Archive for March, 2012

Aurora out on the Knik River

Friday, March 16th, 2012
Aurora out on the Knik River

Sometimes it starts with a text or a post on our secret Facebook photo group or a quick email from a smartphone.  In each instance, it is driven by what “the donut” is doing.  “The donut’s on fire” or “The donut’s raging!”  Egged-on by Aurora alerts constantly reminding us that we seem to be on the wrong side of the world for the really spectacular aurora displays this year (they tend to hit during our daytime, but when it is nighttime over in Norway and Finland).

Regardless of how it starts, we all meet up somewhere to consolidate bodies and gear into two vehicles, typically in a Carrs or Fred Meyer parking lot on the way out of town.  From then on, it is just anticipation; waiting for the sun to go down, waiting for the skies to darken, waiting and hoping that “they” will come out.  The subject of a seemingly exploding global phenomenon fueled by the proliferation of social media.  The northern lights.  The aurora borealis.

Last night was no different.  Once assembled, we headed north out of Anchorage on the Glenn Highway toward Palmer.  After an obligatory stop at the Taco Bell – one of the group’s founders has a thing for Taco Bell – we headed out along the south side of the Knik River, finding a nice open patch of snow covered, frozen river and a grand view of the Talkeetna Mountains to the north.

It took a while before the first hint of a green glow began to appear.  It teased us off and on for about an hour, never really developing into a particularly memorable display.  All the while, many of us found other things to occupy our time, experimenting with time lapse or short star trails captures.  But after the skies completely darkened and stayed dark for a while, we decided it was time to pack up.  The “donut” had never really looked promising all through the evening, even though we kept refreshing the NOAA image on our smart phones every half hour or so to make sure.

So, at 12:15 a.m., we were in our vehicles and on our way back to Anchorage.  Shortly after passing the Old Glenn Highway bridge, I looked out my window and up.  There was a strong aurora beginning to developed.  I got very animated and excited, and apparently someone thought I had left some gear behind.  No, the lights are coming out.  Pull over!

We found a small pullout, stopped, and proceeded to pile out of the SUV, making a mad dash for the hatch and our gear.  I grabbed my tripod and camera bag and followed another photographer in a haphazard scramble over a snow berm and down the side of the bank to the river surface to set up and photograph.  While Venus had set, Jupiter was still aloft, providing a sharp point of focus in the sky.  The glow of Palmer lay before us, providing some light to silhouette the prominent landscape of the Butte.  Off to our right, the mountain ridge we had been working before when we were further upriver.  For the next hour and a half, I would use many of those landscape elements in composing images as the sky went back and forth, offering some decent displays.

Eventually, the clouds rolled in from the north, and our view was obscured.  But overhead, a new phase of the aurora developed.  Cascading shimmers of light bounced and flowed overhead, like waves of hyper-rapid surf washing over a glass ceiling.  There was nothing any one could do to capture it, the movement was too fast and the light too subtle for our gear.  We could only stand there on the frozen Knik River, craning our necks to look overhead, and stare in wonder.

These and other aurora borealis images are available for sale in my Aurora Borealis gallery.


Crazy aurora night

Friday, March 9th, 2012
Crazy aurora night

It is 2:36 a.m., Alaska Standard Time.  I have only been home for about twenty minutes after a six-hour venture out into a clear, cold Alaska night to wait for and capture the anticipated aurora displays of the evening.  Finally, the aurora lived up to the hype, and I was at the right place at the right time.   Wow.  What a night.

While everyone else headed to the Anchorage hillside or north to the Valley, particularly Hatcher Pass, I and some other photographers headed south to Turnagain Arm.  I have been photographing along the Turnagain Arm ever since I moved here almost 13 years ago, and I had never had the opportunity to photograph the Arm with the aurora borealis before tonight.  We found a perfect spot, spent some time photographing the night landscape before the moon and the aurora came out.

The Turnagain Arm is a fantastic area to photograph for so many reasons.  I go back year after year, season after season, because it has so much to offer.  I suggested a location I have stopped at many times before because of how the mountain ridges on the other side of the Arm line up – the pullout at the Chugach National Forest sign, past Girdwood but before the Twenty Mile River pullout.  With high tide peaking just about an hour before, we had lots of calm water before us to provide some really nice reflections.  A couple of snow covered rocks and a large chunk of snow covered ice presented great foreground elements.  All around us, from the mountain ridges to the water and fading colors of twilight, there was plenty to keep us busy until the aurora appeared.  Having that extra time to become familiar with the surroundings and of the various composition possibilities became crucial once the auora borealis display began.

At first it was just a dim green glow in a band reaching from over the mountains toward Anchorage to our right and arcing across the sky and to the left toward the Portage Valley.  I captured a few images just of that first dim showing, wanting to capture some additional color to add to the fading hues of dusk.  And then, the first wave hit at around 9:30.  The curtains appeared to our right toward Girdwood, right over the pinkish hues caused by the lights of Anchorage. The green curtains reached straight up and over us, bending and undulating slightly as they shifted their position from right to left over the sky.  It was so thrilling to finally see a decent display after so many years of being content with moderate-to-mild displays that did nothing more than slightly shift across the sky.  Fortunately, though, this particular display was not moving so fast that I couldn’t keep up, constantly checking to ensure that the focus was adequate, that the horizon was level (most times it wasn’t despite my best efforts).

And then, the display calmed down. We all took a few minutes to share images, ooh and aah at each other’s successes, and remark on how nice of a display it was.  Then, the waiting reconvened.  I took some time to set up a time lapse of the moon coming around the Chugach Mountains to our left, then captured a single image of the moon casting a long shadow over a snow-covered rock.  And since we were only 100 feet or so from where we parked our cars, we all agreed it was time for a warm up.

I don’t really know how long we waited in their, car running and iPod providing some entertainment, but at some point, someone noticed “they” were back out, so we all hopped out and resumed our stations.  The second wave started much like the first, with tall, green curtains coming over the mountains near Girdwood.  Again, the curtains moved from right to left and we watched and photographed.  Then the pattern shifted.

A long, horizontal band started to form over the Kenai Mountains, directly across from us, and I flipped my camera (mounted on a Kirk Enterprises L-Bracket) from vertical to horizontal.  Already, the small group of photographers, amidst the snapping of shutters, were starting to become very vocal and animated.  Yips and hoots accented by the occasional bit of profanity.  After the first part of the second wave had quieted down a little bit, I called up Shannyn Moore who had been Tweeting about where were good locations to watch.  We chatted a bit about what she had been seeing, how the parking lots at all of the trailheads along the Chugach State Park boundary in Anchorage were jammed packed, and then the lights really started to erupt.  I exclaimed, “Holy shit, gotta go!” and hung up on her. Then the lights really started to dance, hopping in these vertical spikes that moved up and down the length of the ribbon.  The faint hints of pink or purple started to show, reminding me quite a bit of the color combination found in certain types of crystal tourmaline.

And then the lights also exploded directly overhead, presenting the classic corona display.  With my arm still in a sling from shoulder surgery, I couldn’t get down to see my composition in the view finder.  All I could do was flip my camera so that it was shooting straight up, point it in the general direction I wanted it, and release the shutter again and again.  Now the group was really animated, exulting cheers to statements of disbelief, to comments about how hard it was to keep up with the multi-faceted display before us.  All we could do was keep up as much as we could with an aurora display that was showing its magic in as many as four different locations at once.  I don’t think I have ever worked my camera so frantically before.

But, as the aurora goes, it calmed down, leaving the skies filled mostly with dim green hues again.  It took us a while to calm down, but eventually we decided it was time to warm up again.  After a few minutes, we decided to call it a night, agreeing that perhaps a few hours of sleep would be a good idea since we would be doing this all over again the next night.  And then an Aurora Alert came out over Twitter, asserting that the aurora would be at Level 7.67 in 39 minutes.  We decided to take the opportunity to start heading back toward Anchorage.  We stopped at a pullout near Indian and waited for the next wave to hit.  Since it was a different vantage point, I captured a few images of the mild display that was presenting itself down the Turnagain Arm.

At 1:45 a.m., we decided to call it a night.  Weather permitting, we would be out doing it again the next evening.  Such is the life in the modern age of aurora chasing.

Great photos with narrative simply cannot compare to being out there, in the moment, observing a Level 7 aurora storm in progress.

These and other aurora borealis images are available for sale in my Aurora Borealis gallery.


Iran and the Strait of Hormuz – How easily we forget after 20 years

Tuesday, March 6th, 2012
Iran and the Strait of Hormuz - How easily we forget after 20 years

I grew up in climates that could get hot and muggy in the summer, suffering sweltering, messy Julys and oppressive Augusts.  I was all-too familiar with that sense of staying wet all day after your shower, the towel simply incapable of keeping up with the sweat beading down along your skin as you attempt to dry from a morning wash.

That was nothing.

Looking outside, it was almost difficult to see the horizon.  The water was so smooth and silky, it blended almost seamlessly with the diffuse, heavily moistened air.  The numbers were staggering.  Water temperature – 94 degrees, air temperature – 105 degrees, radiant heat coming off the dark grey deck of the ship – 130 degrees, and the humidity … 97 percent.  At what point do you just relent and call it 100%, especially when you can just watch it gather and form colonies of water on your skin?  On my way around the weather decks I passed by a .50 caliber mount and crew on the port fantail.  They were standing guard for what we had trained for off and on since leaving our home port in Long Beach, California.  They were waiting for Iranian small boat attacks. (Our first challenge by small boats would actually come from a “friendly” nation, Oman.)

Shortly after finishing dinner, I retired down below to my bunk in the Operations Department berthing space down below in the bow of the U.S.S. David R. Ray (DD-971).  As I lay in my bunk reading Cyber Way by Alan Dean Foster, I hear the announcement over the 1MC, “Set Modified Condition 1A throughout the ship.”  We are facing one of the other threats we trained for enroute to the Persian Gulf – the Iranian Silkworm threat.  The Silkworm is a surface-to-surface missile capable of striking from moderate distances.  In this case, Iran had a missile base featuring the Silkworms that placed a good portion of the Strait of Hormuz, our passage into the Persian Gulf, within reach.

We had been under the watchful eye of Iran long before entering the Strait.  While still off the coast of Oman, an Iranian P-3 did a fly-by while out on maritime patrol.  It made me think of the many passes I received by a Soviet Bear D reconnaissance aircraft in the Sea of Japan.

It was a good thing that no one on the NTDS console or air radar consoles ever called out an incoming vampire (anti-ship cruise missile).  We were busy enough just keeping track of the regular and heavy shipping and air traffic, maintaining close watch to make sure that no one was CBDR (constant bearing, decreasing range) – on an intercept course.  Shortly after exiting the Strait and entering the Gulf, we passed by some of the “eternal flames,” Iranian oil fields still on fire some two years after they were attacked in “Operation Praying Mantis.”  I went out to the starboard forward lookout station just so I can see them for myself.  In the dark, humid night, the constant flames presented dots of eerie orange glows in the night, accented by the recognizable scent of burning oil, even miles away.  The attacks were in retaliation to damage to a U.S. Naval warship from an Iranian mine.  The unfortunate ship was the U.S.S. Samuel B. Roberts, a guided-missile frigate.  Mines, yet another threat we had to be ready for.  We would be the eighth warship joining Joint Task Force Middle East on station in the Persian Gulf, with only one mine sweeper tasked to make sure our waters were clear.  Our training on board the ship on dealing with mines dealt with the business end; what to do for damage control after striking one.

We would routinely place ourselves in harm’s way of the Silkworm envelope in the Strait of Hormuz conducting “Earnest Will” operations.  Due to the Iranian habit of attacking Bahraini tankers transiting the Strait of Hormuz, the Bahrain government asked President Reagan to provide Navy escorts.  Since it was illegal for U.S. Navy vessels to escort foreign-flagged civilian vessels, these tankers were re-registered under the U.S. flag and provided protection.  Even before Earnest Will began, the threat to shipping traffic was brought into sharp reality with the attack on the U.S.S. Stark by two Iraqi Exocet missiles. The tension caused by that incident would later produce another casualty, this time at the hands of a U.S. Naval warship when the U.S.S. Vincennes, a Ticonderoga Class Guided Missile Cruiser, shot down an Iranian commercial airliner, Iran Air Flight 655.  While the Commanding Officer of the Vincennes lost his command over the incident, it is difficult to think that any other commander would have acted differently.  While transiting the Strait of Hormuz, the Vincennes faced an air target that was not squawking its IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) as required, was not responding to radio communications, and was flying a classic attack profile.

Fortunately for me, such tensions had subsided by the time I entered the Gulf and became involved in Operation Earnest Will in the summer of 1990.  Each escort we conducted lasted about four hours; just the right amount of time to transit safely through the danger zone.  And each one passed without incident.

And all through our various missions and operations, we were just one ship for most of the time, with the rest of the Task Force spread out throughout the Gulf.  Not that we were defenseless.  We had tomahawk missiles, fired through our new Vertical Launch Array (VLA), Harpoon missiles, the new Rolling Aeroframe Missile (RAM) for surface-to-air defense, the Sea Sparrow missile (another air defense platform), two 5-inch guns, two 20mm Vulcan Phalanx guns, and our assorted .50 caliber mounts.  And, to add an extra measure of surveillance and protection, we had an SH60B Seahawk helicopter on board, capable of providing forward intelligence and a fast response to small threats.

Naval technology has come along way since the David R. Ray, who met her demise off the coast of Hawaii in 2008, sunk as part of a joint Japan-U.S. training exercise.  Given the amount of money we have been pouring into defense since my visit to the Persian Gulf in 1990, and based on my own recent trips aboard Naval warships, I know we are capable of so much more than we were twenty years ago.

I also suspect, and am rather confident, that Iran has not progressed so much.  Its economy, such as it is, cannot support much of an investment in defense.  (Well, not that ours can support it either, but that is another story.)  Nothing that I have seen suggests that Iran poses any different threat in tactics or capabilities than it did twenty years ago.  When we talk about Iran’s capabilities now, we talk about small boats, mines, and surface-to-surface missiles.  These were all things that we trained for over twenty years ago.  And all through our intensive operations in the Persian Gulf in the 1908s through the Iran-Iraq war and the 1990s during Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm, and even the eventual enforcement of a no-fly zone, only two U.S. Navy vessels actually received any damage – the Roberts and the Stark.  And while the U.S.S. Cole suffered damage from a small boat bomb attack in late 2000, that was instigated by Al-Qaeda, not Iran.

And through all that U.S. Naval presence in the Gulf, countless civilian vessels, including oil tankers, passed through the Strait of Hormuz safely.

Yet the media and leadership in our country seems ignorant of that history.  In all fairness, I do not have any knowledge how well the U.S. media reported on these things back in the 80s and 90s.  I was, after all, in the Navy during Operation Earnest Will and the beginnings of Operation Desert Shield.  My only media source was the Stars and Stripes, and I, with my job and security clearance, always knew more about what was going on in my theater of operations than what they could print in that wonderful paper.

Back in December, Iran started to make noise about closing the Strait of Hormuz in response to increased threats from the West to impose sanctions in response to Iran’s supposed nuclear weapons program.  Responses to that threat were slow to come in the United States, with most emphasis being on responding to the Iranian nuclear program, containing the Israeli’s assassination campaign of Iranian scientists, and responding to Iran’s responses to our threats over their imagined threat of nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, oil speculators have caught on, taking advantage of the disarray and scattered approach to dealing with Iran.  From threats over the Strait of Hormuz to Israel’s provocations to our own saber rattling about imaginary weapons programs (no evidence has surfaced regarding an Iranian nuclear weapons program), there is more than enough fuel to fire the rise in oil prices at the hands of unregulated speculators.

And yet, through it all, a simple truth is lost.  Iran couldn’t close the Strait of Hormuz twenty or thirty years ago, and still could not today.  One can only hope that people with influence start to recognize that.