Chasing the Aurora Borealis

The outlook was grim. Clouds in the forecast. Moderate solar activity. Impenetrable but intriguing dials and graphs on SolarHam.

But anything can happen.

Our friends Chris and Angie had arranged for us all to spend the last two days of our visit at the Mount Aurora Lodge. On Christmas afternoon, we piled into the Prius and journeyed into the mountains outside Fairbanks, far from the light pollution of the “big” city.

P1010870 Mount Aurora Lodge daytime

The lodge doesn’t look like much, and indeed, it was originally built to house 300 gold miners at a time during the Gold Rush. Nowadays, it houses far fewer people in wi-fi-drenched comfort.

Mount Aurora Lodge main room

On our last night, the front desk clerk casually mentioned that the Aurora was supposed to be really good that night, and she was staying late to photograph it. My excitement level rose. We went out to dinner, where I avoided alcohol for fear it would make me sleepy. Back at the lodge, before the “scheduled” appearance of illuminated solar radiation, I took a nap. Then came the knock.

We saw the Northern Lights. For hours. They were faint but defined, and long exposures (1.5 to 3 seconds) make them appear brighter in these photos.

String the pix together in a time lapse, and you can see swirling shapes form and dissipate.

In reality, we stood around and talked (and snapped photo after photo), occasionally glancing up to realize a new pattern had emerged. Click here to view a playlist of my Northern Lights time lapses.

I would shoot for twenty minutes or so, get cold, go inside and review the photos, then head back outside. Eventually, the other photographers had all gone to bed, satisfied with their snaps, but I continued looking for new angles to capture.

At one point, I walked down a snowy path and thought, “Hmm, if I slipped and bonked my head here, it would take them a while to find me… and it’s really cold.” I made sure of my footing. When I returned to the cozy meeting room in the lodge later, Karen said, “I was just starting to wonder about you.”

Aurora group

It came down to the wire, but our Alaska trip ended with a spectacular natural light show. I’m grateful to Angie and Chris for setting it up, and to Karen for “starting to wonder” about me (as needed)!



Next Stop: Alaska… in winter?!

Christmas in Alaska. Fairbanks, to be exact. Some friends asked if we were taking a cruise; others asked if we’d see polar bears. Then they’d pause and think about it. Fairbanks. It’s inland. It’s cold. It’s dark.

“Why are you going to Alaska in December?”

The main reason? To see our friends Chris and Angie, of course! They traveled with us to Peru and met us on the last leg of our world tour in China. Before all that, we had visited them in Fairbanks for the summer solstice in 1999, when the sun never set.

Now, we would be present for the winter solstice in 2015, when the sun strains to peek above the horizon before giving up the ghost and beginning its descent.

11:22AM on the solstice
The frozen foursome on the solstice. It’s 11:22AM.

Here’s a time lapse view from our hotel room. Note the clock in the lower left corner- the daylight goes fast. [youtube_sc url=””]

When you have a small sliver of daylight, you make good use of it. One day, dog sledding!

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The next, examining ice sculptures!

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Plus, we crashed Chris’ work holiday party, toured Angie’s office, drank too much wine and beer, ate too much food, joined a family for Christmas caroling, slid into a snowbank on the way home, got pulled out of the snowbank by a guy whose shirt had Christmas lights sewn into it, flew a flight simulator, and played with feisty felines Reachy and CeCe Dangercat.

Karen couldn’t resist cooking, so we dined on homemade lomo saltado (Chris’ favorite Peruvian dish) and okonomiyaki (my favorite Japanese dish).

Alas, my one regret was that we wouldn’t see the Northern Lights. The time of year was right, but the weather forecast called for cloudy skies, which would obscure the faint display.

Then again, since when can they predict the weather? Maybe there’s hope… stay tuned!