In Search of the Northern Lights

Spring of 2013  is prime time for viewing the Aurora Borealis.  For some unknown reason, the Aurora Borealis seems to be more active during the spring equinox.  You may have heard that solar activity and therefore auroral activity will approach a maximum in the year 2012.  The solar minimum lasted longer and was quieter  than predicted,  to make matters worst the few times that there were big solar storms this past year the weather has not cooperated.

I flew out of Seattle catching the red-eye since there is a good chance of viewing  Northern Lights as the plane flew into Alaska around midnight.  I scanned the skies as we made our final approach but not even a glow.  I could see that the cloud cover was very thick and snowing not looking good.  After picking up a Ford Explorer I researched the different weather services and determined that my best chance for finding clear skies was to travel north or northeast.

I decided that Coldfoot would be my goal for today’s drive, there is a 24 hour truck stop that I can refuel at before heading to the North slope, and the Brooks Range will make a nice foreground.    When I left Fairbanks the skies look like they might clear up, but luck was against me today.  The James Dalton Highway stretches 414 miles across northern Alaska from Livengood to Deadhorse and the oilfields of Prudhoe Bay. Built during construction of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline in the 1970s, this mostly gravel highway travels through rolling, forested hills, across the Yukon River and Arctic Circle, through the rugged Brooks Range, and over the North Slope to the Arctic Ocean.

Beyond Coldfoot, the Dalton climbs into the Brooks Range, a northern spur of the Rocky Mountains.  The trees become sparser until they disappear entirely at Mile 235. As I approached  Atigun Pass, Alaska’s highest divide, elevation 4,800 feet. the wind and snow picked up and I was driving in a full whiteout.  The warning sign advised of 25 mph winds and not to stop because of avalanche conditions.  Then as I crest the Pass it was like a switch turned off the weather and I could see blue skies in the distance.

The road then drops steeply to the flat North Slope. For most of this trip the temperature hovered around 0 to 9 degree F, but as I dropped into the North Slope the mercury dipped down to -26.  There was a light wind and clear skies but it was very cold, my mustache was frozen and encased in ice just from breathing.   I had to make a decision to spend the night with the unbearable cold to photograph the Northern Lights with the Brooks Range in the foreground or turn around and head back to Coldfoot.

I came to my senses and after making a bowl of ramen noodles I turned around and headed back to Coldfoot to refuel and with a full tank looked for a place to photograph the Northern Lights that evening.  I wasn’t sure in which direction to look for the lights because I was above the Arctic Circle I did not know if the lights would be north of me or maybe south of me. I found a spot just north of Coldfoot in the settlement of  Wiseman.  

It was -18 when I found the spot to shoot from it was only 4PM so expected a long and cold night.  Since I was only 25 miles from Coldfeet I headed back to town and hung out at the the only Cafe within 150 mile.  The food was ok but hot and it beats sitting in a car for a few hours. After my 4th cup of coffee I got ready to head back out to Wiseman had plenty of gas all relaxed and ready to spend the night hunting for the Aurora.  When I pulled up to the spot  I notice another car parked nearby they were facing in the same direction I was so that was a good sign.  I fired up my tablet and started watching a Jacky Chan movie. It was close to Midnight the other car has left but I hoped the lights would come out.  I could see the stars and the area I hoped to see the lights in was clear, the moon started to rise and it was amazing how bright it was in the middle of the night.  Then while watching my movie I notice a cloud that just pop up out of nowhere.  Could it be? I open the door and setup my camera on the tripod that I already had sitting out in the cold.  I Snap a quick frame to check and as the viewscreen fired up there she was…

There was a faint glow but the lights were there, so I recomposed and started shooting.  I programmed my camera to shoot a frame every 30 sec. I then dug out my 2nd setup to shoot and as I turned around to get my camera I notice the lights dancing in back of me.

I then set up my 2nd camera to shoot what was happening behind the first setup.  As I step back and was getting ready to fire up the car to warm up. It was like a switch was thrown the whole sky was lit up and the lights were dancing while the Moon was lighting up the foreground.  I have never seen the lights so strong.  I wasn’t cold any more I stayed out and chased the lights around the sky.  Then the light started to fade and like that the show was over.

After the lights faded there was a soft-glow of were the main light were it kind of reminded me of a camp fire and the fire slowly burns out.  I  hope the sky would light up again but it didn’t I stayed up the rest of the night waiting but the show was over for that night.  I went back into Coldfeet to have some breakfast and to gas up.  I ran my tank down to 1/4 tank and only traveled about 75 miles.

It was a nice day the sun was out pulled into a rest area and got some sleep so I can do it all over again. I still had 8 more nights on my 10 day trip in search of the Northern Lights….

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