When I came to Sitka, I thought my chances of seeing the Northern Lights were slim. But sometimes, when you least expect it, you might see the telltale warm, creeping glow on the horizon; it will shift and move with a life of its own, illuminating a previously dark sky.
Gis’óok is the Tlingit word for the aurora borealis. I remember exactly where I was the first time I saw them, camping at a Forest Service cabin just outside Sitka. I watched for over an hour as they danced overhead, fluctuating and transforming before my eyes. The colors were like nothing I had ever imagined: pale yellows, muted pinks, and the subtlest tinge of green. Ñúnáý woo.aat gis’óoñ yá xáanaa: the Northern Lights are really moving about this evening.
If you’re looking for the Northern Lights, your best friend is going to be the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. They monitor and predict aurora activity, publishing an aurora forecast up to one month in advance. The NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center also offers a highly detailed aurora map with a minute-by-minute daily prediction model. I use the two together, checking UAF’s aurora forecast to prepare in advance and the NOAA’s model the day of. For mobile devices, you can also download the My Aurora Forecast app and receive push notifications during times of high activity.
Of course, there are other factors to take into account. You need clear, dark skies – so no rain or full moon. The long nights of September to April are the best time of year, with peak aurora activity usually occurring around midnight. Be ready around 10 pm, and prepare to stay up until 1 or 2 am if need be.
The best viewing spots depend on the time of night; Starrigavan and Harbor Mountain are both popular spots. On nights of high probability, locals like to pack picnic blankets, snacks, and watch from the trails. Check out the Visit Sitka Instagram account (@visitsitka) to see photos of the Northern Lights captured by our local photographers.
Sometimes, the auroras are even bright enough to be enjoyed from Crescent Harbor. Last year’s best light show was at Rock the Dock, an outdoor concert event that takes place between Mermaid Festival and the Seafood Festival. Sitkans watched the display from the Crescent Harbor Net Shed, and even over drinks on the Westmark Sitka Hotel deck!
All of this and no luck? Check UAF’s All Sky Camera for a nightly livestream of the aurora borealis from Alaska’s Poker Flat Research Range. It might not be as rewarding as seeing the Northern Lights in person, but even from your computer screen the show is still a delight.