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.