In Pursuit of the Aurora

Hello Readers!

It’s been a busy couple of weeks, as I’ve been spending my last couple of weekends in Chena Hot Springs in pursuit of small mammals; specifically the water shrew. My work out there has been with Jonathan Fiely, who describes these small mammals as “the river otters” of the small mammal world. They are active hunters which snack on small minnows and invertebrates that they catch. Unfortunately, our success in nabbing one of these tiny, elusive creatures was zero; however, the nights we spent out doing it were well worth it. Last weekend was that big Full Moon. If you didn’t catch it that’s too bad! Although, there will be others ;). One of the fascinating facts about the moon is that it’s the same phase for everyone in the world. It connects us all. Although that may seem like common sense, with the quickly dying daylight hours here in Alaska, I’m happy to know that some of the celestial events are shared with my hometown Minnesotans and adopted Mainers. The moonlight off the tributary to the Chena River was a bright, ivory road. It was impossible not to stand there and just look at it – although I may have benefited from sunglasses it was so bright! Here you can see me standing in the river (not on the ice) looking at that big moon.

Full Moon at the Chena Hot Springs
Full Moon at the Chena Hot Springs.The moonlight off the tributary to the Chena River was a bright, ivory road. It was impossible not to stand there and just look at it – although I may have benefited from sunglasses it was so bright! Here you can see me standing in the river (not on the ice) looking at that big moon.

One of the big news events of the week for me was a large X1.7 and X2.0 Solar flare from the sun. These events are the triggers of the Aurora, and this was one was described by NASA as “A canyon of fire over 200,000 miles long”. Based on this information I was VERY excited to head up north for the weekend and get away from the light pollution of Fairbanks in hopes of getting some really good looks at the Aurora. After reviewing the Aurora forecast (http://www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast) it looked like there was going to be a decent chance of getting at least a ‘moderate’ display up north. So, I packed up my photography gear, gun, and camping stuff and headed up 85 miles north with Ross Dorendorf to the Twelvemile Summit on the Steese Highway. We could not have picked a better day to be up in interior Alaska. The day was actually very, very warm for the end of October, I think the high was probably near 35 degrees. We were in pursuit of Ptarmigan so we headed up the ridge tops, hiking for a few miles. Although the ptarmigan tracks printed in the snow were abundant is certain Β areas we never saw a single ptarmigan. We were lucky enough to see a large snowy owl on the slope below us. As soon as he realized he was spotted the owl took off from the ground and flew along the ridge top in front of us, about 300 yards away. He was very large! I would say the size of a large gull and flapped gracefully. Here are a series of pictures and a 360 degree video from the summit of the mountain. As you can see, it wasn’t a bad day out there!

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Once we reached the top of the ridge the mountains stretched all around us and the sun shown off them brightly.
12 Mile Summit on the Steese Highway.
12 Mile Summit on the Steese Highway.

We hiked down from the ridgetop and got back to the truck right as the sun was disappearing. The warm temperatures were also disappearing. What a sun driven system we have here! The sunset was indeed a beauty and the clouds to the south, which were likely covering Fairbanks, lent themselves perfectly to the orange and yellow bands in the sky.

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Sunsets are one of my favorite parts of any day, especially days spent outside. What a glorious way to end our hike in the mountains!

Once we were done with the sunset it was time to get down to making camp. Now don’t get me wrong, camp on this trip was pretty straight forward. I was to sleep in the back of my truck and Ross was to sleep in his tent. We weren’t too interested in leaving some of the conveniences of car camping behind. So, Ross fired up his stove and soon had a warm, salty, cheesy and DELICIOUS batch of macaroni and cheese going. I had tasked myself with making a batch of monkey bread in the dutch oven. Monkey bread is also called pull bread and is a doughy, cinnamon sugar filled wonder. Its hot, sweetness is the perfect end to any day. Dutch oven cooking is a small camping hobby of mine. It involves a cast iron pot which is heated from the top and bottom with coals. You can bake an assortment of meals and desserts within it; if you can make it in a traditional oven at home, you can cook it within the dutch oven. The picture below illustrated the heat on top and bottom of the oven.

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Here you can see dutch oven cooking. The heat is placed above and below the pot which heats it evenly on all sides. You rotate both the oven bottom and lid to ensure the contents are baked as evenly as possible. In here I’m making Monkey Bread, but you can make an assortment of cobblers, root veggies, pot roasts or many other items! In the background you can see the 12-mile summit trail sign.

So, did we get a good product from the dutch oven? On this day the Dutch OVen was a massive success story, the monkey bread was done perfectly! I can’t claim success every time, so this was a sweet day! The video below “Twilight and Goodies” will give you a good look at my finished product πŸ˜€

As we sat and digested the food we had eaten the night got darker and darker. The twilight finally gave way into complete darkness and we were humbled and awe-struck by the stars above us and around us. The milky-way cut through the sky in a large creamy swath. I did my best to capture the milky way. The images you’ll see below have been enhanced in contrast to help bring out the color and feel of the multitude of stars and the grandeur of the milky-way. However, you’ll see in the first image an orange tint at the bottom of the image. What you are looking at is actually the light pollution from Fairbanks. Even 80 miles away, in the state of Alaska, light pollution is filling our skies. In some point in our history, there will never be a black sky ever again. This presents more than aesthetic, human problem; birds are known to navigate by light and become disorientated by the lights of cities and within the ocean. If you don’t think it’s a big deal, think about being a bird as you fly into your next airport at night.

The second image you see below has been modified to remove the light pollution.

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This image is of the Milky way over the 12-mile summit off the Steese Highway. It represent and incredible portion of the cosmos, but also illustrates how even areas that we consider to have the ‘darkest’ skies are still addled with light pollution.
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Here the Milky-way can be seen in full. The image has been enhanced to reduce the effect of the light pollution.

While observing the cosmos we watched many shooting stars streak across the sky. One of them lasted for so long we contemplated going after it, as we were sure based on its trajectory that it had buried itself somewhere just outside of Barrow. Our backs and neck ached with the craning our heads to the stars above, but there was not stopping our watching.

You’ll notice the title of this entry is “In Pursuit of the Aurora”. On this night, even with the solar activity, the aurora evaded us. We stayed up until 1AM and at time the clouds started to roll in. Although I’m confident there was an Aurora this night, we were unable to see it. However, at about 12 AM one of the the most interesting phenomenon occurred. Simultaneously Ross and I looked to the horizon and came to the same conclusion: there was a fire and it looked to be big. The fire continued to grow and a minute later we realized our folly as a blood-orange, crescent moon rose quickly over the hillside. It illuminated the landscape around us in its light. The moon and the new cloud cover convinced us that sleep was more valuable than the aurora on this night.

17 thoughts on “In Pursuit of the Aurora”

  1. Lodge should be using that double-tiered coal photo for their cookers. Neat! Just finished breakfast, and despite being full, I got monkey-bread pangs. Hope you will be able to hook up with shrews and views on your next journey,

  2. Loved your comment of the moon. It is a touchstone for me. Dolly A just walked “the Way” in Spain and when I looked at the moon I thought of her under the same moon as I . Now I can think of you under the same moon and send up a prayer for you. Thanks for sharing yourself and your experiences. Judy Gray. ( 1st Parish)

  3. Photos of the night sky are breath-taking. Your description of the snowy owl held my interest. I am interested in owls. It is not often that I get to see one. At night, I have heard them in our backyard.
    Light pollution; hmm! Another sign of our cherished environment being compromised with no turning back. Your meals sound delicious after a challenging day!

    1. Owls are magnificent! I’d like to point you to my friend Erik Bruhnke’s Facebook Page – Naturally Avian. Erik is a gifted birder and photographer. His owl shots are top notch and incredibly beautiful!

  4. Anything with the word Aurora in it captures my attention. My newest dog’s registered name is Clarenjoy Yahtaris Aurora Isbre (the first two are kennel names). Her call name is Alexia, but I call her “Allie.” I enjoy your writings, Ian, and I usually read each post at least twice. (That’s just a habit from teaching.) But they are well worth the read. Cheers!

    1. Thanks Sandy! If you read it the second time you might notice a small difference. A few edits were made this morning. Regardless of how many times you proofread something at 11:30 at night, it’s never as good as that ‘AM’ proofread. πŸ™‚

      1. Oh, for sure. I know all about the former vs. the latter proofread. Mostly, I am so over editing; now I read to enjoy. When my sister and I were your age, she lived in Alaska and worked on a salmon boat. I was very jealous. I’m sure that contributes to how much I enjoy your blog. I admire your commitment to making it successful because I know maintaining a blog takes time and effort.

  5. What was your exposure time for those star shots? Can you see that many stars with your naked eye, or is a time-exposure necessary. That sure is a wow-amount of stars!

    1. Star shots were shot f/3.5 @ ISO 1600 for 15- 60 seconds. So, a combination of high sensitivity and long exposure. I bumped the ISO way up in hopes of really nailing the milky-way. Traditionally I’ll shot star shots at f/3.5 ISO 800 and 15 seconds. The 60 second exposure actually were not that effective, as the stars had moved by them and made the image look unstable. However, with that being said, you could see almost as many stars as show up in the picture. It was really incredible out there! Also, if I had that Voigtlander lense (f/0.95) I could really nail these shots :D. At least, that’s the thought.

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