Archive for March, 2013

The push to Homer

Thursday, March 21st, 2013
The push to Homer

Sometimes things can take on a life of their own.  This is especially true if you are traveling with a group of photographers fresh from a sleep-deprived high of some spectacular aurora photos the night before – March 8, 2012.  With space weather forecasts suggesting another good night for aurora borealis displays, we headed out to the Kenai Peninsula.  It seemed to be the only place in our region where the clouds might be clear.

With clouds enshrouding the Turnagain Arm area, we pressed through a snow storm in Turnagain Pass, turning instead of toward Seward but down to Cooper Landing.  This small town on the Kenai Peninsula is ideally situated for landscape photography – high mountain ridges rise up on both sides of the town, which rests at Kenai Lake and the headwaters of the Kenai River.  A bridge on the Sterling Highway that crosses those headwaters marks the key launching point into the river, which also presents an opportunity to photograph the landscape in the flowing waters of the river.  Scattered clouds allowed us to view the tandem of Jupiter and Venus in the western sky, and even a bit of a green aurora glow rising up above the mountains to the north.  But before the aurora could grow and present a stronger display, the clouds rolled in.  We had come too far to turn around and head north of Anchorage – so we continued on down the highway toward Homer.

Most of the trip down to Homer was a blur for me, as I sat in and out of consciousness in the back seat of one of the two vehicles making the photo convoy. At one point I awoke to us being pulled over by Alaska State Troopers because the vehicle I was riding in had one headlight that was inoperative.

Before I knew it, we were at a well-known overlook that presents sweeping views of Kachemak Bay, the Gulf of Alaska, and the Homer Spit.  A nearly-full moon was blasting its way through a strong cloud canopy that swallowed the sky.  I captured several images, drawing upon the various tonalities in the scene and textures represented in the clouds and mountains on the far side of the bay.  After a while, we headed down to Bishop’s Beach, a public beach adorned with driftwood and rocks polished and shaped from eons of tumbling in the surf.  Surprisingly, we easily spent a couple of hours playing with low light photography, long shutter speeds, rolling surf, and various compositions of deadwood and stone. While not stellar images, it was fun to take advantage of being all the way down in Homer in the middle of the night and making the best of a cloudy night.

Shortly after 3:00 a.m., we headed back to Anchorage.  Again, I dozed through most of the four hour drive, catching glimpses of clouds, darkness and falling snow.  By the time we got back to Anchorage, the skies had opened up and the sun was shining. No aurora, but a photo adventure that ably reflected the craziness that can ensue when a group of photographers decide to head out and try to capture some nighttime magic.

On the air with Shannyn Moore

Thursday, March 21st, 2013
On the air with Shannyn Moore

It’s hard to believe that I have been listening to The Shannyn Moore Show since it first aired on KUDO 1080 in Anchorage.  Over the years, I have had occasional email, Facebook or even telephone conversations with Shannyn about everything from the aurora borealis to judicial selection in Anchorage.  But what brought me to my first face-to-face conversation with her, in her studio at KOAN 1020, a local Fox Radio affiliate, was nothing less than the greatest conservation challenge facing Alaska today – the proposed development of the Pebble Mine at the headwaters of two of the main five watersheds that contribute to the amazing Bristol Bay fishery.  I was the guest during her second hour on December 20, 2012 (you can download the Podcast for free on iTunes.)

One of the problems with the jury system is that our minds tend to fill in the blanks when we want to visualize something but don’t have all of the information.  During a mock jury experience, in a case where a driver’s speed could have been a contributing factor to the accident, the jurors assumed a speed limit based on how the streets were described – mixed residential and commercial.  No one had told them what the speed limit was.  Unfortunately for the plaintiffs in that case, the jury assumed wrong.

But some things you can get right.  Shannyn always refers to her show producer as “Chris in the Box,” which lead me to visualize that he was in a very small control room.  I got that much right.  How I pictured Chris, however, was all wrong.  How I pictured his system and how he called up bumper music or other sound materials was also all wrong – I was thinking old school to some degree, but instead, everything is pulled up on the Internet, typically through YouTube.

I also incorrectly pictured the actual studio setup, thinking more of a side-by-side orientation between host and guest; rather, I sat across a rather wide table.  It felt like a bit of a barrier so I did my best to lean in on the desk to interact more with Shannyn during the show.  The discussion was rather free-flowing, and I thought I did fairly well … until I listened to myself on the Podcast.  Oye.  Early on, a thought started to scream through my head as I listened, “State your thesis, dammit, and make a point soon!” I realized as I listened that I did not state at the outset what my photo project was, exactly, that I had come to talk about.  I got there in a rather roundabout way.  I also missed an early opportunity when Shannyn mentioned how she follows my aurora chasing on Twitter.  It would have been a great time to discuss a recent blog post I did on how social media has changed the aurora experience.  But instead, I brought it to people contacting me to see where and when I was going to watch the aurora and if they could come along.

But, Shannyn was very gracious and never let on that I was having a logorrhea problem.  She even invited me to come back again to discuss my Bristol Bay project.  With a pending trip for my last chance at winter fieldwork and the impending launch of the project website, I think it may be time to go back again soon.

Chris-in-the-Box in his box


Portage Persistence

Wednesday, March 20th, 2013
Portage Persistence

I have been trying for a couple years to capture a good aurora borealis photo in the Portage Valley of Chugach National Forest, located just a few miles south of Girdwood, Alaska. I have always loved winter landscape photography in that valley.  It’s magnificent for sunrise photography in the winter because the sun rises right down the valley, allowing early light to hit the ridges on the north side of the valley and light up its features with pink alpenglow.  It is isolated enough from nearby artificial lighting sources to make it a great spot for nighttime photography.  Portage Creek stays open all winter, even when it is -20F outside, giving it an additional feature not readily available in other valleys. Plus, it is only a 45-minute drive from home, which is a bonus.

What makes Portage Valley great for winter landscape photography also makes it a prime location for capturing a dynamic landscape with the aurora borealis.  But it took me a few years to be in Portage Valley when the northern lights magic finally struck. The first time I went I captured a dim aurora that faded fairly quickly, leaving me to take a one-hour star trails photo that contained a dim glow of green aurora residue.  The next two times I went down specifically to capture the aurora borealis, I ended up instead with star trails photos and nothing else.  But in one of those cases, it produced a marvelous image showing the sky circling around the Northern Star. 

Then, in November of 2012, I was out there with a couple of other photographers after we captured some magnificent aurora over the Twentymile River Valley along Turnagain Arm.  While we did capture a nice aurora borealis display with some greens and vivid pinks, my picture did not turn out as I hoped because, unknown to me, my Nikon 14-24 f/2.8 AFS lens had been damaged when I dropped it the previous week, creating a distorting effect in the lens optics.  The result was an image that was sharp in the center, and out of focus and distorted around the edges.  While it is an interesting effect, it was still not what I hoped for.

Then, the Luck of the Irish finally came to my aid.  Joined by fellow photographers C.J. Kale and Nick Selway of Lava Light Galleries in Kona, Hawai’i and Nolan Nitschke of Bishop, California, we headed out on the evening of March 16 to try Portage Valley again. This time, we had more confidence due to a forecast by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) indicating it would be a KP6-level event.  We arrived at the planned location and took our time setting up as there was not even a glow in the sky. As is good practice, we set up compositions and started to test exposures and focus.  A waxing crescent moon provided enough light to give the landscape detail without being too bright in the sky. After a while, we started to notice a deep purple hue showing up in the sky.  Soon, it had spread across the whole sky.  While not visible to the naked eye, the long exposures in the camera captured them.  As the purple built, I told the other photographers that early purple in the sky like that indicated it would be a strong aurora event.

Then, the purple started to fade as a dim green glow started to develop in the space of sky in between the peaks on the ridgeline before us. Building like a slow sunrise, the green rose to the summits of the peaks and then started to spread further skyward.  Then, the green turned into a chorus line, dancing in a line on the edge of the ridge to the west. The dance line then rose above the ridge and spread out into the sky, producing spikes and undulating curtains in greens with hints of red and pink.  After a while it calmed down, and we headed up to our cars to regroup and consider moving to another location.  It started to build up a little bit, so we headed back down to the creek, took some more photos and posed for a group picture.

When we had gone up to our cars, I placed my camera bag in the back of my car, leaving me with just my camera and a 24-70mm lens on a tripod.  During the mild buildup, I took just my camera and tripod down to the creek, leaving the bag (and my 14-24mm lens) behind.  Down at the creek, the show started to build a little bit more.  At one point, I was back on the road as we had again contemplated moving to another location.  Then, with little warning, the moderate show started to erupt.  I moved down the road a little bit to get a different vantage point, with the creek in the foreground right and a spruce tree in the middle.  Part of my decision in the position related to using the tree to cover CJ, Nick and Nolan who were down at the creek.  I didn’t want to have to spend the time to remove them later in Photoshop.

But the aurora display continued to build and build, making it too large and covering too much sky to capture with just a 24mm lens.  I internatlly debated for a while running back to my car to grab my bag and my 14-24mm lens, and ultimately knew I had to do it.  So, I took the time to stop shooting, sprint about 100 yards back to my car, grab my bag, and tell my nephew Daniel, who was sitting in the car watching the reboot of “V” on the iPad, to get out and watch this amazing show. I ran back to my where my tripod waited, pulled out the lens, removed its cap and promptly dropped it, lens face first, into the snow.  Loudly cursing while I frantically used my lens cloth to clean off the lens, I managed to afix the lens to my camera just in time to position for a vertical composition of a double question-mark shaped aurora curtain forming over the spruce tree in the middle. 

The rest of the evening was a bit of a blur, with all of us scrambling and changing to multiple locations to bring diversity to our compositions. A red aurora so bright it was visible to the naked eye pulsed over the south side of the valley, complimented by a split red-green corona. There were many exclamations of wonder and delight, I slightly fell into the creek after slipping on some ice (fortunately, my Baffin boots kept my feet warm and dry), and after a while, the dancing, undulating rainbow display of colors settled into a constant shimmering of white-green aurora.  When the craziness calmed down to this constant white-green overhead wash, we posed for another group photo, this time with a background sky completely full of aurora.  I took another portrait of Daniel under this brilliant sky.  By 3:00 a.m., we decided it was time to go out and explore more photo opportunities on the Turnagain Arm.

More photos from this night and other northern lights adventures can be found and purchased in my Aurora Borealis gallery.