negotiate the steps to my dresser, the chamber pot, and avoid the laundry line that divides the room (so we do not garotte ourselves at midnight). When the moon is full, it peeks in the windows like a surreptitious visitor, casting both light and shadow to ease the way. Each morning, after I awaken enough to venture downstairs, I reach my hand to the match case nailed to the window sill, light the gas stove, and by that dim light move the cold brewed coffee pot onto a welcoming flame while I wash my face and teeth. Really, who wants bright light first thing in the morning? Mid-afternoon, I ignite the propane light to illuminate the kitchen corner. Like some “Miner '49er,” my husband wears a headlamp draped over his neck all winter, for projects both inside and out. Our dinner and breakfast tables are festooned with candles. As you can imagine, our power usage is low!

Alaska is famous for the Aurora Borealis (called the Aurora Australis at the South Pole) but I
see it less often than one might expect, even though I have signed up for an “Aurora Alert” email. For one thing, the lights are visible only on clear nights, not when it is cloudy or snowing, and for another, their activity is partially governed by an 11 year cycle of sun spot activity. The most recent stupendous year was 2013, so the next is expected to be 2024. Points further north, like Barrow, offer prime viewing, and Poker Flats, a facility outside of Fairbanks, conducts research on the auroras. One lodge outside of Fairbanks (Chena Hot Springs) does a booming business in October/November for Asian tourists, awakening them in the middle of the night for a stellar show. But I sleep so soundly in our dark and quiet home, that I rarely notice nocturnal lights unless my husband prods me awake for a spectacular display.

The colors - white, green, red, and purple - indicate different gas particles colliding in the atmosphere at various distances. White and green northern lights are most common, because these are created by oxygen about 60 miles above the earth. These are ones I have seen. Nitrogen causes blue/purple auroras. The color least often observed, red, is created by oxygen 200 miles above the planet. Imagine being able to see that!

Some people who have no desire to visit Alaska invariably wrinkle their noses and say, “but it is so dark up there in winter and so light in summer.” Ah, yes. I appreciate both, and take neither for granted. Aren't I lucky? 


Do you want to live here?  Or not?  Please add a Comment and let me know.


  1. It was nice to see your perspective on the dark of Alaska and its benefits. I too love the dark Alaskan sky's in the winter and still appreciate the long daylight in the summer.

  2. Dear Alaska Man: Thanks for your two comments, one of which didn't "post" for some reason. In it, you asked if we ever snow machine out. The answer is yes - we rely on the snow machine/sled to haul in bulky and flammable supplies (up to 1000 lbs) that don't fit in our little plane (max pay load of 180 lbs). However, since we need to cross two rivers to connect with a road system, they are only reliably frozen in Feb/March. My husband already has a trailer loaded with items along the road system that he will retrieve and transfer to his sled next winter, for the following summer's construction projects.