My singular Leonid adventure
While others witnessed thousands of Leonid meteors, I saw exactly one from my front yard in Fairbanks, Alaska.
In my stockinged feet, during my four-hour deep-night solo watch, the sky changed numerous times, from completely cloud-covered to having dark openings that offered me hope of seeing the Leonid shower.
A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most is what I'd read this particular mid-November Leonid shower. The next major Leonid event won't happen until 2099.
We have a lot of sky here in Alaska. Although I live on a road named City Lights Boulevard, we Fairbanksans are largely surrounded by darkness in winter. After the December solstice, we get more minutes of light each day, but now is our time of darkness - about 18 hours daily.
My preparation for the major Leonid event of my lifetime was limited. I invited my husband to join me on what I promised to be a hot Saturday night date. I told our 17-year-old son that, depending on cloud cover, we might need to pull one of our late-night drives in search of open sky. And I told our 19-year-old daughter, off at college in a mostly cloudless state, to look outside Saturday night. Her dorm room is a two-minute walk from one of the nation's leading planetariums, but she already had plans for Saturday evening.
On Thursday, the forecast for Saturday night was for total cloud cover, from Barrow to Adak. Forecasters predicted little chance of seeing the Leonids for most Alaskans. I took the news in stride.
Normally, if there is something skyward that is clouded out in Fairbanks but needs to be seen, I scan the sky, pick a direction, and head out. I'm sometimes able to dazzle visitors by finding aurora borealis. But, with limited roads leading out of Fairbanks, and the skies forecast to be covered from northernmost Alaska (Barrow) to the far-away southern Aleutian Islands (Adak), driving out of cloud cover didn't seem realistic.
On Saturday, though, we awoke to clear skies. The hills surrounding Fairbanks had that wintry, covered-in-snow look. To the south, the Alaska Range showed its peaks.
Keeping a casual eye on the sky, I proceeded with my day, my errands taking me to several vantage points in the hills. The sky looked good. My husband and I planned a dinner of king salmon. My husband and son talked about a movie they would watch. I planned to work out at the gym and, later, to enjoy the Leonids.
The men realized that at some point I would drag them out of bed to go outside and admire the sky, but they were relieved about avoiding a potentially long, dark drive.
Between 3 and 3:30 p.m., though, the sky closed in. The clouds were thick and white. From a hill, I observed the entire horizon. The only place that wasn't in total cloud cover was directly to the south, where the winter sun sets in the afternoon.
Plans change. I check weather on the web. High wind warnings have been issued for the Anchorage area and along the Parks Highway. But one site reports clear skies in Cantwell; this jibes with my observation. Still hours away from the peak Leonid time of approximately 2 a.m. Sunday, I think that later we might drive south along the Parks Highway toward Cantwell. I try not to think about how far it is: 150 miles, through the Alaska Range.
At dinner, our son wisely suggests that a nap might be in order for me, given my plans for the night. I agree and, although I feel sleepy, my nap doesn't take.
By 8:30 p.m. I realize that I don't want to drive toward Cantwell: too many clouds, high winds, darkness. I toy with the idea of giving up, but the high-wind warnings actually give me hope.
Shortly after 11 p.m., I step outside and see stars! I excitedly report this to my husband, who heads off to bed, and to our son, who ignores me. Back outside I go.
The advice I've read about watching this Leonid event involves lawn chairs and comfort. It's below zero; lawn chairs are out. Comfort is in. I settle for a couch near a window and a quilt.
At 11:18 p.m. I start my Leonid watch. Rice, our daughter's black cat, sits on me. Our dog, ever eager to go outside, gives up and goes to bed. At odd intervals I extricate myself from the cat and the quilt, and step out into the front yard. My feet stay warm in wool socks; my hands stay warm in sweat-pant pockets. Frustratingly but excitingly, the sky teases between total cloudiness and patches of starry darkness. Sometimes my windmill turns silently. The breeze brings hope.
Once, I step onto the front lawn and within seconds see one meteor slashing through the northern sky. I'm elated. No more show up, but it's still maybe an hour from peak time, so I return to the comfort of the couch, the quilt, and the cat. The frequency of my trips outside intensifies.
So does the cloud cover. I consider giving up but, once again, dark sky appears overhead. I'm certain that I'll see more Leonids. I don't. By 3:23 a.m., the sky is completely covered in clouds. I tiredly leave the comfort of the couch and crawl into bed with my husband. He stirs. I tell him I've seen one meteor. He mumbles.
I don't fall asleep, so at about 4 a.m. I go into the kitchen for a glass of chocolate milk. I look outside and reassure myself that the sky is all clouds. Back in bed, I sleep, knowing that the once-in-a-lifetime Leonid meteor shower did not miss me. And I did not miss it, not by one meteor.