TIMING IS EVERYTHING

It is nearly dusk by the time I reach Walhalla, and I head toward the river bluffs. I pass a small country club sitting atop a hill overlooking­ the river. I pull into its empty parking lot and get out. The view is perfect. Hills roll in all directions and dip down to the river outlined by tall prairie grasses. I soak in the quiet.

To choose the dates of my visit to Walhalla, I used the 27-day method, projecting forward from a coronal mass ejection detected in January. It’s only an estimate, Viereck reminded me, and he said I should add several days on both sides of that date. Unfortunately, I have only two days, so I have to hope the sun will behave on schedule. As night approaches, though, no space-weather email alerts arrive. Thick clouds begin to roll in, reminding me of another essential for successful aurora watching: clear weather. Soon the sky is obscured by cloud cover. I admit defeat and pack up for the night.

THE SKY'S THE LIMIT: Aurorae burn brightly in Canada.
Frank Lukasseck/Getty Images
“Come in [the summer],” Melanie Thornberg, Walhalla’s local historian, tells me later. An avid aurora watcher, she shared some of her favorite viewing locations with me as I mapped out where to go. Hardersen, who once saw an aurora from his kitchen window as he poured his morning coffee, suggests the summer and early fall, when skies are clearest. Everyone has an opinion, it seems.

Most of the North Dakotans I encounter, though, are surprised when I tell them why I’m visiting their state. Apparently, they are unaware of their good fortune. Deirdre Lee, who moved from Minneapolis to convert her grandmother’s homestead in Walhalla into the Sanctuary Guest House & Eatery — my home away from home while I’m on my little hunt — is among those folks. After my failed attempt, over breakfast the next morning, she hands me printouts about the aurora that her mother downloaded from the Internet. “She thought these might be helpful,” she explains. I cross my fingers and head out.

The day is sunny, which makes me hopeful. I drive 100 miles south, following the escarpment part of the way, to Volden Farm, an old farm converted into a bed-and-breakfast in the gently rolling Sheyenne River valley. Along the way, I pass large herds of deer, vast wind farms and decommissioned missile silos and command sites built during the Cold War — all drawn by North Dakota’s sparsely populated prairies. I reach the farm by late afternoon and settle in. The owner, JoAnne Wold, who has the gift for making one feel immediately at home, hands me a cup of tea as she tells me of the luminous green aurora that she and her late husband once saw stretching across the prairie. We’re standing in a kitchen that opens onto a large, solar-heated dining and living space that she and her husband added in 1978, shortly after they bought the 1926 farmhouse. Mementos from a long life are everywhere, as are oil paintings by a dissident artist that she and her brigadier general husband purchased years ago while he was stationed in Russia.

From the porch of the farmhouse that evening, I watch a train crossing a trestle six miles away to the south. To the north, beyond the barn and the trees encircling the backyard, I can see across pasture and wheat fields to the horizon. The only obstructions are windmills receding into the distance. Despite the panoramic view, my efforts at seeing the aurora are again thwarted. Banks of clouds roll in, concealing the moon and everything else in the sky. My hunt over, I resign myself to instead enjoy the beauty of my surroundings.

The next morning I fly out of Fargo. As I arrive home a few hours later, a ping alerts me to a new email in my inbox. I open it and read: “Incoming CME.”

I missed a Kp=7 aurora by two days.



HOLLY KORAB is a freelance writer based in Champaign, Ill. She has written about science and the natural world for more than 20 years.