Big Sky Aurora

As they watched from the river valley on earth and were surrounded by looming spruces, it was impossible to appreciate the forces which lit the heavens and lead to the impression of the sky being wrenched apart before their eyes. Ever building and ever collapsing, green bands of streaming light were changed and morphed as they moved across the sky. Arches of lime-light on the horizon diminished before their eyes , but were re-built again, again, and again. Each new band of aurora was different than the last, and each was beautiful. Waxing and waning the aurora finally monopolized one hundred and eight degrees of view and commanded the absolute attention of those below. Orion’s belt to the south was covered in emerald, and those same lights which infected the southern sky extended to the northern horizon.It was to the north that the viewers watched. The knew that whatever lay in store for this evening would start there.

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“Looking Through” The black spruces bent with show creating arches to view a phenomenon
Aurora Big Swirl
A huge arching swirl of aurora
Sustainable Village Aurora Borealis Panorama
Aurora band over the Sustainable Village
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A brilliant band or aurora bisects a hunched black spruce

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The First Taste of Spring

Like a chick pecking its way out of a shell, one by one the patches of snow fell off the trees of the forest. As each ounce was shed from the trees, they raised up their still lifeless twigs up as if glorifying the sun, thanking it for removing the burden of many months. Throughout the forest cascades of snow starting from the tops of the highest branches tumbled and glinted like diamonds in the sun as the chunks were forced through the sifter of small branches by gravity. The warm rays of sun, an unknown entity through winter, warmed the dark branches. One by one they were free. 

The first time you taste spring after the winter is a moment of true joy. The resilience to cold developed through the winter makes you bold enough to walk in the 30 degree temps in a flannel. Moist air on your lips from evaporating snow, the heat of the sun on your face, and a touch of warm breeze on your face may make you bound for joy. Literally bound. It’s a bound that brings a smile to your face, and if others saw you, they would smile too. The feeling of spring is infectious.

Watching the bonds of spring being softened and eventually broken is a great thing! As the sun warmed my face this week the world was a visual wonder. Snow fell from the trees in smatterings and piles, sliding off from its own weight or from external catalysis. Busy chickadees feeding around the well-stocked feeder at my house perched on twigs, gleaned through the branches, soaked up the heat, and ensured all of the snow was sloughed away from the imprisoned trees before taking flight again. 

The first taste of spring is bittersweet. The knowledge that it ‘came too soon’ only pushes me to enjoy it more while I can. Winter certainly will try to take hold once again, and I will inwardly smile knowing that the next time it may be vanquished for good.

A few days ago the winter wonderland at the Sustainable Village was erased in an afternoon. I realized that the moment was happening so quickly that it could be captured on camera. Setting my up my camera I timelapsed the scene for the rest of the day. As you watch this video, focus on a spot and watch the change. I hope it gives you cheer and excitement for spring. Even if it is just a taste!

February 16th, 2015 : The “Coronal Hole” Red Aurora

Traditionally I think of the aurora being generated from a sun event. Often C-class flares, M-class flares, and X-class flares (the largest) hurtle plasma towards at the earth resulting in brilliant auroras. I have dug into the science of auroras during previous posts, and wrote about some of the science of the auroral colors and why the aurora can go from a nice show to a great show.  However, last nights aurora event was generated by a “Coronal Hole” in the sun. That term was new to me, and although it sounds like a headline from an end of days article, it’s really not that bad!

Coronal holes are a simple concept. The sun normally has a stable magnetic field that controls solar winds and energy from the sun. During a coronal hole event, magnetic field lines extend far away from the sun and allow high speed solar winds to escape. Solar wind speeds may exceed 10,000,000 km/hr! Translating that to terms I understand more, solar winds can travel at 500 miles/second. That’s a quick commute to work, or in this case the earth!  If the coronal hole is ‘geo-effective’ it means that those solar winds are headed towards our planet. These events can lead to a lot of high energy resulting in red and multicolored auroras even during times of low solar activity. (http://www.spaceweatherlive.com/en/help/what-is-a-coronal-hole, http://www.exploratorium.edu/spaceweather/holes.html)

Last night’s show was stopped at 10:30 due to clouds over Fairbanks. From 8:30 – 10:30 it remained subtle, but beautiful. The high energy from the coronal hole produced a quickly changing, but not well defined red aurora. I hope you enjoy!

How to Fillet Your Burbot (Properly)

We’ve finally come out of our ‘seasonably cold’ weather in Fairbanks. Looking back at the last months data, temperatures hovered around -20 most of time which is not good burbot fishing weather! The holes freeze up quickly both on the top and by filling in from the sides. However, temperatures this week hold the promise of our first 30 degree day all winter, and it was time get back onto the ice!

Here's the weather graph of our temperatures since January 1st. Lots of 40 below in there, and not much above zero! These data were pulled down from NOAA from the Fairbanks airport weather station.
Here’s the weather graph of our temperatures since January 1st. Lots of 40 below in there, and not much above zero! These data were pulled down from NOAA from the Fairbanks airport weather station.

When we reached our destination, it was evident the cold snap had thickened the exoskeleton of the Tanana River. The first hole we drilled buried my normal auger bar, but that didn’t worry me! A few pins removed and added, and my 18″ extension was attached. With the entire auger now towering at six feet I was pretty confident I would get through to water. The newly lengthened auger took a some teamwork to make it efficient. For instance, starting a new hole and applying enough downward pressure required one guy on each handle and working at eye level until it had cut deep enough. However, we found water just a few more inches where the old auger hole had ended. We set our lines using the method from last season and walked away with anticipation for the next day.

The next day I returned with a slightly new crew. One of the things I have enjoyed most about burbot fishing is having a reason to go outside for a walk, gathering my own food through the winter, and introducing new people to the experience. Brian, Alison, and their 1-year old pup Rue were great additions on the Tanana.  Rue in particular loved to dig the snow off the closed holes, steal bait, and watch as we scooped slush. A cute pup! To help out their experience, we pulled out a great looking, 30 inch burbot!

The crew looks on as Rue gets in closer for a look. It's a lot of fun having a young dog on the ice!
The crew looks on as Rue gets in closer for a look. It’s a lot of fun having a young dog on the ice!
Rue liked to help "dig" the holes for us, and was very curious about scooping slush.
Rue liked to help “dig” the holes for us, and was very curious about scooping slush.
Group success! The only bad part : I missed the focus on this shot. In my defense I wasn't wearing my glasses. Oops!
Group success! The only bad part : I missed the focus on this shot. In my defense I wasn’t wearing my glasses. Oops!

One of the things I have learned from people as I have talked about burbot fishing to them, is there is a lot of misconceptions on how to clean a burbot. When I was home in Minnesota this Christmas I was fishing for walleye on Ottertail lake, when we pulled a nice eelpout (burbot), through the hole. The guys I was with admitted they had never actually kept and cleaned one. I have had conversations with others who suggest to only remove the meat from along the back, but in fact there is a lot more meat on the fish than that! Contrary to these ideas, cleaning a burbot is not a whole lot different than cleaning any other fish. Here’s a couple of tips:

1) Fillet around the ribs rather than through them and remove the whole fillet from the side of the fish

2) There are some large rib bones that stick perpendicular to the side of the fish, once you are around those you’ll be able to keep all the belly meat

3) When removing the skin from the fillet, hold the knife parallel to the table and then angled slightly down. Rather than push the knife through the fillet, pull the fillet (starting wit the tail end) towards you leaving the knife in place. It will result in NO meat lost EVERY time!! If you try to push the knife through the fillet you will likely cut through the skin and that’s frustrating!

For your information, and entertainment, I’ve put together a 50 second video highlighting these tips, a poor accent, and a slightly dry sense of humor. Good luck getting those burbot!

 

February 7th : Dog Day in Alaska/ Live Aurora Footage

Saturday was a dog day for me in Alaska. When my friend Brandon and I arrived at noon to Black Spruce Dogsledding the dogs greeted us with baying and loud voices. Or mission for the day :do some mushing and then shoot some night sequences of the dogs and mushing for an upcoming video.

My confidence was much higher from the last time I had been mushing. As my six dog team took off the same adrenaline rush hit me, but my newly acquired skills reigned the excited dogs to a more reasonable pace. My heel weighed on the drag a bit to control the sled speed, and my toe sat on the runner. The stance allows stability around turns and maintains control on the sled during downhills, it is a very useful position!  As we headed into a north wind the -40 below windchills were exacerbated by the movement of the dogs. Any bare skin was out of the question! I pulled up my facemask over the tip of my nose and adjusted my ski goggles. Once encased inside of my cocoon I stayed very warm, in fact, my hands broke a sweat due to the activity!

Of course the temperatures were very limiting for shooting, but I do have some stills of the day which capture the dogs and some of the cold!

February 7th : Sled dog at Black Spruce Dog Sledding
February 7th : Sled dog at Black Spruce Dog Sledding
Stopped along the way for this trail groomer, and to take a chance to warm up! Photo Credit : Brandon Donnelly.
Stopped along the way for this trail groomer, and to take a chance to warm up! Photo Credit : Brandon Donnelly.
Made it through the cold temps -
Brandon made it through the cold temps.
These pups are ready for a run!
These pups are ready for a run!
The eyes of sled dogs are so beautiful!
The eyes of sled dogs are so beautiful!

We settled into the house after our 9 mile mush and warmed up with some hot supper, by the time we stepped outside again at 8PM, magic was beginning to happen in the sky.  A faint rivlet of aurora was growing, and by 10:15 had grown to a flowing stream which  then topped its banks! Ribbons of pink, green, and purple aurora flowed and dashed across the sky. The show lasted for 15 minutes, and then mysteriously faded away. Sometimes seeing the best aurora is just about being at the right place at the right time. The images I captured that night are easily some of the most colorful and sharp to date! What a show!

Part of what I have to offer today is footage shot with Brandon’s Sony A7S. This camera can almost literally see in the dark. Although the footage is not of the highest quality possible (for that check out Ronn Murray’s incredible work!), I couldn’t be MORE happy to catch some real-time auroras for you! These have been sped up to make it a bit more interesting to watch (since we didn’t catch the show at the most epic point), but allows you to see all of the movements, rather than what you miss in the timelapse!

Last, but not least, I have a new photo project! You can  check it out at the 2015 Photo Project!

February 8th : Aurora borealis panorama. Taken 02/07 at 10:30 PM, however, since the aurora extended past midnight I'm counting it for the 8th
February 8th : Aurora borealis panorama. Taken 02/07 at 10:30 PM, however, since the aurora extended past midnight I’m counting it for the 8th
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Certainly one of my favorites shots to date! The blues, purples and pinks here are all visible to the naked eye too. A Stunning show!
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Brandon posing for an Aurora shot.
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A bright band of pink lights up the bottom of this aurora. The reason this shot feels ‘fuzzy’ is the aurora was moving too fast for the exposure length. BUT, it still captured a lot of great color!

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Aurora Borealis Panoramas

Last night’s unexpected G1 (minor storm) came with high solar winds and a LOT of early promise. The data was looking good as I polished my lens and charged my batteries. By 9:30 the Aurora had flared up into great form with evidence of the high solar winds showing. The speed of the aurora was astounding – it rippled and flowed in one direction like a river of green light in the sky. However, in truly unpredictable fashion, the fat lady sang at 10:15 PM and it was over. That’s an early considering peak, average activity is at midnight.

I’m continuing to push the envelop of what I’m capable of for shooting the aurora.I took the opportunity last night to experiment with my first aurora panoramas. Often times a single image cannot capture the scope of the aurora, so the advantage is capturing the whole arc of the aurora in the sky. These images were stitched in Photoshop 6 and are comprised of 4 – 5 images each. I am happy with a first attempt!

Aurora borealis panorama 2. These images of the aurora were taken after the aurora activity picked up. I wanted to test how well the panorama would stitch with the higher activity - pretty good! The 'break' you see in the aurora is exactly how it looked. 2 bands in the sky.
Aurora borealis panorama 2. These images of the aurora were taken after the aurora activity picked up. I wanted to test how well the panorama would stitch with the higher activity – pretty good! The ‘break’ you see in the aurora is exactly how it looked. 2 bands in the sky.
Aurora borealis panorama early in the night. Stitched in photoshop, these are 4 second images which capture the whole arc of the aurora.
Aurora borealis panorama early in the night. Stitched in Photoshop 6, these are 4 second images which capture the whole arc of the aurora.

Beyond the panoramas I experimented with timelapse last night too. Incredibly, the timelapse here has shots taken down to 0.5 second exposures and at only 1 second apart. It gives the aurora incredible flow! I am getting closer and closer to it really feeling real which is my auroral goal. The speed of the technique differs from the past (2-4 second exposures and 2 seconds buffer) because of some high speed SD cards I got for Christmas which removed the need for much buffering/write time. It’s great!

There’s PLENTY of snow on the north side of Spinach Creek and it can make moving around a bit of a hassle. The snow itself is pure powder and easy to navigate, it is the grabbing stems of vengeful, cut black spruces which muddy the waters! You are often in the trap before you know it, and several times I was successfully taken down during my saunter. For scale I plopped down on the hillside and snapped an image – a good 3 feet or so!