On my recent trip north to Byers Lake, I was reminded of a natural wonder that we Anchorage residents never get to experience, though for much of the year it’s a common (yet marvelous) phenomenon in other parts of Alaska—and was here too, once upon a time: the magic of a moonless night sky that’s neither hidden by clouds nor diminished by artificial lights.
Much as aurora borealis displays are weakened, even hidden, by city lights, so too is the starry sky. This is something I don’t think about much and I’d guess that’s true of most people who live in the Anchorage area, or any urban or even suburban setting. We simply accept our lessened experience as the norm.
I suspect a substantial number of Anchorage residents have never stood beneath a natural night sky, one unblemished by man-made lighting. That’s unfortunate. Everyone should have that opportunity at least once, if only because it shows, first-hand, how vast and extraordinary our universe is. And that can put things in perspective, even change a person’s outlook, for the better.
I understand that people can gaze upon amazing images, taken through telescopes that peer deep into “outer space” and show celestial phenomena that can’t be seen by human eyes or even imagined. But I’d argue there’s no substitute for standing outside at night, beneath a sky in which legions of stars sparkle radiantly in pitch-black darkness.
I relearned this lesson while staying at one of Denali State Park’s Byers Lake cabins in late August. Awaking at about 3:30 a.m. and needing to pee, I left my sleeping bag and stepped outside. Figuring I wouldn’t be long, I didn’t add any layers or put anything on my feet.
What I glimpsed made me gasp in a mix of surprise and awe.
When I’d slid into my bag hours earlier, a layer of clouds covered most of the sky. Now the heavens were absolutely clear. And except for a narrow band of twilight along the distant mountains, the sky was black enough to reveal the universe, or at least the portion of it that’s visible from Southcentral Alaska with naked eyes.
Above and around me, the swath of sky that I could see contained a multitude of glistening stars. Even the Milky Way galaxy, the one that contains our solar system, was visible overhead, a faint creamy band across the sky. How long had it been since I’d last seen the Milky Way? Several years, I’d guess. Way too long.
Even in my largely undressed state, the universe—or what I could see of it—held me in its grasp for quite some time. My attention roamed across the sky, so filled with stars I was challenged to discern even the most familiar constellations.
On this enthralling night, I had no inclination to seek them out.
To be honest, I wasn’t thinking much, wasn’t trying to analyze or figure things out. Nor was I wishing for other night-sky spectacles. Though I’ve watched, amazed, while the aurora dances and shimmers and explodes across the sky, on this night I couldn’t envision anything more stunning than this extraordinary—yet in another sense, ordinary—night sky, seen in its full glory.
A familiar and paradoxical mix of sensations or impressions moved through me, one that I first described in an essay “Wonders of the Night Sky,” written after I’d awakened in the middle of the night to another enchanting sky. That long-ago night was even more magical, I think, because it happened while I was camped alone deep in the wilds of Denali State Park’s far western reaches. And nothing I’d previously experienced in Alaska prepared me for it.
Of that night I later wrote, “Lured skyward, I’m pulled from my drowsiness and out of the tent. Still in my sleeping bag . . . I lay my head on the frosted tundra and face the night sky. So many stars. Such immense, unfathomable distances. A taste of infinity, an escape from ego. . . .
“Here in the Peters Hills, on a starry Alaskan night like no other I’ve known, I reconnect with the wonder I felt as a boy while gazing at Connecticut skies (though those night skies weren’t as dark or star-filled as what I’ve experienced in remote Alaska). I shrink in size to an insignificant speck, yet I’m part of the glorious enormity that this extraordinary spectacle reveals. My imagination stirs, takes flight among far-away blazing suns and the power they suggest. . . .”
It is this paradoxical sense of having the self, the ego, shrink while at the same time, being uplifted as part of a “glorious enormity” that I have most deeply experienced beneath a “natural” night sky.
It’s hard for me to imagine anyone witnessing such splendor and not being deeply moved, even overwhelmed. And in that overwhelmed, enchanted state, a person might feel a deepened (or expanded) love, even reverence, toward life, the world, and everything that lies beyond our small blue planet, whether you think of it as the cosmos, creation, or “all that is.”
If we could regularly see the night sky in all its fullness, perhaps it would lose some of its allure. But to see it once or twice in a lifetime, or even every few years (or better, a couple of times each winter), well, that’s pure magic, and reminds a guy what a miracle it is to be alive and part of such a wonder.
Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at email@example.com