Hooking Arms With Gnomes

The “warnings” came early. Before 8 a.m., actually. All of which happened moments after a surprising visit in the grove while making my morning tea. A significant flash of red crossed the big plate glass window above the sink that caught my eye — my very first sighting of a Piliated Woodpecker here on my little prairie farm. Binoculars quickly substantiated the identity as the huge woodpecker bounced up first one tree trunk then another before skittering off into the deeper woods. It wouldn’t be my last “flash” of red before I returned to my bed!

How can a day begin even better? And, it would. With my tea steeped, it was off to the computer to read the online morning newspapers, which usually happens after a quick glance through my Facebook feeds. This is where I found my warning. It was in a personal message from my son, Aaron, living in Bergen, Norway, who had captured his very first images of the northern lights in his backyard, glistening high above in midst of city lights. 

This wasn’t all, for there were numerous postings of this incredible display from Scotland, Ireland and Norway as well as from friends in Ely and Nevis here in Minnesota. Now on heightened alert I quickly checked the NOAA Aurora Forecast site and watched as the circular donut of a forecast roamed over the northern hemisphere. As it came over Nova Scotia and eased over the Great Lakes region the greenish blob quickly went straight to red. Granted, we were early in the morning. Would we still have a chance sighting a dozen hours later?

My Labor Day image at the Marsh Lake Dam.

For me, this is almost as wonderful as awaiting Christmas as a child. Now in my seventh decade I still can’t use all my fingers to count the number of times I’ve seen the aurora borealis, let alone photographed them. Back in the 1940s, before our family moved up the road to what had been my grandparent’s house, there was such a display even as far south as Missouri that our mother woke us up so we could see the low lying magic in the sky. I couldn’t comprehend the specialness nor the rarity of the strange lights. That, though, took my first finger.

The next four “fingers” were not particularly spectacular, more of an undulating whiteness in the sky. And all here in the western Minnesota prairie. Two of those events were discovered when I ventured away from a group to find a tree to “relieve” myself. The first of those was well after midnight in Watson Lion’s Park on the banks of the Chippewa River when artist Franz Richter held campfire court with tales of Norwegian devilish trolls and gentle gnomes. That those lights, as unspectacular as they were that night, appeared in the midst of Richter’s tales was purely magical. And now my son, Aaron, who sat through the first of the tales back in the 1990s, lives now in Norway and photographed them makes the memory all the more special.

We now know the science behind the northern lights and have various ways of receiving accurate forecasts on our computers and cell phones, yet we can’t forsake the natural wonder shrouded in mysteries from the past; of how the auroras inspired myths, legends and folklore throughout the nations of the far north, from Norway to Sweden, from Finland to Iceland. They held special meanings to the marauding Vikings, too. In Norse mythology, we’re told the aurora borealis was believed to be Bifrost, the burning bridge connecting Åsgard (the realm of the gods) to Midgard (Earth). Popular myths and folklore also suggested that the lights were reflections of the bright shields of the mythical Valkyrie who would lead those who had fallen in battle to Valhalla.

A few nights ago on the wetland at the top of my prairie. After the “warning” from my son in Bergen, Norway.

Aurora borealis is actually derived from the Greek words with “aurora” meaning “sunrise” and “boreas” meaning “wind”. There must have been some incredibly strong solar activity for the ancient Greeks to have seen the lights because sightings so far south are almost unheard of. The Greeks held that Aurora was the sister of Helios and Seline, the sun and moon respectively, and that she raced across the early morning sky in her multi-colored chariot to alert her siblings to the dawning of a new day. The Romans also associated the northern lights with a new day believing them to be Aurora, the goddess of dawn. And so it goes.

Then came the night in the BWCA, where we had rented a cabin at Kawishiwi Lodge and Outfitters on the shoreline of Lake One after my late wife, Sharon’s, knee operation. One night after darkness had fully settled in, the two teenage boys who worked at the lodge came knocking to see if I would join them for some night walleye fishing. Sharon said, “Go on. I’ll be fine.”

Having placed me in the middle of the canoe, they paddled out of the frontal bay through the narrow passage into the main lake and anchored us between two islands facing north. Yes, they brought a cooler of beer, and we leisurely jigged over the gunwales killing time and stringing fish. Sometime after midnight, Michael said, “Guys! Look up!” The lights, again minus those waving curtains and towering flares, entertained us for quite some time. 

Now we’re up to three fingers. Another night happened on the banks of Mound Lake near Gray Eagle. Number four.

While I missed the height of the display, the streaking star made up for it.

Since moving to Listening Stones Farm I’ve added another four sightings. This doesn’t count the week I spent with a former exchange student in Tromso, considered one of the best place in Norway to see the lights, when for nearly a week we headed into the surrounding coal black countryside reading the skies. On the next to last night we caught about a 15 minute sighting through tiny holes in the clouds. That didn’t count. And, twice now I’ve been up on the Gunflint Trail for special Northern Lights adventures and have seen nothing but dense Tromso-like clouds.

There is a small network of folks around Minnesota who sound the alert on Facebook should there be a possibility. Unfortunately my house is too far below the northern horizon to see the lights, although at the wetland at the top of my prairie there is a decent view. Here the display whispers along the edge of the horizon, something those in the more northern exposures would surely sleep through. Perhaps a view the Greeks saw back in time.

One night after an alert we had an incredible display plainly visible to the naked eye dancing cross the horizon. Several images were recorded with glee only to find out moments later when downloading that I had cranked the aperture on the lens completely opposite of the infinity setting so all I had were colorful blurs. I immediately rushed back but the moment had passed. A neat streaking star helped alleviate my pain.

My best effort came last Labor Day after being told by outdoors writer, Tom Watson, that he often headed to the Twin Bridges on Lac qui Parle Lake southwest of Appleton to capture the lights. Which prompted me to check NOAA, and we had a possible event. There, though, the traffic caused too much light pollution so we took a minimum maintenance shortcut gravel to the Marsh Lake Dam where I finally had a decent image of the lights. Finally, and it was wonderful. A Christmas-like morning, in fact!

My colossal error with my lens on what could have been a beautiful image.

Oh, a note about the warning from a day or so ago? Both NOAA and AuroraAlert were showing red, so we headed to the wetland above the farm to check the skies, and made a few images before heading to a site I had scouted earlier for a possible image on a small hillside oak savanna about three miles away. Unfortunately the oaks were too distant for my lens and the image I visualized, and we were too far below the horizon.

I now have my eighth sighting over my seven decades despite an almost daily check on the two forecasts. I simply cannot escape this much stronger and more mystical draw than the science behind the lights. I surely hope I never lose my love of such mystical magic, of standing in the universal darkness along with the trolls while scanning the northern skies for dancing lights in the heavens above. How could one live without that?

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About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

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