Aurora out on the Knik River

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.


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