The Strange ‘Backside Lights’

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Most regions of the country have, as part of their folklore, tales of “mysterious lights” that appear to lucky observers from time to time.

Known collectively as “ghost lights,” these phantasms are assigned paranormal causes by some, but written off by scientists as the spontaneous ignition of swamp gases or the atmospheric refraction of distant campfires, car headlights and even porch lights.

Most regions of the country have, as part of their folklore, tales of “mysterious lights” that appear to lucky observers from time to time.

Known collectively as “ghost lights,” these phantasms are assigned paranormal causes by some, but written off by scientists as the spontaneous ignition of swamp gases or the atmospheric refraction of distant campfires, car headlights and even porch lights.

There is the “Paulding Light” of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, said to be the ghostly lantern of a railroad worker killed by a runaway train.  There are the “spooklights” of eastern Oklahoma and the eerie “willo’-the-wisps” of the bayou.

Most infamous of all perhaps is the dreaded St. Elmo’s Fire, a phenomenon reported by seafarers for centuries and thought to be the build-up of static electricity in a ship’s rigging.

Catalina Island apparently had its own variation on these luminous phenomena in the form of what I call the “Backside Lights” as related to me by some well-known locals.

Several years ago, a group of kids and adults with the Avalon Day Camp was spending an overnight camping trip at Little Harbor.  Sean Brannock, who was there overseeing the group, related how in the middle of the night an intense micro-burst of wind and rain hit the area. Most of the campers had no tents and were sleeping out on the ground when the weather hit.

“There we were in the middle of the night,” said Sean, “everyone’s sleeping and all of a sudden the wind starts to pick up.”

The blasting wind was quickly joined by a sudden and dramatic downpour.  “It POURED rain; like the hardest rain,” he said.

Lisa Keppel was there and was immediately concerned about what effect the deluge would have on the kids.  “I said, ‘Thank God these kids are sleeping,’” she said.

As they lay there in their sleeping bags, staring up into the night sky with nowhere to get out of the rain, they first noticed “them”—a number of strange, colored lights that were hovering in the sky above.

“There were all these flashing, different lights,” said Sean.  “They seemed like they were right above us, over our heads.  They kept going on and off and changing to different colors … kind of like flashing, dancing lights.”

Our local chef extraordinaire Greg Wenger was in the group, too. Unlike the others, he and his wife were inside a tent and it was the brightness of the objects that first woke him up.  “The sky turned a bright orange like the sunset and you heard all kinds of weird noises, like giant fans going off,” he said. 

“We all got up and stared up at the sky with our mouths open.”

“(The lights) were doing things like jumping up and down,” he said, adding that there seemed to be no coordinated motion, but rather a chaotic pattern.

He described the lights as numbering from “about 15 to 18.”  Each one was round and about 3-feet in diameter and they were all flying about 20 to 50 feet above the ground.  While primarily a bright orange color (“like the color of fire”), he said they shifted through other colors as well “like a sunset.”

It all ended somewhat abruptly when the rain and the wind stopped and the strange orbs simply vanished in the night. “The thing about this was that none of us talked to each other that night,” he said.  It wasn’t until the next morning that any of the stunned campers brought it up, said Greg.  “We were at breakfast and it was like 20 people said they all saw the same thing and everyone’s mouth was open. “What could explain this bizarre phenomenon? I exchanged e-mails with Dr. Robert Fovell, a specialist in mesoscale meteorology at UCLA.  Evidently perplexed, Fovell said he had “no idea what was going on” and asked for more information.

I told him what I knew and brought up some of my own theories, including the possibility that this was an example of what’s known as “ball lightning,” an extremely rare and little understood weather phenomenon.  With only a handful of reported cases in all of history, “ball lightning” is thought to be a naturally-occurring electrical charge associated with thunderstorms that manifests itself in the form of glowing spheres that then proceed to wreak havoc.

Evidently none of my ideas impressed the good doctor, however.  He simply replied: “Unfortunately, I still have no clue.  Sorry.”

So, in the absence of any official explanation of the matter, I confess a bit of me is happy to report that the strange “Backside Lights” will go down in the books as yet another Catalina Island mystery.

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