Like many who embrace the magic of Harry Potter, I believe in spells but of a kind different than those conjured up by witches or sorcerers.
I’m most vulnerable to the greatest spell found in Alaska. Properly pronounced, the words roll off the tongue like a mystical evocation that conjures the upper atmosphere to life.
It’s a strange paradox: My science training and education allow me to understand how these charged solar particles generate curtains of light.
I choose, however, to put science on the back shelf, and view the aurora as the Vikings did, as Valkyries flashing swords and shields across the night sky, or as Alaska Natives of old believed, as celestial spirits communicating to earth dwellers.
Why do I endow the aurora with such metaphysical mystery rather than take satisfaction in the science of it all?
Although aurora science satiates the logical mind, my aurora-viewing adventures are far more fun and come in many flavors and colors.
Snowmachining under the aurora near Paxson Lake – bouncing over snowdrifts that send me airborne into a horizon of flaring auroras – is like flying my own shuttlecraft into outer space. It’s Star Trek on steroids.
Auroras are also a powerful sleeping potion when I’m winter camping. They perform their shadowy dances over adventure-weary eyelids, hypnotizing me into a drowsy semi-awareness. It’s a time when my subconscious meets my eternal soul, and, groggily whispers in childlike wonder, “This truly must be the gateway to heaven.”
Auroras help convey powerful messages in literature. Like the Gold Rush prospectors, I like to slug through ghostly spruce forests and ease over frozen rivers that boom and crack at 40 below zero. Keeping me company are the eerie curtains of coronal auroras that blast their fiery radiance through my gossamer wisps of frosty breath. It is when the worlds and words of Robert Frost and Jack London come alive in a way reading can’t duplicate.
Experiencing the aurora is grand, but photographing the aurora is decadent indulgence. The process is cerebral, exhausting, oftentimes frustrating, but always rewarding. It’s a one-shot deal where once it’s gone, it’s gone forever, except for the photo in hand. Great wildlife shots come and go, but a good aurora photo always causes people to stop and admire the image in awe-like reverence.
Good aurora photos are hit or miss, and aurora predictions are like being stood up on a blind date: You prepare for the best, and expect the worst, and be ready to act when it’s game on. Expect auroras to be fickle, and often bashful. When they do show, it’s after a lengthy waiting game. Auroras can appear immediately after dark, but I often find the best performances from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m., which is why most people miss them.
Here’s my no-miss plan: Schedule all night to shoot auroras and sleep the next day. Short naps are acceptable throughout the night; sleeping is not. I set my phone alarm to go off every 15 minutes, in case I do fall asleep, an easy reaction to dressing warmly at sub-zero temperatures.
Where to Go
When the forecast is for high aurora activity, lights can be seen as far south as Ketchikan, weather permitting. A better location that offers clear skies for seeing the aurora is the Fairbanks area north to Bettles. Don’t expect to observe the lights at the North Pole, however, where the phenomenon is surprisingly not visible.
According to Amy Geiger, director of communications for Explore Fairbanks, winter tourism has become more popular in Alaska’s Interior over the last decade, and aurora viewing is one of the major reasons.
“Local businesses are offering more support services and aurora photos tours,” she explains. “I like the tour where you go out with a dog team and camp out, drink hot chocolate, and wait for the lights to appear. The Lonely Planet designation of Fairbanks being the second best place to watch the northern lights hasn’t hurt either.”
It’s easier to photograph auroras when support infrastructure exists at places like Bettles Lodge and Chena Hot Springs Resort.
“We have been told by photographers that Bettles is the best place worldwide they have found for aurora photography,” says Heather Fox, with Bettles Lodge. “The lights are really bright here, and the clear night skies make for some great aurora viewing.”
Bettles is located about an hour’s flight via bush plane north of Fairbanks and is centered directly under the aurora band, an oval area of high aurora activity that spans the top of the world. The best aurora viewing here is from early December through April 10.
Heather and her husband, Eric, offer aurora viewing at the lodge and at a cabin two miles from the lodge on a mile-long lake, which creates for a picturesque backdrop. An aurora-viewing package includes guided snowshoe excursions, cross-country skiing, bonfires in the evening, and three meals per day.
When I am not camping out, or photographing the night sky outside my cabin, my road-accessible favorite aurora-viewing destination is Chena Hot Springs, with their aurora-viewing yurts on ridges far away from the lights of the resort. You focus on the photography, and they handle everything else.
If staying at a hotel in Fairbanks, the staff checks the skies for you throughout the night and will provide an aurora wake-up call. Pike’s Landing and Chena Hot Springs get top nods for doing this right.
Use a DSLR camera with adjustable ISO settings and exposure compensation. Go with the fastest wide-angle lens you can afford. I prefer a 1.4 to 3.5 aperture in a fixed or zoom configuration from 14 to 35 mm.
Adjust camera settings to capture both the brightness of the lights and the terrain. Don’t allow exposure longer than 25 seconds, or star trails will form, which can detract from the image.
Don’t focus only on the aurora in a dark sky. Think depth and perspective, and compose the photo to include a cabin, tree, lake, or scenic mountain range. The exception is when there are coronal or ray auroras directly above you; then you must go vertical! Nothing can match it.
Use a heavy-duty tripod that won’t shake in the wind. I like air-activated hand warmers for camera as well as hands. A headlamp with green or red light saves night vision. Also, carry a white halogen torch for safe walking or deter wandering moose that venture too close. Have extra batteries and SD cards readily available in one zipped pocket and placed used cards in another. If you have two cameras or an SD card reader, review the shots you took during a lull in activity. This helps me tweak exposures or find flaws in composition. I also keep tabs on local weather radar on my cell phone, to see when clouds are moving into the area.
Aurora photography is a hobby that doesn’t disappoint during Alaska’s long nights. Try it and see for yourself. It’s a spell you’ll not be able to easily resist.
Chris Batin is Coast’s Fishing columnist, and the Alaska editor for TravelAge West magazine. He enjoys experiencing and photographing the Alaska night sky as much as fishing. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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