Aurora hits and misses

Aurora hits and misses

There are the technical aspects of capturing the aurora borealis with a camera.  There is all of the preparation and study that is necessary for a successful aurora hunting outing.  And then, there is just the repetition and the waiting.

So, I’ve been doing a bit of chasing and waiting so far this aurora season.  It started with what is perhaps my earliest venture in the autumn for chasing the northern lights – late August. For that early start, I went back to a familiar location that showed me great success during my last aurora hunt back in March – the Portage Valley of Chugach National Forest.  Located less than an hour away from Anchorage, but far enough away to avoid the city’s lights, it provides a spectacular landscape to compose with the aurora.

There was a brief aurora show that produced some vivid green spikes with some pink highlights. But that was really a warming up for the season, a chance to clear the cobwebs and make sure that everything was in working order. After my St. Patrick’s Day weekend success in Portage Valley, I wanted to start trying some new locations.

The next time I headed out on the aurora hunt was the first week of October.  Weather in September was mostly crappy and made aurora chasing fruitless.  I wanted to try a new location, so I headed north along the Knik River via the Old Glenn Highway.  I discovered a marvelous creek with some easy access to a gravel bar to provide low-to-the-water views for compositions. There was a very brief, very weak aurora borealis display that barely provided some green highlights to the sky.  I checked out a couple of other locations that I determined would not be suitable for future northern lights shooting – way too many artificial lights in the vicinity.


That night was a consolation prize.  The night before, there was an incredible aurora storm, with displays vivid and visible as far south as Iowa.  Unfortunately, it was cloudy as far as one could reasonable drive in one night  and still get to the location in time. A week later, the same pattern emerged: a strong aurora storm with displays visible in the Lower 48, but a vicious wind and rain storm struck Southcentral Alaska, wiping away the peaking colors of autumn and obscuring any opportunity to view the northern lights. Again, the night after the storm was clear, and with a NOAA forecast that suggested a KP4 level aurora, I headed out, looking for new locations.  This time, I headed south again, but past the entrance to Portage Valley and around past the Placer River crossing on the Turnagain Arm.  There is a series of ponds and standing dead trees with a view to the north that I always thought would make a great landscape setting for an aurora image.

So, I found a good spot, put on my headlamp and scouted the grounds.  Sure enough, it was very wet ground, with standing water up over my ankles even before the edge of the pond.  Fortunately, I had my Extra Tuffs in the rear of the car and changed into those. I grabbed the camera and tripod and headed down. I took several shots to check compositions, exposure and my focus point, noticing a dim green glow on the horizon in the long exposures. I also tried some compositions that showed the orange glow of Anchorage on the horizon. And, after all of that, I even captured an image of my 2010 Toyota Prius with the Milky Way towering overhead. But I could only do so much of that before it was time to go back inside the car and wait.

Waiting inside my car with the seat tilted back so I could rest and look out the window for the glow of the aurora on the horizon, I took the time to get caught up on podcasts of The Shannyn Moore Show, a local progressive radio talk show on, of all things, a FOX affiliate radio station. It’s smart and entertaining radio, and Shannyn has a thing for the aurora borealis so it seemed like good synergy. After waiting and dozing off and on for an hour and a half, I looked over to see a solid curtain of green starting to develop on the horizon above the mountains. It was a sure sign of a building display, so I pulled out the gear and, by the time I was setting up, the lights were well underway. I sent a message to photographer friend Joe Connolly to let him know the lights were out and continued shooting, changing lenses and compositions.  After about a half hour, the lights calmed down. I changed to another location for more scouting and captured some images of the dim aurora on the horizon.  Again, another good location for future use.

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