Tag Archives: Dark Skies

Sightseeing Sitka, Alaska

Sitka, Alaska is known for its mountains which sprout from the ocean and provide a stunning backdrop to the fishing boats which constantly traverse its water. However, Sitka averages 87 inches (7.25 feet) of rain per year which means it is constantly cloudy. It was pretty lucky that our first visit to this scenic city coincided with 3 days of sunshine! We were blown away by the juxtaposition of mountains and ocean. A series of fortunate events allowed us to explore enjoy the region and my camera was constantly clicking.

Mountains and Sunsets

We stepped off our short, 40-minute, flight from Hoonah to Sitka and received an invite. My pilot was an avid hiker and wanted to bring my wife, Kassie, and I out hiking at Mosquito cove. After an instant “yes” on our part  we were on our way. The coastal drive brought us to the edge of town (Sitka only has about 17 miles of road), and in short order we were on the trail to Mosquito Cove. Tall spruces provided a high canopy and the loamy smell of the undergrowth mixed with the salty-fresh air of the ocean. The rocky coast reminded me of the shores of Maine, except the tall mountains made it distinctly Alaskan. A colorful sunset met us at the end of the hike and graced us as we returned to the trail head. An amazing way to start our time in Sitka!

The next day we ventured to the top of Harbor Mountain. Winding switchbacks made me a bit car-sick, but the big payout was the views from the top. The many islands of the Sitka region lay below us and the blue skies allowed for miles and miles of views.

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Blues skies reflect off a pool on Harbor Mountain, Sitka, Alaska.
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The sprawling bays and Islands surround Sitka, Alaska as seen from Harbor Mountain.
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I was struck by the character of this dead tree in the alpine on Harbor Mountain, Sitka, Alaska.
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A colorful sunset puts Mount Edgecumbe in shadows in Sitka, Alaska

The Aurora Borealis and Night Skies

The clear conditions in Sitka happened to align with a level 5 aurora forecast. I knew the only place that I wanted to go was to the dark skies and huge vistas of Harbor Mountain. The Northern Lights began almost as the sun went down and stretched far to the south over Mount Edgecumbe.  By 10:30 PM the aurora was far overhead and dancing in incredible sheets of green and pink. I was blown away by its presence over the oceans and landscape.

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The moonless night in Sitka, Alaska made the Milky Way shine. I caught this shooting-star, whose tail stretched long in the sky.
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The Milky Way over Harbor Mountain, Sitka, Alaska.

On the Wing

The flight from Sitka to Hoonah was the capstone to a remarkable trip. The sunny conditions persisted and showcased tall mountains, alpine lakes, colorful bays, and long fjords.

Starry Stitches

On the evening of December 8th this year, a wonderful series of phenomenon occurred. The sun went down, the aurora remained muted, brilliant stars of the Milky Way dappled the darkness, and a new moon sealed the deal for a night of very dark-skies.  I left the orange glow of Fairbanks behind and set off on a quest into the inky darkness of interior Alaska to photograph the Milky Way Galaxy.

When photographing the galaxy you are capturing the “galactic plane” which is the stars which spin out from the “galactic center“. Our sun and solar system reside on the edge of the galaxy, and give us the opportunity to look into it. However, depending on the season and the photographer’s location on the planet, the true center of the galaxy may not be available. In Fairbanks the galactic center would be visible in the summer when it is always light. During the winter the galactic plane of the Milky Way is visible,  but we do not get an opportunity to see the center because we are blocked from it by the planet.

MilkyWay
This image does a nice job of demonstrating our position in the disk of the milky way, and translating that disk to the “galactic plane”. Brilliant Milky Way images capture the nuclear bulge a the center of the Milky Way. The nuclear bulge is not visible from Fairbanks in the December. Image Credit : UCSD.edu

Fairbanks has not felt wind for over two months and snow  which would ordinary not persist with wind clung to the spruces encasing them . I angled my camera at the bases of those trees and slowly moved at up into the sky after each exposure with the goal of creating panoramic ‘stitches’ of the Milky Way. The method compounds the star density of the galaxy, and brings out distant features like a nebula seen in the upper left of several of the images. I hope you take to opportunity to view dark skies when you can!

A panoramic stitch of the Milky Way.
A panoramic stitch of the Milky Way and a nebula cluster in the upper left.
Milky Way Stitch
I was able to achieve the most definition of the Milky Way in this particular shot and misty veils of aurora float through for effect.
Milky Way Panorama
A tall vertical stitch of the Milky Way over a winter paradise.
Nebula cluster
The nebula cluster in this shot is pointed out by a snow covered spruce that arches into the picture from the left.
Milky Way and Nebula Cluster.
The Milky Way springs out of this crotch formed by these snow-covered spruces.
Milky Way Stitch
A distant planet, perhaps Venus, is particularly bright in this image.
Hoar Frost
The hoar-frost covered trees are a testament to the lack of wind in the region.

Chasing the Minnesota Aurora

During my trip home to Minnesota I have taken what I have learned about aurora watching in Alaska, and transferred it to conditions in the midwest. In doing so, I traded watching the aurora over snow drifts to squinting my eyes over bean fields with moderate success! A big push of energy from the sun has elevated geomagnetic energy to KP 6 or a G2-“Geomagnetic storm level 2”, which boosts the aurora to Minnesota, and even beyond. The two nights I chased the aurora brought success in both capturing the aurora in central Minnesota, and for playing with some new techniques which I will be honing in the upcoming year and are featured below. I would love to hear your feedback!

This timelapse below is fairly short and does not have a brilliant aurora, but does give a great idea of where to look for the aurora in Central Minnesota. During this G2 storm. In Alaska the aurora during a G2 storm would be far overhead and taking up the whole sky. In Minnesota it rose slightly above the horizon. Viewing would have been better if the smoke haze and moonlight could have been removed.

Moon through the clouds
The first night that I chased the aurora, a strong wing was rapidly pushing the clouds past this moon, which was fortunately setting. I really like the wind in the trees of this particular shot, as well as the long shadow cast by the moon.
Starlapse and Aurora
This star spin shot captures a 1.5 hours timelapse of star movement in the sky. Fortunately I captured the faint glow of aurora on low on the horizon, and directly below the pivotal star – the North Star.

One of the techniques I am very interested in growing is the ability to capture full panoramas of the milky way. The progression of images below shows a little bit on how that works. I learned a lot in this first attempt. A few key findings : 1) find the darkest skies possible! The light pollution shows here. 2) need to have more overlap in the shots 3 ) I tried to capture the whole galaxy in one sweep of the camera. I now know I can stitch multiple rows of shots to capture a larger area 4) keep the ISO of the camera low-ish to reduce noise. For those reading this with experience in capturing the Milky Way, please contact me, it would be great to pick your brain!

Midwest Milky Way
This image does a nice job of capturing a single image of the Milky Way. However, I would like to find darker skies. By taking multiple shots with the camera on the same plane, I can stick them together into the results below.
Milky Way Stretch
Here is one of the things I am struggling with in capturing a full panorama of the Milky Way. This image has a gorgeous amount of contrast, however, after stitching, I did not have enough horizon to create an image that can be cropped well. I would love to get feedback on the best way to straighten and correct these images.
Milky Way Panorama
This image is the best example I have of stitching the Milky Way, but is far from the entire arch. I do really like the bit of aurora that shows up here. Hopefully I can apply what I learned in my next attempt!
Aurora KP 6 Central Minnesota
This image of the aurora was taken in Rice, Minnesota during a G2 auroral storm. If it weren’t for the moon and the haze it would have been a much nicer show!

I have done a lot to curate my aurora gallery on Fine Art America. I would love if you checked it out!

 

Click here to View my professional aurora borealis gallery on Fine Art America

A Mirror Lake

This Memorial Day I had a great time with family at our lake cabin in central Minnesota. The night I got there the humidity had dropped from the sky and the stars were intensely clear and beautiful. I walked down to our dock and immediately realized that in the completely still night the earth and sky were the same; the lake was reflecting the stars and lights along the shoreline with mirror-like precision. Not a ripple blurred them. Taking pictures from the dock I did my best to capture the beauty and stillness of the night.

The starry night was reflected perfectly in the lake. The only thing that discerns the the earth is the the dock.
The starry night was reflected perfectly in the lake. The only thing that discerns the the earth is the the dock.

 

I have a tremendous sense of place at our cabin. I’ve been going there since I was a little kid and have helped in many of the building changes, mowed its lawn, ate pancakes cooked by my grandma every morning, fried fish for dinners, and fished its waters. Fish stories and memories have been firmly set in my memory and the lore of the cabin. Bent hooks, broken rods, and big fish are remembered by uncles, nephews and cousins. A walk down the dock is the beginning and end of any fishing trip. Over the years the has changed in length, shape, style, and design. But regardless of how it looks it is ALWAYS there. I took these photos from that dock to capture a beautiful night.

The boat pictured here has been part of many, many fishing trips. It is decades old and has held up through perhaps a dozen different 4-10 horse engines. The night was so still the boat hardly rocked during this long exposure.
The boat pictured here has been part of many, many fishing trips. It is decades old and has held up through perhaps a dozen different 4-10 horse engines. The night was so still the boat hardly rocked during this long exposure.
This image is a single 8 minute exposure. The stillness of the night reflected the spinning stars captured above.
This image is a single 8 minute exposure. The stillness of the night reflected the spinning stars captured above.