As fast I could muster, my batteries, cards, camera, and tripod were quickly gathered for my unplanned trip. With my boots pulled on and winter clothes layered, I hurried to my truck, started the engine, and backed out out of my spot without even letting the engine warm. I justified that it was worth the wear and tear on the vehicle because it was imperative to hurry out of Fairbanks to see what I hoped would be a stunning aurora. My justifications ended up being correct, but I didn’t know I was in for my most memorable night of the aurora season.
During the afternoon, snow had been falling heavily, and was forecasted to do so through the evening with strong winds in tow. Cloud cover was going to hide the effects of a G1 storm from solar winds emitting from a coronal hole. However, in opposition to the forecast, the skies opened up and revealed crimson red and shining green, and resulted in my rapid exodus from the house. Knowing that the aurora can disappear as quickly as it starts, I was anxious to reach my shooting spot on Old Murphy Dome Road.
The wind shook the truck as I parked, and snow laid down during the afternoon was transformed into biting crystals which targeted and stung any open skin; they were catalyzed by 30 mile per hour winds which gusted to 45. However, it was easy to forget the inconvenience of the wind, because my focus was on the aurora which stretched in front of me. Spanning across the sky it shimmered and danced, and patches of the heavens were lit in crimson red. Grabbing my camera, and stuffing some extra batteries into a chest pocket, I descended through thigh deep snow and set up my tripod. I simultaneously clicked my shutter and watched the sky. Aurora photography is a pretty active endeavor. I always make sure to address any “greener pastures”, so as the aurora constantly waxed and waned in front of me I fiddled constantly with camera settings and position.
As I sat and watched the aurora the most extraordinary thing happened : it went completely dark. I do not mean the aurora, I mean the whole landscape. I had not considered how bright the moon was until the clouds smothered its light. In fact, as I watched the dazzling light of the moon reappear, I realized I was on the edge of the weather and cloud front which appeared to be divided by the ridge line of Old Murphy Dome. Low clouds over the ridge line were pushed northeast by the howling winds like race cars, and applied a filter to the moon’s light as they moved past with a kaleidoscopic effect. The moon beams were composed of euphoria, or at least they must have been, because that is what I felt as I watched the soft moonlight dance across the snow like rays of the sun. Wave after wave of moonlight started to the south and passed over me. For ninety minutes I sat on the edge of the frontline, and the clouds provided opposing motion to the fluid dance of the aurora. It was amazing to consider that the solar winds which controlled the aurora, also created the wind on the ground which was still pushing up clouds of biting crystals.
I have never been in a more dynamic nightscape. The pushing wind, racing clouds, dancing aurora, and light of the moon were a pleasure to be a part of. The chance that I would sit along such a dynamic front may never happen again!
A timelapse of being on the “front line” during tonight’s aurora show. Note those moving clouds and the ground-storm:
Below is a gallery of the “snow storm” and the “aurora storm” from today. Be sure to click on images to enlarge them.
Purple Aurora – More than just red – there are some purples in the top of this aurora!
Driving winds pushed up a large snow drift. What a windy night!
All shades of the aurora above a whipping spruce top
“Divide” – the aurora is seemingly split in half by the points of this spruce!
A brilliant green curtain of aurora stretches across the moon.
A full sky of red and green over Murphy Dome, Alaska
While my friends on the east coast are getting pummeled by a record blizzard, here in Fairbanks, Alaska we’ve finally hit “seasonably cold” temperatures. As the mercury dropped On January 25th – 26th to 40 below, the clear skies were coupled with good looking aurora data. The humidity was only at 5% which for me meant perfect clarity to the stars! As I stepped out of the truck I sucked in my first breath of the cold air; it’s always the hardest one! The sting is from both the cold air and the dryness.It bursts into the lungs and bites the nose.
Although this was not my first 40 below night walking around in Alaska, it was the first time I took my camera out into those temps! Shooting at 40 below presented some unique challenges. First, battery life is depressingly short and I could only take about 300 images in contrast to over 1000 on one battery. Second, anything metal is extremely dangerous to the bare skin, and when you are out shooting metal is a common thing! I was carrying a magnesium alloy camera, and aluminum tripod with an aluminum head. Dealing with these items meant wearing liner gloves which resisted the cold like an ant resists a lollipop – I’ve never seen an ant that could resist a lollipop. The result is that I watched the aurora play across the sky in beautiful patterns on several occasions while warming my fingers! Of course, the disadvantage of that is I cannot print my photographic memory, but I still enjoyed a great show as my digits warmed up. Third, clumsy mits made adjusting a cold, stiff tripod head quite difficult! What did I learn: future cold excursions will include a better pair of gloves!
With my petty whines aside it was a glorious night of aurora and aurora photography. I really focused on composition of shots, and although I did shoot a very short timelapse, most of my night was spent wandering through knee deep powder in the black spruces. Through the night the aurora shifted from an overhead band to the northern skies and danced in vibrant colors. Now that I am indoctrinated, I am looking forward to more auroras in the -40 club!
This is likely my best aurora image to date! I was really focusing on composition all night, and this one has all the pieces of a great image!!
Tracks in the snow indicate where I came from as I moved along the firebreak.
The aurora is just starting ‘heat up’ in this great image looking through the black spruces.
Anytime you see pinks in the aurora it means there is quite a bit of activity coming in. The pinks came and went quickly in smothered by curtains of green.
Panorama from 2 images stitched in PS6.
A second image with the sentinel pine – do you like the square crop, or vertical crop better?
Bundled up for that -50 below windchill! Temperatures hovered at about -35 and a slight wind plummeted the “feels like” temp to -50
A lone, scraggly pine tree stands sentinel on along the fire break.
The other side of the story is the temperatures when I back to the University of Alaska Fairbanks. I was hoping their thermometer would read an official -40, but couldn’t quite reach that. Although at 8:00 AM the sign read -40, so close enough! I’ve included a screen capture of the temperatures and humidity as a some proof as well 🙂
Ice fog and hoar frost greeted me as I stepped into the inky-darkness on December 1st at 7AM. I was snowshoeing up the Pinnell Mountain Trail in search of caribou. Specifically I was hoping to harvest an individual from the “Forty Mile Herd“, because the hunt opened on December 1st, and would be closed by December 2nd due to a high amount of animals near the road. The goal of the hunt was to harvest 283 animals, and it was projected that hunters would achieve that in one day. In short, it was expected to be a zoo of hunters steaming around on their snow machines. I wanted to skip the crowds and headed north over the snowfields where most people head south. Robert Frost would declare I took the one less traveled.
The sun finally broke over the horizon in 10:15, and I glassed over the shrubs again in the drainage that I sat high above. The sled that I drug made an excellent seat; I was anticipating filling it with caribou! However, 60 minutes of glassing used up 20% of my available daylight, and I decided to move to the next basin. After looking into the nooks and crannies of the next valley, it seemed the drain had been pulled in this basin, if there had ever been caribou there they had emptied out! By the end of the day I had traveled over 7 miles over mountains, and through the snow, but no caribou to be found.
However, on a beautiful day like this one, there is always a silver lining. Each mountain side was filled with hoar frost encrusted spruces and the day finished with a great moonrise/sunset combination. So, rather than pictures of a trophy, I bring the pictures I shot of the Alaska Winter Wonderland!
By the way, let me know which shot of the moon with trees you like the best, I would love to hear!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.