Dancing Lights in the Sky, Swirling Billowing Curtains … over Bettels AK Population 23

There was no brass band or buntings strung to welcome us to Bettles but a significant portion of the population was there to greet us 4 adventurers as we arrived on the non-tarmac Bettles Airstrip. You probably were unaware, until now, that you were eager to learn so much about the town of Bettels. Upon landing, nine “Bettelians” were there for the gala arrival. Calling up my math wizardry ,  I figure that was forty percent of the population of 23 residents (2020 census). One of Bettles’ claims to fame is being the smallest incorporated city in Alaska AND 2nd smallest city in the USA  only beaten out by the 9 McMullanians in McMullen Alabama or perhaps Marineland Florida with 11 (not sure  if they counted the porpoises).   Now the Gibertians in Gilbert Arkansas at 26 would also  like to claim it and the ghosts in Carbonate Colorado (a ghost town) don’t count,  as my tally is thus 0 population.  Of course, all of the above is irrelevant, as I don’t know which ones are cities, incorporated municipalities,  towns, or which official or non-official census data is being used. So I vote Bettels #1 incorporated city in Alaska and the USA. I hope it is better know for most anything else but it’s size. It is 30 miles north of the Artic Circle, with a sub-Artic climate.  This was of critical importance to this adventurer, as this means warm summers. I was banking on this fact for my September holiday.  Soon we were loaded in the van to transport us to the Aurora Lodge, which was somewhat confusing as we thought this was our final destination. After waiting patiently for our driver, we were driven maybe one tenth of a mile around the corner… Perhaps this is standard procedure , but we four, who are rather healthy appearing specimens, were perfectly capable of rolling our roller bags (even on the gravel) this distance.

Eric the owner provides a great options for a memorable experience. Additionally, he is  a jack-of-all trades (tour guide, cook, van driver, speed boat operator, mechanic, cook, husband, boss … ). If it needs doing he most likely does it. So naturally he was the “orientouring” guide. Despite the size (back to that again) our arrival orientation and city tour still took 1.5 hours.  This involved a gravel road of washboard quality necessitating a slow crawl about town and out to the floatplane lake and of course all the do’s and don’t’s: a stern warning not to point the bear spray cartridge towards oneself  vs. the bear when discharging it;  an advisory that the aircraft vs. hikers have the right-of-way on the gravel air strip; swimming is not advised in the float plane lake; and if canoeing on the float plane lake, paddle very fast if you see an aircraft approaching. The town area is rustic with buildings quite varied in appearance and a mixture of antiquity; metal hangers, shops and sheds; wooden plank sided house;  and original log cabin construction.  Also of note, there were  piles of  what I would consider objects and mounds of “junk, debris, dross, scrap, dreck” everywhere.  However I soon learned most “leftovers” are considered valuable resources with an eventual use. AND, Eric’s continual refrain was “a dollar a pound”  coming in or going out. Since everything gets transported by plane 10 months of the year for a substantial sum of earned dollars, not that much goes out regularly. In winter, a 20+ mile ice road is constructed out to the Dalton Highway to transport in and out heavy equipment and construction supplies. Can you find the old VW and the phone booth in posted photos?

The aurora is breathtaking, but what about colors?

While I was observing the aurora, or northern lights, on the first night  at Bettles I was awestruck and found it to be a  breathtaking experience. I saw “dancing lights” in the sky, spiking straight up starting off the ground akin to a spotlight. They began to wave a bit and then billow  like the wind in a curtain but stayed in basically confined to the same area. At first they seemed to be kind of a blur and the “spikes” were not very defined. There was occasionally a very slight green hue on the horizon and once or twice a bit of pink color. But I didn’t see any crazy red & magenta colors that so many of the photographs posted online and that I have seen in so many photo galleries. What I saw appeared to be white/grey “shafts and curtains” dancing along the black sky. The Aurora display ebbed and flowed and was constantly changing as it grew  bigger in the sky. BUT I have no photos of that because what I  was seeing was not what my camera recorded. In fact my camera (trusty iPhone) recorded nothing unless I used the Northern Lights App which has camera settings that didn’t have the same limitation as my eyes. So coupled with the long exposure times and high ISO settings it was  evident that the camera sensor has a much higher dynamic range of vision in the dark than I did.  The colors are yellowish and green because they are excited by the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere (more scientifically the excitation of oxygen). My photos below are what my beloved iPhone saw.

The show was totally magnificent in the first few minutes (from 11:49pm to 12:07am) and from that point on the denouement was more of a slow waltz and not a cha-cha, tango, or rock and roll. I was secretly hoping for a grand finale (think fireworks show) but finally called it a night with the fading aurora, chilly and exhausted at 12:49.

So the normally awestruck but deflated kid inside of me had to face facts. The aurora is not always what it is cracked unto be. The teacher in me had to review the rod and cone cell functions in my eye. I wondered: Can my cat, a horny owl, frogs and toads, bats, and some mammals like opossums and skunks see the true green of this aurora. They have great night vision. But the answer is NO. But they can see a whole lot better than we can in black and white at night. My “cones”  are high resolution and detect color in bright light and are used in daytime vision. My rod cells, concentrated in the periphery can, only detect much fainter light at night, and see it in black and white and shades of gray. So the aurora most often only appear to us in shades of gray because the light is too faint to be sensed by our color-detecting cone cells, though sometimes it can be visible in colors depending on latitude, oxygen, and location in the sky.

On subsequent nights the lights were mainly overhead with a fair amount blocked by cloud color, faint and broadly proliferated with no color. The “electric slide” of the first night was the BIG winner!

One thought on “Dancing Lights in the Sky, Swirling Billowing Curtains … over Bettels AK Population 23

  1. Diann OBrien September 24, 2022 / 6:19 pm

    Very interesting! What a great place to adventure. Thanks for the education and sharing.


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