Chasing the Aurora Borealis

January 12, 2016 | by Ken

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.

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.

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.”

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)!