An Open Window on a Winter’s Night
Travel Stories: Beth Harpaz and her 10-year-old son went to Alaska to see the Northern Lights -- and to hold on to his childhood for a few more minutes
02.17.09 | 9:40 AM ET
It wasn’t as dark as we’d expected when we landed in Fairbanks last February, my 10-year-old son and I. The sun set around 6 p.m., and with temps in the 20s, it wasn’t as cold as we’d expected, either.
Earlier that month, the weather in Fairbanks had been in the minus 40s, and I’d wondered if I’d made a mistake, planning a trip with Nathaniel to see the Northern Lights. After all, I told him, the Northern Lights are not like movies on demand. If you get lucky and there’s no cloud cover, you might see them. But there’s no guarantee. Nathaniel said he understood. We brought books, DVDs and games in case the cold trapped us inside.
We’d risen at 5 a.m. that day in New York, excited about the trip, but after 12 hours in planes and airports, our moods had turned. As we dragged our luggage through the Anchorage airport to our third and final flight, I realized Nat was ready to cry.
“Why can’t we check our bags like other people?” he asked sadly. I explained I didn’t want to risk the airlines losing our luggage. It would be no fun in Alaska without warm clothes—socks, masks and gloves we’d bought at an EMS winter closeout, ski gear we’d borrowed, and Army surplus boots I got on eBay for $25, guaranteed to 40 below. Nat nodded and carried his bags with no further complaints.
But by the time we checked in to our hotel, we were exhausted. It was 8 p.m. Alaska time, midnight on our body clocks. We lay down, but I set an alarm to wake us. We had a 10 p.m. bus taking us to see the Northern Lights.
The previous summer, our whole family—me, Nat, his teenage brother and my husband—had all come to Alaska on vacation. But Nathaniel and I were particularly taken with the landscapes and wildlife. We became obsessed with the place, started reading every book we could find on it, and quizzing anyone we met who’d lived there. Gradually we planned another trip for February school break, just the two of us. My teenage son went to Costa Rica with a friend that week—he wanted beaches, not tundra—and my husband had too much work to get away. But he also thought our adventure was a little nuts.
I admit, I was nervous we’d go home disappointed if the aurora borealis didn’t cooperate. But I also relished a week away with Nat. With a big kid in high school, I know how fast childhood disappears once birthdays reach double digits. When guests at my older son’s bar mitzvah a few years back had said, “Today you are a man,” they weren’t kidding. Ten-year-olds now are like teenagers used to be, and teenagers are like college kids. There’s so much posturing and attitude, and not enough being silly. I never wanted my kids to be precocious; I wanted them to play with water guns and whoopee cushions, not iPods and cell phones. But somehow our crazy busy New York lives got in the way.
I was hoping our trip to Alaska would help Nathaniel keep that sense of wonder that kids lose in adolescence. When he’s playing tough defense on the basketball court, or pitching for his Little League team, I can see the little boy in him, because he’s lost in the moment and sheds all self-consciousness. Maybe Alaska would offer that same magic. Maybe we could stand together in the snow, look at the sky and hold on to his childhood for just a few more minutes.
Back in our hotel room, the alarm clock rang. We put on our layers and made the bus. It was colder now, close to zero, and we were so tired. Where were we again? Fairbanks in February? To see the Northern Lights? Couldn’t we just go skiing in the Poconos like other people, or check in to a Cancun resort with piña coladas? Instead we were sipping hot chocolate, waiting for the clouds to break, patting a dog that looked like a wolf. The clock said 11 p.m. My head said 3 a.m. I told our tour guide we needed to lie down, and asked him to wake us if the Northern Lights came out.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “You’ll wake up.”
I wasn’t sure what that meant but I was too tired to ask. Nat and I snuggled up together on a sofa in a quiet loft in the guide’s house and drifted off. I don’t know how long we slept, but we woke to the sound of voices calling out, “Aurora! Aurora!”
We roused ourselves and ran outside. The other tourists, mostly Japanese, were exclaiming with joy and pointing at the sky. We looked out over the snowy hills dotted with scraggly evergreens. At first we weren’t sure what we were seeing. “Where are they?” I asked. There were city lights in one direction and clouds drifting in another. But gradually we made them out, white swirls dancing, surging, fading, then brightening once again—a psychedelic dream on a long, cold winter’s night.
I don’t remember what we said, or if we spoke at all. But I thought to myself how lucky we were, seeing the lights on our very first night, and how lucky I was, to catch this moment with my son at the very edge of his childhood and freeze the memory in our minds forever. We stood in the cold for hours it seemed, until finally the lights were no more, then rode back to our hotel for a little more sleep before morning.
The next day we went to a wilderness lodge, where we saw the Northern Lights again. We played with sled dogs, took our first snowmobile rides and ran through the snow in our bathing suits to soak in an outdoor hot tub. Back in Fairbanks, on the last day of our trip, Nathaniel climbed the snowy banks of the frozen Chena River, and we visited the Museum of the North, where he took a hundred photos of bears, wolves, Gold Rush nuggets and mukluks. Then we headed to the airport, checked our bags and slept on the flights home.
A year later we’re still dreaming of Alaska, me and Nat. In school he read Jack London’s “White Fang” and “Call of the Wild” even though the teacher said they were too hard for a fifth grader. A little toy husky sits on his bed, and every night he opens the window wide—even when it’s 17 degrees out—and piles up the blankets to get warm.
It’s crazy, that open window. I have to sneak in after he’s asleep each night to shut it so the house doesn’t freeze, but I get why he’s doing it. Our trip felt surreal, a winter’s tale in a faraway land, clocks gone mad, lights in the sky. On a cold night, if he snuggles up with a pile of blankets, then maybe, just maybe, it feels real, and my little boy can lose himself in that snowy dream again.