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In Pursuit of the Aurora : A Personal Best

Ahoy Readers!

Tonight left me speechless, and if you had seen the explosive, pulsating reds and greens across the sky, you may have been too. DISCLAIMER : Poeticism, superlatives, and lists of glamorous, stunning, beautiful adjectives will abound in this post, for this was no mere night and cannot be described with just plain words :P. If this grammatical superfulism is not your style,  I would not blame you for skipping straight to the images on this one.

The aurora tonight was viewed about  5 miles from Murphy Dome. It started out as small pinnacles of colorless light in the sky which reminded me of shafts of lights streaming through a window into a dusty room — the cosmos is indeed full of dusty rooms. At first I thought the northern lights were just lights from the town. But it was not so. The lights began to grow brighter and quickly showed their emerald sheen.  They grew into blended columns of dark green, light green, lime-green, and moss green light that filled the northern sky. The green gave way to red, but by give-way I don’t mean they were replaced entirely. Rather. the towers of green pierced through the red back drop that saturated the sky to the north-northwest. The reds acted very differently than the greens, and seemed to never pick a form. They chose to just be the canvas for the greens to dance upon. And dance they did. Flowing curtains of green morphed and changed so rapidly that remembering what it used to look like only tore your attention away from concentrating on its new shape. Because the band of Lights split the cosmos going 180 degrees from horizon to horizon, the direction that you craned your head was important to your viewing experience. I would recommend the UP -Crane because the UP-Crane allows you to view the nucleus of the aurora. Above your head, on nights such as this was one, the core of the Aurora reaches into the depths of space. The pillars which serve to block the sky in banded patterns to your left and right seem to stretch out and lengthen as you stare directly up at them. Like balancing a pencil on  your nose by its eraser and then focusing on its sharpened tip. This portal of time feels like it would lead you to another dimension if you could jump just high enough to each it. The nucleus of the aurora is often the fastest changing. It grows and contracts while sending out electric pulses which pop, undulate, and meander across this sky. The beauty of the Aurora in its complete randomness.

Getting away from some of the poetry, I’d like to talk about my next upgrade in Aurora photography. First it was know-how, second it was cold-beating insulation (still in development) and now one of the next steps in my Aurora photography is a wide angle lens. However, I’m not that versed in lenses (especially old ones) and I would love to hear opinions on wide angle lenses for Micro-four Thirds. I’m looking for anything that would give me wider than 18mm ( in 35mm equivalent) and have considered old c-mount lenses (Cosmicar 8.5mm f/1.5) as well as MFT such as the panasonic 7-14 mm f/4.0. Leave a comment if you have any thoughts!

Without further ado, here’s some pictures from the night. The images start with the low-level reds which were soon exploding across the sky. Sorry for the intrusive Watermarks on these images, but I’m being a bit more protective of these captures compared to some others. Remember, if you ever want an image, be sure to contact me!

The start of the reds overhead with my companions outside of Murphy Dome. This was just the start of something incredible!
The watermelon aurora.
The watermelon aurora.
The watermelon aurora.
The watermelon aurora.
The mixing of the reds and the greens was fascinating and differed from the distinctly separated watermelon aurora
The mixing of the reds and the greens was fascinating and differed from the distinctly separated watermelon aurora
The mixing of the reds and the greens was fascinating and differed from the distinctly separated watermelon aurora
The mixing of the reds and the greens was fascinating and differed from the distinctly separated watermelon aurora
Do you see the angel in this Aurora?
Do you see the angel in this Aurora?

In Pursuit of the Aurora : A Steep Learning Curve

Hello Readers!

We were fortunate enough to have clear skies here a couple of nights ago coupled with a good Aurora forecast. So I took my gear over to Murphy Dome just outside of Fairbanks and set up for some shooting. It was my goal to create a time lapse and honestly thought I had it nailed until I got back to the house and imported my pictures. There were definitely some issues with this shoot, so lots of learning to be done! Here’s what I found out:

  1. It was -10 degrees that night. I tried to help my camera out by wrapping it in tinfoil and adding some hand warmers. It was not enough and the images showed the sensor in my camera struggling in the cold. The predominant issue was the loss of one of the colors that left a purple tint on the foreground. I had to correct for that. I am going to be creating a wrap and heating system for my camera for future shots.
  2. The sensor issue (cold) led to underexposed shots at settings that should have been well exposed
  3. I shot at 3200 ISO so that I could shoot shorter exposure (6 seconds), but the result of that was very noisy shots that made it hard to correct for the issues listed above
  4. In a non-camera related a close, low spruce tree in the shot for the ‘art’ of it, I wish I hadn’t done that! :p

However, with all that being said I have a product that might give you the desire to see the Lights up here! :). It’s not just a picture, make sure watch the video! There will be more northern lights timelapse photography as I implement new strategies.

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  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!

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.

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.

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 😀

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.

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.
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.