Autumn produces the darkest night skies of the year, before the land is covered by a blanket of snow that will reflect any available light source: the moon, cabin lights, or a mushers headlamp. Darkness takes over in winter. At the winter solstice, the sun is above the horizon for just over two hours. In the preserve, the long nights combine with the commonly clear skies of a continental climate to reveal a unique, circumpolar perspective of the night skies.
A Place of Stars and Solar Activity
In Northern Athabascan cultures, stellar astronomy was an important body of knowledge that enabled people to navigate the landscape during the long winter nights, aided by the concept of a single, large human-like constellation that covered the entire night sky. The human-like figure is present throughout the darkness as it makes its round through the night. Component constellations make up the body parts of the figure. For instance, what western stargazers call the big dipper is generally considered by the Han Athabascans to be the the tail of a much larger figure, referred to as yihjah (Cannon and Holton 2014).
There are variations in the interpretation among different Northern Athabascan cultural groups, but the single, large-sky constellation appears to be a common thread. This knowledge was only recently documented, and supplants previous western views that Northern Athabascan cultures had little in the way of astronomical knowledge. The conception of a whole-sky constellation would have been important for navigation, time reckoning, weather forecasting, and cosmology that is specifically tied to lifeways embedded in a circumpolar landscape (Cannon and Holton 2014).
Aurora is ignited by the interaction of solar winds with the Earth’s magnetosphere, resulting in excitation of gases in the ionosphere that release light at heights of 60 to 300 miles above the earth’s surface (Akasofu 2002). The color of the aurora is most commonly green, but it varies with the level of solar activity and type of gases that alight in the ionosphere and can also be white, purple, pink, and red.
The strongest aurora on record is the Carrington event in 1859, when aurora was recorded in middle to tropical latitudes and disrupted nascent telegraphic infrastructure in the US and Europe (Green and Boardsen 2006). Scientists suggest an event of a similar size could have a large impact on contemporary communications, satellite, and electrical infrastructure.
Cultural landscapes in the northern Alaska Region afford majestic views of the aurora borealis, including at Slaven’s Roadhouse, on the banks of the Yukon River. Slaven’s Roadhouse was built in 1932 near the confluence of Coal Creek with the Yukon River, and is a component of the Coal Creek Historic Mining District cultural landscape.
Among the miners in the area was Frank Slaven. He filed his first gold claim in Coal Creek in 1905, and he would work the creek throughout the early mining period before building Slaven’s Roadhouse. The roadhouse served as an important node along the river as mining operations progressed to a much larger scale.
Industrial-scale mining operations were introduced to Coal Creek in the 1930s when Gold Placers, Inc. constructed a four-story dredge that could overturn as much gravel as 2,400 miners working with a pickaxe and shovel could in a single day. Since winter conditions did not permit the extensive process of thawing the earth for dredging, mining activity was concentrated in warmer seasons; dark night skies would have been visible only in the spring and fall. During this era, Slaven’s Roadhouse provided an important stopping point for travelers along the Yukon River, especially in winter when a respite from bitterly cold weather would be more than welcome. Gold Placers, Inc. used the roadhouse area as a landing for mining equipment and supplies, and the roadhouse also served as the local mail stop.
The graph shows that contemporary levels of aurora activity are similar to what may have been visible when gold rushes struck the region and during the early mining period. Winter visitors to Slaven’s Roadhouse may have enjoyed particularly lively northern lights during the years that Gold Placer’s, Inc was dredging the creek.
A timelapse of the night sky above Slaven’s Roadhouse during the 2016 Yukon Quest shows a fantastic aurora display, the glow of the lights from the historic cabin, and the journey of yihjah as it walks across the night.
A timelapse of the aurora borealis over Slaven's Roadhouse on the Yukon River during the 2016 Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race. Please watch in HD. NPS/Sean Tevebaugh
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Akasofu, S., Finch, Jack, & Curtis, Jan. (2002). Secrets of the aurora borealis. Alaska Geographic, 29(1). Anchorage: Alaska Geographic Society.
Basurah, H. (2004). Auroral evidence for early high solar activities. Solar Physics, 225(1), 209-212.
Beckstead, D. (2003). The World Turned Upside Down: A History of Mining on Coal Creek and Woodchopper Creek. Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, Alaska: US Department of the Interior, National Park Service.
Cannon, C. and Holton, G. (2014). A newly documented whole-sky circumpolar constellation in Alaskan Gwich’in. Arctic Anthropology, 51(2), 1-8.
Green, & Boardsen. (2006). Duration and extent of the great auroral storm of 1859. Advances in Space Research, 38(2), 130-135.
Mishler, C., & Simeone, William E. (2004). Han, people of the river : Hän hwëch'in : An ethnography and ethnohistory. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press.
SILSO, World Data Center (2018). Sunspot Number and Long-term Solar Observations, Royal Observatory of Belgium, on-line Sunspot Number catalogue: http://www.sidc.be/SILSO/, accessed April 30, 2018.