Archive for October, 2012

Aurora madness

Saturday, October 13th, 2012
Aurora madness

It was getting late in the evening and I was tired.  I had only just earlier in the day returned home from a three-day business trip out to the remote Yukon River village of Holy Cross.  I had stayed up late each night watching, hoping and waiting for an aurora borealis display.  On the last night, at around midnight, a dim display popped up just above the horizon.  I was excited because I finally got to see the aurora during the trip and it was my first time seeing it from the banks of the Yukon River.  There was just something very Alaskan about the notion of seeing the northern lights from Alaska’s most famous river.

But I was tired and getting ready to go to bed, making my last rounds of checking email and Facebook messages.  Then I saw the message from one of my fellow photographers, Carol Henke Lahnum, “dude where r u?”  I responded, “I am at home. Should I be somewhere else?”  Then I started to see the posts among the two different aurora groups I belong to, and it was clear that an aurora event was in progress, despite the forecast for a weak night in the skies.  I sent a text to Chris Beck, another photographer in a small group of us that go out and shoot together, inquiring whether he was out there.  For a while, there was no response.  Then, he texted back, indicating he was heading out.

Fortunately, my gear was all together as I had not even had the chance to unpack from the Holy Cross trip.  I grabbed some snack bars, filled the water bottle, made sure I had hat and gloves, dressed for the cold and headed out.  When I saw that the aurora was directly overhead and visible above my home in south Anchorage, I went back in and woke up Michelle, who was able to get up and see it right outside the window.  It was the first time I had ever been able to see the aurora from inside my home in Anchorage after living here for 13 years.

I quickly zipped over to Jewel Lake, just a block away from my home, to capture the aurora over the lake – it was 10:21 p.m.  But soon I moved on toward Point Woronzof, which is the closest location within Anchorage where I would be able to shoot the aurora with minimal light pollution.  After I was satisfied there, I headed out toward the Glenn Highway, planning to meet up with Carol and Chris, who were already on site at one of our usual aurora locations.

As I approached the weigh station on the highway north of town, I noticed that the aurora was building up to my left (north).  I pulled over and stopped on the shoulder, grabbed the camera and tripod, and started shooting.  Soon, there was a display that reached all the way from the north to overhead and then to the south.  There is nothing that can adequately describe the exhileration of seeing the colors, the movement, the seemingly lifelike nature of the aurora snaking its way across the sky.  I can only hope to photograph it, which is sometimes challenging when it is lighting up all over the sky and moving around as much as it does when it gets cooking.  But shooting from the shoulder of one of the busiest stretches of highway in Alaska was not where I wanted to be.  Shortly after midnight, I decided it was time to move on.

Shortly after crossing the Eagle River, I noticed the aurora kicking up a little to my left.  I rolled down my window to get a clearer look, but I really coulnd’t tell what was going on overhead.  While driving close to 70 mph, I stuck my head completely out the window and looked up – it was moving around, but did not seem to be approaching the level of activity that would warrant pulling over.  I pulled my head back in, rolled up the window and continued on.  A few seconds later, I realized that my head felt differently, so I reached up and touched my head – only to find that while my headlamp was still on, my favorite winter hat – a gift from my artist residency at Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve – was no longer there.  I was easily now at least a half mile past where the hat had come off, but there was no way to turn around safely or legally.  I made the decision to continue on without it.

I met up with Carol and Chris on the banks of the Knik River along the Old Glenn Highway, quickly set up and surveyed the landscape.  I captured my first image here at 12:34 a.m. The aurora was not as active or bright as it had been, but it had changed character a bit.  Normally, an aurora display will be an isolated band of light dancing against a dark sky (if you are lucky enough to have clear skies).  Now, the aurora was spreading out and covering almost every inch of the sky, moving in spurts and waves of energy, undulating and jumping over a blanket of sharp points of light in the sky.  Occasionally, we would look overhead and see flashes of soft light brushing across the sky, as if it were skipping on an invisible surface.  After we felt we had exhausted what was available with the different options of the landscape, we decided to continue on down the road toward Jim Creek.  It was 1:25 in the morning.

The turnoff to this particular location is hard to see in the pitch darkness, even with the help of headlights.  Chris, who was lead car, passed it the first time, and we did a caravan u-turn and headed down the driveway onto the frozen mud flats of this part of the Knik River, settling to a spot a short walk from the river itself.  The sky was still acting as it had at our previous spot, with the aurora spreading out in spurts and patterns across the entire sky.  While to the naked eye it looked like a pale green/cyan, with a 13-second exposure, I could see faint magentas and yellows mixed in.  As it often goes with the aurora, we had periods of calm and periods of bustling energy, but there was never a time when the aurora just stopped.  This was completely foreign to me; I am accustomed to having a 20-minute burst of activity, followed by an hour or more of complete darkness before the lights kick in again.  After two more hours of peaks and valleys, of shooting in a complete 360-degree view – as well as directly overhead – we decided to call it a night.  The season was young – we would still have all winter to capture the aurora during the eleven-year solar peak that was before us.  Chris left before Carol and I – he was clearly wiped; I had a hard time waking him from a nap in his car as our last peak activity started to brew.  Carol and I headed back to Anchorage in our separate vehicles, with Carol in the lead.

As I was transiting down the ramp from the Old Glenn Highway to the Glenn Highway, heading in the direction of Anchorage, I saw the sky brewing up yet again to the north – directly over the nearby city of Wasilla.  I quickly pulled over, grabbed the tripod and camera one more time, and started shooting.  It turned out to be well worth it, as soon there was an absolutely crazy, bright and busy green and purple display exploding over the Chugach Mountains to the south.  In elven minutes, the sky reverted to is more mellow state of soft waves and curtains.  I decided that now, finally, I had seen and photographed enough.  That last stop on the off ramp had given me the finale for the night and, like George Castanza would say, leave on a high note.  It was 3:58 a.m. As I approached the last Eagle River exit when heading toward Anchorage, I took the exit, crossed over to the other side, and turned around headed back north again – I was hoping to find my beloved Gates of the Arctic hat.  Driving slowly (there was not much for traffic on the highway), I was able to see its crumpled form in the middle of the road; I pulled over, snatched it, and then turned around at the next exit.  I arrived home, set the CF card full of aurora images to download into the external hard drive that holds my photo library, and went to bed.  It was 5:00 a.m.

These and other images of the northern lights can be found in the “Aurora Borealis” gallery on my website.