Bright Regret in Alaska’s Midnight Sun

During Alaska’s summer of Midnight Sun, you can hike, bike or fish in daylight at any time of day — but only if you’re able to break with life’s normal schedule.

Will McGough

The whiskey goes down easy after dinner. When I step out, the sun is very low on the horizon, its light muted by the slow-moving clouds. I hang my sunglasses on my shirt and look at my watch. It’s past midnight. The presence of my buzz goes along nicely with the early morning sun, and the streaks of purple and blue trick my brain into thinking I’ve been out partying all night, like I’m just now returning to reality from the depths of a dark corner bar. But all I’ve done is enjoy a few after-dinner cocktails.

It’s June 21, 2015, the longest day of the year in Alaska. Up to this point in my trip, the darkest it had gotten was when my train from Anchorage to Denali passed through a tunnel. That’s how it is during the summer up here. Officially, the sun “rises” and “sets”, but in reality twilight shines bright all night, meaning that 11 at night looks a lot like 9 in the morning. Generally, “Midnight Sun” describes the period of 24 hours of daylight experienced in the Arctic and Antarctic circles. At the North Pole, this period of time is from March to September, the days gradually getting longer until they peak in late June. The reason for the 24 hours of daylight comes from the earth’s tilt on its axis; when the North Pole “leans” towards the sun during the summer months, it is exposed completely throughout the earth’s entire daily revolution.

Up here, it doesn’t have to be dinner, drinks and bed, or breakfast, coffee, hike, lunch. What’s to stop breakfast from becoming dinner? Why not bed, dinner, hike?

Darkness trims our awareness down to the immediate surroundings, but now with the light illuminating everything, the still of the night is more apparent than ever. I walk behind the building where a trail leads away from the lodge, up the hill and into the pine trees. Hiking a trail as it approaches 1 a.m. is a first for me. The closest I’ve come is when I’ve stumbled out of my tent to pee, or camped at a trailhead and headed out around 4 or 5 a.m. to get an early start on an ascent. This is only a simple stroll up to an overview, and once there I’m able to see the sun hovering near the tops of the mountain peaks. I look down over the lodge and the quiet streets, the river that twinkles in the soft light. No one is out, no one is around. Is this the world’s most novel natural phenomenon? It’s certainly a sunset to remember.

Alaska is the only place in the United States where you’ll find the Midnight Sun, and it is understandably one of the state’s top tourism draws. People come from all over the world to experience it, to sit outside with a couple cocktails and watch the sun go behind the mountains for a few minutes, then come back up before they can order the next round. I certainly had my fun with this tonight after dinner, having the whiskey and watching a man take photos of the sun behind his watch, talking endlessly about how good it felt to be here. But now, having hiked up to the overlook and seeing the wilderness out in front of me, I realize I’ve missed out on an opportunity to take the experience to the next level.

See, here, day doesn’t end. Night doesn’t exist. That’s the point. The fatal mistake I’ve made is letting the clock dictate my actions, leading me into the bar instead of the forest. There are no rules on vacation. Up here, it doesn’t have to be dinner, drinks and bed, or breakfast, coffee, hike, lunch. What’s to stop breakfast from becoming dinner? Why not bed, dinner, hike? Going to Alaska is all about discovering why the state is called the Last Frontier, and the option to explore any time of “day” is an overlooked part of that. How ashamed I feel standing here now with no plan in place, too drunk to tackle a serious trail.

Tail between my legs, I walk back to my room. The curtains are wide open and it’s bright as can be inside. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. To close them would be a slap in the face to this wonderful occurrence, a complete absence of appreciation. My brain says to stay in bed, but my body longs to get up and go. I lay in bed and look out the window with wonder, at the blue sky and the purple and white clouds, and I feel like a kid missing out on something, like I’ve been sentenced to the worst of all sick days. I feel guilty going to bed, on this, the longest night of the year.

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