Sunday, March 17, 2013

A Necessary Piece

I take a long look at the hotel room, across the wreckage of the past two weeks: pizza boxes, empty beer and water bottles, the bed I used more to write than to sleep, the sled I used to lug the gear over snow and rocks. I stand there a long time. Then I realize I'm staring at nothing and turn to leave...but I can't. How can I possibly go home now?

These have been the longest ten days of my life. It feels like we've been here for months. I've slept approximately 45 hours in the past 10 days, 12 of those coming all on the third night when the sky was too overcast to bother. As the results of sleep deprivation began to show, our stress increased so much it felt like we were being ground through a machine. Our friendship was tested to the point that a couple times, whether from Chris' side or mine, I thought the very next move might drive a nail through the coffin. Yet despite it all I find it hard to turn around and leave. I can't see myself back in the 9-5, waiting on the weekend to visit life again.

At times like these the old hobo in me comes calling telling me to perk up my ears: the train's leaving, there's more fruit ripe for the picking, more memories waiting to be made. Waiting to be forgotten. Until the whole story's just one long, blended daydream that floats away like train smoke behind the bend.

Like most of what's happened before, I've little doubt I'll lose most of this adventure to failing memory. What will remain may only be an image – the aurora that came on the last night after we thought it had died down, then at 4 in the morning came shooting haphazardly out of the southwest like a million flashes of flickering light sprinting across the sky. Maybe it won't be an image at all but a feeling – my spirit lifted and wonder inspired by those green-gold lights in their march across heaven. Maybe what will remain will be arbitrary, unrelated – a bend in the road while riding in the truck feeling kind of free. Or just a set of pictures I'll see on passing screen savers. Digital being what it is, images rarely make a photo album these days.

Sometimes, when I'm beholding something truly beautiful, or when I'm I'm looking at something I think is meaningful for what I'm pretty sure will be the last time, I like to bum a smoke. Like it's my last one; like I'm standing in front of a firing squad. I try to lock the scene or the people in front of me into place, in the hope that I can store them some deeper place inside me. I try to take in every detail the way I would if the rifles were leveled at me and I knew it was the last thing I'd ever see.  Most of what we experience we assume in due course will come again.  Even moments of overwhelming joy are lost or taken for granted. Facing down the rifles is the only way I know how to breathe a present breath. Not upset about the past, not worried for the future, just here for a moment in the miracle.

Because standing there, beneath the most awe-inspiring natural phenomenon our solar system has to offer... you'll think about burritos. Or balloons. Or why it's necessary that both phillips and flathead screws exist. Or you think of the girl. Or the dishes piling up back home, and the pain in the ass it's going to be to wash them. Distraction is the only rule. The riddle remains the same: how in a life that might last a hundred years can we be present for even a moment?

The Aurora begin with a breath of the sun.  An exhale from a random point on a random star in the ever-expanding universe.  From out of the sphere of the sun, out of the infinite directions it can travel this burst of energy flies through the vastness of space across a hundred-million miles toward a tiny blue dot.  An absolute miracle of chance!  Yet somehow, upon colliding with earth's atmosphere turns a pitch black night into cascading light. 

And at the end of that entire equation, all the odds defied and the elements combined to make that happen, eyes cast skyward you stand there. And when that solar breath from out of all the space that surrounds, crosses the sky of this tiny speck of blue, reflecting in the orb of your microscopic eye – there, where the micro and macro meet – swirling in the ethereal dream of the universe, you're a part of it.  A necessary piece of the puzzle. Because without you the light might pass unseen. 

Saturday, March 16, 2013

In the Limelight

The sign reads: "Olnes City.  Population: 1."  We pull in.  Moose dash in all directions in exaggerated strides.  Silence is left behind them, the air settling softly around the crunched snowflakes in the hoof prints.  Tracks of snowmobiles ("snow machines" or "snow-go's" around here) carve an absolute mess of lines across the frozen pond.  You would need a Zamboni the size of a building to erase them.  Or a summer sun.  The air is cold but not unpleasant as the sun begins to set.  Not a soul in sight.  Chris instinctively begins to set up shots in the waist-high snow between the trees.  With no trained eye for shots nor expertise to set them I kick a path through the snow for ease of movement toward the river.  We rig two cameras at the edge to catch the sun getting darker now behind the trees.  The turbulent water allows no ice to encrust its twinkling surface.  Icicles drape from the peeling bark of a birch that hangs out over the water tempting us toward the edge.  We do not take the bait.  That's what long lenses are for.

The sun dies quickly in the forest here.  In the darkness Chris cranks a camera full back on the sticks with its lens pointed straight up like a Cape Canaveral tourist craning his neck to view a space shuttle.  The Sigma lens captures a 360 view so the trees look like giants standing in a huddle in the circular frame.  With the other two cameras he marches across the ice, over the snow, up the embankment, the snow so deep it's impossible to tell where the water ends and the land begins.  This is risky business.  There is ice, to be sure, but there is also water, the depth of which is entirely unknown as is the strength of the current.  Snow on his boots, snow on his back, snow on his belly, Chris is dedicated to the art, dedicated to this place like it's hallowed ground.  He keeps laughing to himself each time he peers at the viewfinder shouting out into the air more than at me "This place is perfect!"

The cameras set, we retire to the truck to warm up.  The temperature on the dash reads -19.  The ice in my mustache concurs, then slowly begins to drip into my mouth as Chris and I launch into another philosophical diatribe featuring lots of I see what you're saying but have you considered... and phrases like that until about 12:30.  Then the haze that was a vague strip of aurora congeals into a band of lime-green electric light and like it was bounced off a tuning fork begins to vibrate and gyrate in sweeping gestures over the bare birch limbs as we watch through the windshield.  The conversation halts.  We lean back in our seats and suddenly we're in the front row of nature's planetarium in exactly the right place at exactly the right time parked in exactly the right direction to have our eyelids peeled back by the scintillating limelight spectacular.

Over the next hour the only sound is our alternating WHOA!s and DAMN!s.  The bleeding sash of light hangs just out over the tips of the pines in peaked arches that mimic the shapes of the crowded treetops.  It answers forever for me the question of perspective and man's role in the observation of natural events; the tree is falling, we are watching it fall, it is making a sound.  The display is so perfectly framed to the shape of our windshield it feels like nothing short of a gift, fashioned explicitly for us, only in this moment in Olnes City - population: temporarily three, two of which are having their minds blown.

When, an hour later, the aurora fades as quickly as it appeared, leaving a trace fairy dust spectre across the treetops, Chris and I sit, recovering our fallen jaws in the warmth of the cab.

"That was... I mean that was..." The words to express what we've just seen completely elude me.

"Yo...that was straight pornographic," says Chris.

I couldn't have said it better.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The 28 Hour Day

After all of the scouting based on chatroom research and locals' suggestions, and camera adjustments based on expert opinion and experienced aurora-trackers me'd met, we were primed and ready for an all-out aurora blitz. We woke in the late morning the day after Eagle Summit ready to rock. Breakfast was scarfed unceremoniously and sandwiches were grabbed for dinner so nothing would disturb our night's work, and we set a course for Murphy Dome, a place cross-referenced on-line and recommended first hand. Bob and I had scouted it a few days before and the entirety of the road seemed amenable to pull off and set up with a view looking north-northeast.

I chose the first place where it looked like the trek from the car to the site would be manageable and pulled over. I'd been pretty fortunate thus far scouting locations and helping to frame shots. Maybe it was their relief to finally find a place that seemed both viable and safe, maybe it was that the sun was still high and they could actually see what they were looking at, or maybe Bob and Chris were both just amped to grab the aurora by its ethereal cajones, but they were stoked on the location. “This is perfect!” Bob said. “This is IT!” Cried Chris. They were pacing back and forth again, this time in thigh-high snow, talking lenses and foreground in quick, excited speech. Looking out on the valley I noticed that I could identify most of the mountains, roads, and rivers by name. It did feel really good to be there, just exactly there, looking over what felt by that time like our own Alaskan valley. It was like we were a part of it then. No longer tourists in some unknown place, we'd trod the miles and suffered the weather, and rapped with the people, and could call them all by name. Alaskans call someone who's recently moved there but hasn't yet experienced the winter a “Cheechako.” Having not been there long but definitely having experienced the winter we were at least honorary Chechakos. That made Chris the Cheechako from Chicago. Which I thought was a hoot, but harder to explain than the punchline was funny, so I kept it to myself.

Chris didn't wait for nighttime. Inspired as he was he started ripping snapshots from all angles. He'd carry one tripod a distance, set it, and come back for the next one, walk the opposite direction, set it, and come back for the third, from which he detached the camera, wrapped it around his neck, and started randomly falling to his belly. In front of a dead bush, or a certain configuration of snowflakes, or at the base of one of the power line poles shooting what, I have no idea. I was just happy he was happy. And he was really, really happy.

So much that when the aurora came and went with what I considered to be a pretty mediocre show compared to some other nights, Chris wasn't fazed in the least. He just kept shooting. Stars, the milky way, the power lines again, he was like some kind of madman. It was then that I noticed the flask that I keep in my pocket for insulation against particularly cold nights was missing. I waited patiently through the madness. But when he took one of the cameras and carried it across the street, in completely the opposite direction of the aurora, I approached him. “Uh, hey there buddy.”

“Man, this is so incredible! Sunrise from this spot is gonna be ama-sing!!” (He said it just like that, accentuating an 's' where the 'z' should be. He'd been doing it since his days with DJ Tiesto. I think it was a spoof on Tiesto's Dutch accent. Regardless, he reserved it for when he thought something would be so exceptional, he deemed it too much for a 'z' to articulate).

“Hold up, man,” I said. “That's not for like, five hours. What are we gonna do till then?”

“Oh man, I could shoot here for weeks! The aurora's only part of it. I've had these ideas for months about the other kinds of things I wanted to shoot, and they're all here!!”

“Chris...where's my flask?”

“Oh, yea,” he said sheepishly. “Right here.” He handed it back to me without resistance and I was surprised to find he'd only emptied it of about half its contents. Over the time we'd been there, that amount couldn't have put a dent in him. He was really just exceptionally excited to shoot. It took me a minute to wrap my head around it. Maybe because his stress level had been so high in the previous days, afraid he hadn't gotten enough material, I'd almost forgotten what it looked like when Chris gets in the zone. It's actually a lot of fun to watch. Artists have unique vision that they spend the better parts of their lives trying to articulate, to express to the world. I can't imagine the frustration when it doesn't go their way – when the light is wrong, or something breaks, or whatever it is happens that impedes their ability to create what they see in their mind's eye. Watching Chris run around to catch the flutter of a dead leaf in the breeze, or the starlight through an icicle, reminded me of why we celebrate artists, why we always have. Their madness speaks to something fundamental in all of us – the urge to capture and keep for posterity that which defies posterity, the present moment. In the artist's eye the present moment is all there is. Their gift is that they're able to dig down into it, truly experience it, and pull from it something that most of us would miss. Maybe it's something true, maybe it's beautiful, maybe it's confounding, but they put it out there on display that the rest of the world might share in it, and maybe, if it all comes together, find something meaningful in it. Our lives are enriched by artists for their uncanny knack to capture that aspect of life we find so hard to hold, a snapshot of the present moment.

“Alright man,” I conceded. “As you were.” I went back to the truck, finished my sandwich, and passed out a few hours in the driver's seat. As dawn broke Chris and I were resetting shots in different directions, none seemingly at the sunrise itself. But by that time my faith was restored. If the artist says the sunrise is more profound off a telephone pole then I'll point the camera at the wood. We fixed the shots to Chris' contentment, then took a break. In that pause it was as if Chris snapped out of machine mode and came back to earth. Spent by his furious artistic binge and fading fast he suggested I take the truck into town for some coffee and breakfast sandwiches. So I rolled down to the Hilltop Truckstop and did just that. When I got back it had begun to snow. Large, soft, languid flakes coasted down across our Alaskan valley, landing among their stacked brethren like a cottonball atop the back of a sheep. It was so absolutely peaceful in the soft light of dawn I thought I might take a picture to capture it. But then, some things are too beautiful to put on film.  They say a picture speaks a thousand words. This moment would have to remain silent. 

When it came time, around 10 or so, to pack up and head back Chris gave me a look that told me he had news I wasn't going to like. “We gotta go interview those scientists at U-Fairbanks. You gotta get me there,” he said. In an hour it would be 24 since we set out that day. Not uncommon to pull with Chris. What's another couple hours after a full day? I offered no argument, just ate my sandwich in silence in the feathery falling snow.

The interview at U-Alaska Fairbanks was not a disaster. Though neither was it useful. The guys we interviewed were certainly experts on meteorology, just not on aurora. I'm not sure how the whole thing got set up, but I didn't care at that point. I just wanted to sleep. I knew, it being about 2 in the afternoon by the time we'd leave campus, that a knock on my wall was coming in less than three hours, and it'd be time to chase the aurora again.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Eagle Summit Snafu

Encouraged by the shots he got on Mt. Aurora, Bob was amped to take it up a notch, to find the place to photograph the aurora where the ribbons of light dance like May Day and the hundreds of Japanese aurora-tourists are more scarce. “It feels like I've been battling Japanese tourists my whole life, “ Bob said. “No matter how far I get out anywhere, there they are.” Chris and I had gotten a tip on a locale from a local aurora-tracker that might prove the place, and might also eliminate a fair number, if not all, of the crowds of gawkers, so Bob was strongly in favor of us pursuing it. Eagle Summit, a pass about 3,000 feet in elevation up in the White Mountains was “only 30 miles north of here, about mile 57,” said the local. “It's no tourist stop. Only pro photographers'll be up there, if anybody at all.” Sounded good to us.

Come morning, however, the weather report was looking rough at best. Mostly cloudy, with more clouds expected after 11, and a more than 50% chance of snow. We'd lucked out the night before on Mt. Aurora, the clouds parting within minutes of the aurora's appearance, and staying gone until the northern light had died down. Our chances for a repeat performance were slim, I suspected, and I told us so. But Bob's mind was firmly set on a May Day effect. Chris and I had already had our share of disagreements. I wasn't going to bring Bob into the mix, too. Because a ride up north beyond the Fairbanks area we knew would satisfy my own urge to venture out into the beyond I couldn't care less what we found there, I just wanted to pick a direction and go till the road ran out. With short delibiration we opted to ignore the forecast, point our windshields north, and see what this so-called “Eagle Summit” had to offer.

We headed out in the early afternoon up the Steese Highway toward its endpoint at Circle, Bob and Shelby in their rented Taurus, Chris and I in the Sequoia. We'd been told Eagle Summit would be around mile-marker 57. Once we passed mile-marker 60, I posed the question to Chris: “Uh, hey seen any sign for Eagle Summit?” When he confided he hadn't, we checked his unlikely-yet-in-fact-functional iPhone for more info on Eagle Summit.

“Mile 107 it says here,” said Chris, “not 57.” This was discouraging because the road past mile-marker 20 had turned to sheer ice. Travel was slow-going, 30 mph max on the straightaways. About a half hour later Chris read the other half of the Wiki page: something about a “convergence zone” where "any differential in the weather within the two valleys causes high winds and precipitation when there is moisture in the atmosphere."  This did not bode well with snow in the forecast, but Chris was not of a mind to disappoint Bob, so we kept that little bit of weather information to ourselves and onward we pressed. And I was struck with the notion how even the best intentions can knock around the dominoes of fate, how trying to do the right thing so often sounds the march of doom.

Rising in elevation the world began to look terrifying in its isolation and hostility. Barren white, all around, tundra grass and snow. There was no escaping it. It surrounded us. It was a harsh and forbidding beauty that said “you are but a temporary visitor here. There are only temporary visitors here.” Some dog-sled racers on the Yukon Quest - a thousand-mile race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Canada that crosses Eagle Summit - have testified that the trail over the summit is the most difficult section of trail of any dogsled race in the world. Winds kick up from nowhere, mix with snow, and obliterate safe passage in a matter of hours, sometimes minutes.

Chris and Bob haggled over where to frame their shots while I dragged the sled-full of equipment over the bare rocks as they paced back and forth. The wind seemed to be not in a playful mood. The sun set quickly as the clouds huddled tighter and tighter together. But ol' Bob was convinced they'd shift so we stuck it out for the long haul which meant food would have to be procured somehow to get us through the night. There are four towns along the entire 160 miles of the Steese Highway between Fairbanks and Circle. Shelby and I volunteered to drive the 20 miles north to Central, the last town before Circle, to get gas and acquire sustenance of some kind.

The “town” of Central, AK consists of a gas station, a grocery store, a liquor store, a bar, and a post office. Of these five, four are the same place. From inside the bar a dozen discourteous eyes tracked us as we pulled into the lot, parked at the pump, and walked to the door. It was not self-service, and at this late hour, the only service was through the bar. We took a breath at the door, fully expecting a jukebox to scratch when we entered. We were surprised when it didn't. They gave us a once over and went back to their sassing and swearing in the familial way the familiar do when they spend most nights on the same bar stools. The bartender, a man of few words, spoke in the slow manner of a man who's seen a lot, but mostly sees the same stuff all the time. He offered us a beer while we waited for him to go out back, don his apron to switch roles to chef, and fry us up some chicken fingers. When he was finished, he removed the apron, hung in neatly, and took us into the back of the grocery where he became proprietor of the liquor store and sold us a six-pack of Oatmeal Stout. Then as cashier he checked us out and said, “now be safe out there.” His tone when he said it made me take pause. In Boston, “be safe” gets thrown around. It's a parting shot, something that's just said, like “see ya later” or “until next time.” But when a guy in Central, Alaska says “be safe out there,” he means, quite literally: “don't go do something stupid that'll get you killed, now.” Which triggered the thought: Like drive up to Eagle Summit in March? But it stayed a thought.

Back up top, when we opened the truck doors the wind tried to rip them off. Chris's face mask was crusted with snow. Bob looked miserable. The snow wasn't falling. It wasn't humming. It was screaming. Chris, trying to keep the collective stress in check, offered his opinion as an experienced sailor, that the wind was not in excess of 20 mph. A knee-jerk retort to how ridiculous I found this assessment, I fired back: “The hell you say! It's 60 if it's a mile! This is hurricane shit, bro!!!” The second it was gone from my lips I wished it, too had remained a thought. I decided also to keep my thoughts on the whole “be safe out there” thing to myself.

We camped out in the truck and ate dinner as the lines that delineated earth and sky outside began to blur. Whiteout was surrounding us, converging wind and snow all around our tiny vehicles. We were quickly reaching a critical mass: either call it in and try our best to creep defeatedly but probably alive off this mountain, or hunker down in the truck for the night, maybe longer, and wait for snow drifts to cover the tailpipe and snuff us out in our sleep.

Bob finally, begrudgingly, conceded that these conditions were less than workable and we opted for the drive of shame. We broke down the rig, though I doubt in our haste that all the lens caps found lenses. Chris and I followed Bob and Shelby to make sure their Taurus didn't slide off the road into one of the 500-1000 foot chasms on either side of the road. Or if it did, we'd be more apt to see it, and make a call when cell service came back in 100 miles or so. The two and a half hours it took to go out became four to get home. The last 10 miles in Fairbanks were the toughest. Hard to keep a lane with one red-eye open at 5 in the morning, especially when that eye's been trained on avoiding moose, not tractor-trailers.

That you're reading this says we made it. There wasn't a lot of talk in the lot getting out of the cars, not even of relief. We filed away to our rooms. I took the stupidly heavy marine battery in and hooked it up to the charger for the next night's adventure. Then turned around, and boots on, fell into bed like the exhausted do in movies, not putting my hands out to stop the pillow from slamming into my face.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013


A few recent, inexpensive improvements have greatly enhanced our workaday situation:
  • The morning after the freeze-out of my poor feet and the ice-stinging of my painful fingers, Chris and I drove directly to the boot and glove store and got me a pair of affordable winter boots rated to -65 degrees that have held up nicely each night and been downright delightful with a couple of foot warmers squished into the toes. The gloves are only liners made of polypropylene which Chris and I agree are the warmest gloves we've ever owned.

    Total cost: $74

  • After toting the goddamned unnecessarily heavy marine battery around from site to site while Chris decided where best to shoot, I got us a cheap plastic sled to hold all of our gear, and a length of 25' rope to tie it to my waist so as we're trekking off into No-Man's Land I can drag everything behind me. Even though I've made things easier on myself, for Chris' money I think he gets a helluva kick out of watching me pull his stuff around like a sled-dog.
    Total cost: $15

  • Mr. Bob Stefko has brought an element of professionalism and peer-competition that I think has upped Chris' game and really has us all going for the gold on this one. It doesn't hurt that he also brought with him nearly 30 positive degrees in temperature. We haven't seen a negative reading since he arrived.
    Total cost: free!

  • Bob's girlfriend, Shelby, has brought with her a sense of humor and calm assurance that plays incredibly well with three guys running around like madmen trying to catch something as it flies through the sky in the dark of night. She is the Sacagawea to our Lewis and Clark (and Clark's sled-dog, Erik).
    Total cost: (also) free!!

  • For versatility we've added to our gear a 25' length of arctic-rated extension chord that allows Chris greater freedom of movement to set up a third shot out of range of Bob's cameras, which have in them lenses so wide they can virtually see behind them. The chord moonlights (or daylights, actually) as a replacement for the engine-block warmer chord that I pulled out without dis-attaching again and apparently ran over repeatedly until the poor thing let loose somewhere in the greater Fairbanks area.
    Total cost: $22

  • The growler I bought in the airport in Anchorage is fillable at the last outpost heading north, (our preferred direction for shooting) at the Silver Gulch Brewery in Fox, 10 miles north of Fairbanks. While this is not a new improvement, I cannot overstate its role in improving my personal outlook on the nights we fill it. It is the fuel that pulls the sled.

    Total cost: At just $10 per 64 oz. fill, it's the cheapest dog food you'll find around Fairbanks ;)

Monday, March 11, 2013

Bob's First Show

Aurora activity was predicted to be at its absolute peak the night Bob arrived. But the weather didn't cooperate and Bob's first night was a wash. Clouds were solid dusk to dawn. It became comical trying to explain to Bob why we'd driven 40 miles north of Fairbanks to the top of a windy mountain, and hiked a quarter mile from the car to shoot absolutely nothing. We kept trying to point out the mountains all around us, the broad valleys between, the dramatic white peaks, the expressive trees, all in the pitch black darkness.

Bob was not impressed. He'd traveled 16 hours. He liked the heated comfort of the car. He humored us and tried to focus his cameras out into the darkness. After setting up the cameras we returned to the car. Four hours later we hiked back out, broke it all down and went home.

Scouting locations throughout the next day I tried to talk up Bob's chances for seeing the aurora. But we both knew snow was in the forecast for the next two days. After that, only two days will remain before Bob flies back home. He seemed to have a healthy outlook, accepting of the fact he may not see the northern lights at all. The forecast for that night, too, was pretty grim. Partly cloudy all day, with only a possibility of clearing after 11. On the other hand, the aurora forecast was great. If the clouds broke, what they revealed would be noteworthy.

Mentally and spiritually we were in good shape. It was early, we had the day in front of us. We were traveling north along the Steese highway up to a viewpoint of the Brooks Range. It was gorgeous, with broad white mountains in the distance and picturesque foothills in between. We pulled in. But the snow was deceivingly deep, and our city tires deceivingly traction-less. It took surprisingly little time to get stuck beyond digging. Still, we tried we tried for an hour with our hands and some discarded boards from the last suckers to pull in there, but it was hopeless. I was about to tell Chris to call it in when a local with a big pick up and a walrus mustache saw us and pulled in. He introduced himself as an oil driller by trade who was used to jerry-rigging solutions to difficult problems. So without a proper tow chain he locked together his tire chains and, with considerable difficulty and abuse to the rental, yanked us out. We handed him back his tattered chains, clearly bent and stretched beyond repair. He gave us a huge grin and we were off again.

Having lost only a portion of the day we still had time to hunt around the top of the mountain and came upon a place that was perfect! It had trees for foreground, but not so high that they'd block the shot, it looked northeast in the direction of the aurora, the side of the road was even manicured for easy walking! We set up and framed shots and set focus all before the light died down. We were sitting pretty, just waiting for the clouds to part and the aurora to pop. Then a car pulled up and I heard a lady shout something about private property and Chris walked over to her and came back and said $25 a piece or we gotta go. Of the 300-mile or so radius in which aurora viewing is possible around Fairbanks, we'd found the one hill where they charged you to see it. I was furious that a person can sell what nature offers for free. But none of us were enthusiastic about setting up again in the dark like the night before, so my morality defeated by practicality, Bob and I drove up to the lodge at the top of the hill and begrudgingly forked over the 75 bucks. She gave us strict orders to leave our car in the parking lot, but no guarantee of a refund if the clouds didn't break.

Then, at 10 pm three busloads of Japanese tourists showed up, each person wearing the same exact red coat. I was perplexed, Chris was rage-y about the car lights messing with his shot, and Bob was concerned the car was too far away again. Things were not looking up. Then we looked up. As if the clouds were the curtains in front of a movie screen at showtime, they parted to each side and the feature fired up.

Now, I'm the guy that knows what the tree falling in the woods sounds like. I consider myself to be a bit of a purist who prefers to experience things first-hand and leave the picture-taking to the pros. So I can attest that to the naked eye alone the aurora are spectacular. But after shooting this week I can't deny that through the viewfinder of a Cannon Mark III with a fast, wide-angle lens on a high ISO setting they're absolutely staggering. Life-affirming. Religious. Yes, proof that we are meant to get out into nature to observe it. But also proof that if you can't, and a photograph is all you get, after what I saw this night, you're happy Bob Stefko took the picture.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Stuck in the Snow

"Remember, I don't have life insurance!" Chris shouts as I pull away, stranding him out in the wilderness in the moonless night without a car.  The cold here renders standard camera batteries useless.  We needed the deep-cycle marine battery to power the cameras through the night.  It's a heavy sucker, and being the assistant who hauls it out into the woods every night, I admit I was happy to see we'd forgotten the damn thing.  But the cameras were useless without it, so Chris stayed behind to set up his shots while I doubled back to the hotel to get it.

Alaska demands self-reliance. Those that rely on others to keep themselves even keel don't make it here.  If you're going to make it up here, you not only have to depend on yourself, you have to be able to deal with yourself. Chris's cousin Sam, for instance, lives about 150 miles west of Fairbanks in a cabin that's over 100 miles by snowmobile from the nearest village. With the harsh winter weather out there, and the constant break-up of the ice pack on the rivers that surround the cabin, three months out of every year it's impossible to travel by any means. Sam is literally cabin-bound. In that situation you've got nothing but time and yourself. There's no one to blame, no one to complain about, no one to complain to. It's the rare breed of person who can handle seeing themselves as raw as that, when all the veils drop, all the distractions are gone, and every wart and defect shows in its full glory.

Faced with the raw reality of each other, Chris and I have battled to remain even keel.

The night before had been overcast, so we were able to finally get some sleep. With the early start the next day Chris was pushing to try to get as much material as he could before the sun set. We'd shot two locations since noon. We were on our way to find the third shot when Chris and I started to argue over where. His attention turned to me instead of the snow-covered road we were driving, he veered the truck slightly off the road and the the tires slid, dropping us down toward the pond. He spun the wheels, she slid further off the road and closer to the water. We were stuck.

I appreciate crisis situations for their uncanny ability to stop time.  No one remembers what the argument was over when the house is on fire or the truck is headed into the water.  Crisis stops time and calls for action. What we needed was a shovel, what we had were gloves. I kicked at the snow around each wheel, I punched at the snow, I threw it out behind me between my legs like a dog until we were down to the dirt.  (Chris has asked that I mention here that he helped.  Chris helped).  In 30 minutes or so, I had the truck righted on the road.  I didn't ask for thanks but it might've been nice.  Chris said: "Good."  And we were off to the next shot. So leaving him alone in the dark in the woods while I retrieved the battery felt kind of good.  I kept the truck at an easy pace and considered stopping somewhere for food. I was undecided if he'd get any. I might even take in a movie. Some sweet, sweet Imax.

Then my mind started rolling over the many possibilities of being left alone in the Alaskan woods.  Should a wolf find Chris desirable or a moose think him undesirable I could return to a helluva mess.  I pictured making funeral arrangements and all the tears, having to watch the slide show of his smiling face and the miserable scenes consoling his wife and kids.  These thoughts led me naturally back across the laughs, and late-nights looking at clips of video edits and spitting philosophies that expanded each of our worlds. How we rev each other up and prop each other up and when it's good each moment has the promise of a better tomorrow with the two of us making it possible. The late-nights and bright moments that have made family out of friendship and the hard times easier to bear.  

And you find, across your mind's ramblings, the care and respect you have for your friend.  Your hope that they'll recognize the potential in themself that you do.  The chasm they would leave in your world if they were ever to leave it.

And you hold them in front of you in the light of the headlights in the open road, and in the deep of their eye you see them how they want to be seen, how they'll never know you see them, and you put your foot down on the gas.  And you take the speed up to 60 despite the ice.  And you don't doddle at the hotel in getting the battery.  And in the time you made up you stop quickly at the gas station to grab some water and a Reeses because you know he digs peanut butter.  And you hustle back.  And you carry the battery the 300 yards or so over uneven slosh to the insane place he's decided is the only place possible for his shot.  And you drop the goddamn thing down with your breath chunking up in your beard.  And he says, "you made good time."

And later, with nothing but time and the windshield in front of you, you hash out what's working and what isn't.  You peel back the layers, slow the roll, get back to good.  And somewhere in it, at no specific point, the air in the car begins to feel warm.  And the spring of the mind lets loose and doesn't fret if it misses count of a second or two. And then you're just out with your boy again on another crazy-ass adventure that no one but the two of you will ever understand.  And when you notice the aurora go from mist to cloud to ribbon and pop, dancing out there beyond the windshield in abstract curls and improbable swirls, you think of the others you hold dear, and the rare gift of now, and everything else be damned you're just happy to be there.

Cuz that's all there is.

The Reality of Nature

I've never known Chris to work on any less than a dozen projects at once. Here in Fairbanks, as I sleep, Chris is up charging batteries, uploading the day's media, and editing other projects for clients he's got on his docket. One of particular interest that he's furiously editing at the moment is an event he shot in Chicago a couple weeks ago called “TED X.” TED Talks are a great source of food for thought. And one in particular that Chris showed me this morning was given by a professional photographer, Dennis Manarchy, on why photography is consequential.

He sites famous pictures that have started and ended wars. Portraits that have overwhelmingly influenced the way we've seen certain people throughout history. More than anything else, he talked about realism, and the nature of it in the current age. How we're losing, with the ability to create virtually any images we want, the element of truth that was always so woven into photography.

The night of our first aurora sighting, while the light coming through the lens was everything you understand the northern lights to be – bright, silky, long and liquid – to me on the ground, I was, well...underwhelmed. It looked more like a misty kind of cloud barely perceivable to the eye and definitely not something to write home about. When I mentioned this to Chris he seemed almost offended that I would accuse his cameras of augmenting the true nature of reality. “It's not picking up anything that's not there,” he said to me. Though that's true, it didn't satisfy me. His setting adjustments and shutter speeds, and so-called “fast” lenses can pick up more stars than I can see, turn a black sky pink and in essence, in my opinion, lie to us about what's actually seeable. As a result, because I've seen so many pictures of the aurora, I feel like I was given expectations that were not attainable to the naked eye.

“It's like looking at porn in middle school,” I explained to Chris. “It sets you up with unrealistic expectations.”

There are many tricks of the camera. The French have a term, “trompe l'oeil” which means “trick of the eye.” It was a method whereby two-dimensional paintings would give the illusion they were three dimensions. Nowadays we use airbrush, photoshop, you name it. In the old days photographs were used as evidence during trials. The idea being that they were incorruptible representations of real life as it was. Nowadays you can't trust that a picture of a cat wasn't color corrected. And there are an awful lot of pictures of cats.

Which brings me to the problem with digital media. We used to shoot a roll of 24, or if you were going on a long vacation, a roll of 36. You'd wait for an important moment, fire them off, bring them to the pharmacy when you got back, order doubles in case you lost some, and paste the photos into albums for the world to reach for beneath your coffee table during lulls in conversation. Nowadays we shoot 100 pictures on a trip to the bar, upload them willy-nilly to Facebook, or more likely, just leave them on the camera because the memory card holds 2,000 images, and they're never seen again. Dennis Manarchy still shoots with film. In any given shoot he takes exactly one picture. One. Snap.

He's looking for the truth of things. It's not to say he doesn't manipulate light to make things appear in the light in which he sees them, for the emotion he's trying to convey. Anyone creating art has an opinion about their subject, a perspective, a lens through which they see things, a message they wish to convey. But Dennis Manarchy is trying to shoot the truth of a moment. If your eyes were closed, that was the moment. “That's what's real,” I say to Chris. “That's what matters. Not how good you can make somebody believe something should look, but how it is.”

Later that night, while Chris and I are on a flood plain beneath a railroad bridge shooting the aurora, Chris frames the shot with the bridge in the foreground and the aurora appears in an arc just over the bridge. It's an astounding bit of happenstance that brings me head-to-head with thoughts of larger implication: what is the role of perspective? If a tree falls in the woods...? Did God put that arc there to encourage us to keep shooting the aurora? Is this our life's work? And on and on like that.

A train comes by, and spotting strange and unexpected shapes moving along the ice beneath the bridge, the conductor shines his flashlight right at us, at the precise moment one of our cameras goes off, forever augmenting an already cool shot of the aurora over the bridge, with a train passing beneath it, now with a ray of light shooting from the front of that train directly at the camera's lens.

Needless to say, we were beside ourselves, and hustled back to the hotel so Chris could upload the cards to the computer and we could see the raw image. Of the three cameras, we hoped all three might have captured the flash from different angles. And it was there alright, but only on one camera. We looked at the same moment of time, captured on all three cameras. In one the aurora was really pronounced. In another, the train looked best. In the third was the light from the flashlight shining right at us. We both felt deflated we hadn't captured that one single image we'd both hoped would capture all of it as we'd seen it.

“No biggie,” I said. “We'll just splice 'em all together.”


Saturday, March 9, 2013

Our First Night of Aurora

Scouting locations to catch the aurora is a bit of an art in itself. You're looking for just the right spot that meets all these criteria:
  • It's gotta be dark, away from city lights, so you can see the aurora
  • It's gotta be off the road a ways to avoid car lights messing up the shot
  • It has to be away from a lot of people both for peace of mind and to avoid someone accidentally kicking a tripod leg and messing up the shot
  • It has to have interesting foreground for framing the shot
  • The foreground has to face northeast in the direction of the aurora
Meeting all of these criteria is an involved process. Most of our intended sites were compromised in some way. The signs around the Gold Dredge said the owners were not enthusiastic about aurora chasers. And we have way too much equipment to pull off any kind of fence-hopping. The pipeline was too close to the road and the only potential shot faced southwest. And the distance between things being so great out here, before you know it the sun is gone and you're left scrambling for a location in the dark.

In complete darkness we pulled into a parking area along the side of the Eliott Highway about 30 miles north of Fairbanks. Chris was determined to get the cameras pointed skyward. As he was wrestling with calibrating the cameras in the dark a car pulled up behind us. Slowly. With just his parking lights on.

The sight of a car pulling up out here grabs your attention. The cops? A killer? Chris and I both take a pretty optimistic view of things. But away from the city in the Alaskan wilderness, way out beyond the lights, the homes, and the people, the sight of a stranger reminds you that finding just the right location to shoot aurora means you're likely in a spot in which no one can hear you scream.
The guy who jumped out of the small red hatchback was not an axe murderer, but a seasoned aurora chaser. He introduced himself as Greg Syverson, said he'd been chasing the aurora for the past 30 years, explained that he'd pulled up with only his parking lights on out of respect for our shot, and would we like a quick tutorial on how best to capture the elusive aurora on film.

Thank you, Universe.

Greg works in Prudhoe Bay and spends much of his off time, sleeping in his car, trying to catch aurora. Chris rapped with Greg for hours about lenses and shutters and ISO settings... all the kind of shop talk that puts me to sleep on my feet, except that my feet were feeling the sting of cold making it hard to do anything but curse the manufacturer of my crappy muckboots. Chris seemed to glean a lot from the tutorial. All night he and Greg were running around, changing lenses, headlamps going onandoff, redthenwhite. When my feet began to feel like they would curl up like the wicked witch of the east's, I resigned to spend the rest of the night in the car. That was when Greg pointed to the faintest, milky circle of haze just off the horizon in the north and said, “that's it.” We looked at it. “Nah,” I said, “that's a cloud.” Greg snapped off a shot and held it up for us to see. Through the viewfinder the haze shown neon green as a glow stick.

Over the next hour that tiny milk spill from heaven grew, congealed, sharpened, and lit up, until a ribbon of bleeding green curled from one end of the sky to the other.


Describing the aurora is elusive.  It's a bit like a cloud at sunset, then sharper, with more purpose, then before you know it, they're somewhere else altogether in the sky.  Spikes of light from an alien dawn burst forth and hang out over the trees, mimicking their silhouettes. Then, as soon as you thought it was the coolest effect you'd ever seen... it begins to dance. The ribbon swayed like a neon whip tethered to the hand of Zeus. One end would brighten, slithering across the sky like the head of a snake, then disappear. After a few brief minutes of jaw-dropping intensity, the colors fade, then evaporate like the smoke off a cannon.

To see the fruits of Greg's 30 years of aurora-catching, check out some of his youtube stuff:

Here below are the best shots from our first night of aurora

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Action-Photography 101: Sleddog Sprints

Just south of Fairbanks is the town of North Pole, this year's home for the International Federation of Sleddog Sports World Championship. Dogsledding is real out here, not just a local color thing. They're still used in the Alaskan interior as the only truly reliable transportation across long sub-Arctic distances. The world's biggest sleddog race, the Iditarod, a thousand mile race from Anchorage to Nome, began just three days ago, attracting thousands of people from around the world. Being the world championship of sleddog racing, Chris and I were expecting large crowds and a ticket turnstile. What we found was less than a hundred people huddled by a makeshift starting line and a small PA pumping the local country music station.

We made our way through the lot of pick-ups with dog kennels fixed to the backs, dogs of all shapes and breeds pacing anxious circles around the wheels. Chris was blown away that we had our run of the place to set up wherever we wanted. “This is like showing up at the Superbowl with no credentials, and walking right down to the sideline,” he said. The Superbowl it was not, but I gathered his point. Having this kind of access to any pro sporting event is rare. It was like being a cameraman for ABC's Wide World of Sports sometime in the '70s, shooting some obscure sport like jai-alai or curling from some funny sounding town like...well, North Pole, AK. I kept expecting to see Howard Cosell in his yellow jacket delivering play-by-play with one of those old microphones.

Antsy as ever to capture the moment, Chris started rattling off quick-speak instructions. “This is the F-stop, here's the ISO, these control the amount of light, this lens is a whole stop higher...” I had thought it would be enough to find the “on” switch and know which end to point. Just as he started to sound like Charlie Brown's teacher he paused, took a long look at my face, put the settings where he wanted them, pointed to the click and told me to “go nuts.”

I scurried off to the first turn and buried myself down in the snow. As each neoprene-spandexed driver kicked his leg around the first curve we were so close we captured the spit as it whipped out of the yipping dogs' teeth. After all the teams passed we hustled over to the last curve to catch them on the home stretch. I put my coat down in the snow at the very edge of the track, laid down atop it on my stomach so I'd be almost under the dogs as they ran by, and rapid-fired still shots like a machine-gunner in a foxhole. It was surreal being belly-down on the snowpack, so intimate with the dogs as they dug for home, documenting a nearly ancient sport in this strange and frozen corner of the world.

Team flags were flown from Sweden, Finland, Norway, Canada, France, USA, and just about everywhere else that gets cold. After the races we hung around and Chris got interviews with competitors from teams USA and Norway. The American girl took home gold. In a first-off attempt to capture local culture at sprint speeds with a camera assistant who couldn't set a shutter speed to catch a three-legged tortoise, I'd say we grabbed gold as well.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

On With the Chase

So it's the final day of our kickstarter campaign.  A million thanks to everyone who helped make this dream a reality.  We're incredibly excited to get out and start capturing the Alaskan sky in all its psychedelic glory, and sharing it with you.  

We've landed, the rental car has been procured, we're checked in to our rooms.  Chris has granted me a moment to tell everyone our tentative plans for this week while he charges batteries and wipes down lenses in preparation for our first night's chase.

To experience peak Aurora activity you've got to get up out of the city, away from all the lights, and the further north you go the better your chances to see them. So after some research we've decided the Steese Highway is our best shot: For 160 miles or so this highway follows roughly the same course as the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline which meanders from Prudhoe Bay in the Arctic Circle to the port of Valdez in the south - made famous by the oil tanker of the same name that ran aground there in 1989, spilling 11,000,000 gallons of crude into Prince William Sound. There are several pipeline viewpoints off the Steese Highway that we may use as foreground possibilities. There appears to be a parking area that looks out over the city that may prove an interesting viewpoint as well. 

Along this highway is also the historic Gold Dredge #8: an actual functioning gold mine from Fairbanks' boomtown era with a large, old, industrial looking building that piqued Chris' interest as a solid location. 

And lest I forget to mention the Chena Hot Springs Road that heads westerly off the Steese toward this: which may prove a warm and welcome diversion from all the freezing nights we'll be spending chasing the aurora around.

During the day we have plans to take in the IFSS dog-sledding championships: in North Pole, a town to the southeast (go figure). And the World Ice Art Championships: in downtown Fairbanks. Chris is also trying to coordinate to meet with some pretty prominent aurora scientists from the University of Alaska – Fairbanks to better understand the phenomenon and how best to capture it on film.

“But Erik, (you might be thinking) how do you intend to chase aurora by night and dog-sleds by day? Don't you need to sleep? Or eat?”

An excellent question.  And one I have faith our fearless leader intends to address in due time.  But as you'll recall my own words from the kickstarter intro: "Chris doesn't hardly stop to eat.  Or to sleep.  He's the rare breed of spirit that subsists on passion for his art alone."  Funny how when I wrote that it seemed to me such an admirable trait.  For reassurance I defer to what I said of our past outings: "No matter how much I moaned during production, I could never argue with the product."  So don't cry for me.  I asked for it :)

There's Chris knocking.  Time to go see how these muckboots hold up...

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Air Around Fairbanks

Fairbanks, Alaska.

This is not the cold you think it is. Because this is not a cold you can imagine. But try, for a moment, to envision arriving somewhere on a plane, to a land that appears entirely white from the window as you land. Several smokestacks can be seen in the distance, but the steam coming out of them doesn't move. It just hovers in a thick white, static mass, like it's permanently tethered to the chimney in that shape. You watch several big rig trucks pass on the highways that surround the airport, but their exhaust fumes don't evaporate into the atmosphere. They rake the back of the truck, hanging in a curved spine over the load making the trucks appear like long, smoking, chrome-faced beasts prowling the highways of this place. The captain's voice welcomes you to your final destination where the current temperature is -6. 

You stop by the baggage claim to find the carry-on you were forced to check in Anchorage due to the piles of winter coats that plugged up the plane's overhead storage. You grab your single, carry-on sized suitcase that you regret is entirely inadequate to hold the thick, goose-down attire you wish you'd packed. At the rental car counter the clerk hands you an extension chord and tells you you'll be responsible for it if it gets lost. You give him a quizzical look. “For winterization,” he says dismissively. You thought “winterizing” a car meant putting snow tires on. He reminds you that in the wintertime here it's necessary to plug the car in to activate its engine block and battery warmers, or “good luck getting her started,” he chuckles. Stepping outside you breathe naturally like you did indoors except now the air is so void of moisture your shocked throat closes in protest. The hacking exhales hang like a cloud in front of you so thick it obscures your vision. You unplug the car from the rail, like untying a horse from a corral. The remaining wire hangs from the grill like a serpent's tongue. You search for where to stow it.  Under the hood perhaps? You rid yourself of this thought instantly. Touching any of this car's metal would freeze flesh like the touch of Midas. On the drive to find the hotel you notice the same foot-long bit of power cable dangling from their front grills of every car. You feel better, more assured, more native. Then at your first right turn the wheels spin out, the anti-lock breaks engage and you're sliding across two lanes of traffic. You note that the darkness you're driving on is not in fact asphalt, but 1-2 inches of solid ice. You note others' speeds are substantially below the posted speed limits. No vehicle moves faster than 25. You adjust your speed. Passing the Denali State Bank the temperature at 12:37 reads -9. 

The Denny's next door to the hotel claims on its signage to be the “northernmost Denny's in the world.” You resolve (as strongly as one can to eat at a Denny's) to eat at this one, knowing how useful this little bit of braggadocio will come in handy during some Denny's visit down the road  “Yup. This Denny's is pretty good. Not like the northernmost one up there in the Alaskan interior, of course.” You fishtail into a parking spot at the hotel, plug the car into one of the many outdoor outlets you were told would be on the building, but still surprised and feeling a little foolish as you do it. You sleep, wondering what change the sun will bring.

In the morning you choke on the air again. You stop after backing up, noticing the chord dragging on the ground in front of you that pulling out of the space has ripped out of the wall. You hop out and roll it up, noting to remember it next time. You drive, slowly slowly down Fairbanks' main drag, seeing  snowmobile tracks where sidewalks should be. At the first location you scout for the night's shoot, you begin to notice the undeniable ache permeating through the soles of your feet from their constant contact with the perma-frosted ground. You worry that perhaps the new rubber muckboots you extensively researched and overpaid for before you left could prove to be the worst possible choice of footwear for this environment, the rubber a pitiful insulant against the cold, and the excess sweat from the non-breathability of the material only conducting the cold deeper into the marrow of the tiny bones in your feet. You can feel all 52 of them.  You promise yourself to think these things through better next time. The wet on your upper lip is numbing your bottom one and you wonder at the source of the moisture. You try to stretch the top lip out by sucking both lips in and feel the awful tug of what is unmistakably concrete stuck in the hair of your mustache. Dumbfounded at how you got concrete on your upper lip you touch it and realize from the texture and temperature that it's not concrete at all, but ice. Thick, hard, encrusted ice from the moist air that's frozen on its way out of your face. It's uncomfortable so you breathe from the mouth. And choke.  When the sun goes down so does the temperature. By nightfall it's -10.

By 4:30 in the morning, about the time your first test shoot is over, it's -15. You can't feel your face, except the tightness of your crusted upper lip. The soles of your feet are not numb.  Much more like standing atop a bed of sharp nails. It hurts so bad you refused to stand anymore three hours ago. Feeling sheepish that your partner had to do all the work in your car-ridden absence, you muster up the gumption to pull your feet out from under the dashboard heater, stuff them back into your frost-conducting rubbers, and hobble back out into the snow to help him at least break down the cameras. You take one of the cameras by its tripod and begin to fold it when a sharp and very localized burning shoots through your fingers. You rip your hand away like you would away from fire to see that the metal of the tripod leg was so cold it actually burned the skin off the tips of your fingers. Through the scorching pain in your fingertips you're overtaken not by anger but by a feeling of sheer awe. You had not anticipated this. You resolve very strongly never to dare anyone to stick their poor tongue against a frozen metal pole again. You apologize to your friend, and promise to be better tomorrow after a quick stop at the boot and glove store. You feel defeated and disappointed. You rebuff your New England cynicism.  This is about as real as it gets.

You thought you were a tough guy. The rugged kind. 

Note to self: remember to get footsie warmers at the store tomorrow.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Arrival in Anchorage

Flying into Anchorage is like landing on the moon, except it's completely covered in Cool Whip. You're in and out of clouds when from beneath them erupt several sets of coastal ranges that appear like giant's feet, toes extended outward into the sea. Long valleys between these behemoth ranges are filled up with what looks to be mile-high ice and you recognize instantly that these are the glaciers you've seen in the pictures, the disappearing ice masses of “An Inconvenient Truth” and advertisements for Alaskan cruises where chunks as big as Rhode Island slip off into the surf as lucky onlookers stand in awe from the deck. This is the country of snow and ice, forbidding as the face of Mars itself. My first thought was: how does anyone live here? Where are the roads? Yet humanity has found its way into nearly every corner of this state, and this terrain - the most rugged I've seen on this earth - is dotted below with villages and even cities: Ketchikan, Sitka, Juneau, and two national parks: Glacier Bay, and the nation's largest, Wrangell-St. Elias, which is bigger than Switzerland and twice as rugged. There had to be gold up in these hills, because if gold is the resource we hold most precious, it's only fit it hide itself in what must be some of the least hospitable land on earth.

Just as soon as you're convinced this ripped and ragged landscape will continue on into infinity, the mountains only gaining in altitude until they'll undoubtedly reach up to scrape the belly of the plane, they stop dead, giving way in a soldier's line, as if God himself had ordered the mountains stand guard over the city, to a long plain that sits beside a large inlet of iceberg-riddled water.  And as the plane loops around over Cook Inlet, the great and broad Alaska Range shows in the distance like a picture postcard, gaining from the east and west into the glorious paramount of Denali, North America's tallest mountain, extending over 20,000 feet into the sky.

I snap photos furiously throughout. And it's finally, in a landscape like this, that you realize the limits of a snapshot. I have never seen such awe-inspiring topography in my entire life. And this from the air; imagine what the people thought who came into this land on wagons, on horseback, or on foot. The prospect of gold must've literally corrupted the good sense of a million minds to bring people out here in search of it. But I think back even farther, way back into the last ice age when a frozen finger of land bridged the continent of Asia to ours, back to the few hundred people who ventured over the ice into the New World. If what DNA-tracing scientists say is correct, that this was where humanity entered into North America, then not only is this seemingly forbidding terrain inhabitable, it's been the longest continuously-inhabited place in the Western Hemisphere.

I am impressed.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

In a Window Seat On a Flight to Anchorage

On the flight from Seattle to Anchorage I'm so eager to arrive in Alaska I actually entertain the idea that this - sitting on the plane on the way to Anchorage - could be as good as it gets.  Anticipation at the beginning is the best part of any journey; the thing or place itself can rarely match the mind's ability to wonder at it.  It reminded me of that part at the very end of "The Great Gatsby" where Carraway talks about the first discoverers of the New World:

"...for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate with his capacity for wonder."

We are voyagers on a great and once-in-a-lifetime journey into the last frontier to track and record a rare and wonderful natural phenomenon, the likes of which (if the forecasters can be trusted) will not be seen again by the human eye for the next 50 years.  Lifting off northward out of Seattle, watching the coast of British Columbia break up into islands that appear less and less inhabited, I'm so acutely aware of how limited is the time we have for this experience (if we have it at all - there is, after all, no guarantees the aurora will appear during the brief couple weeks we'll be stationed to capture them).  Regardless of whether we get them or not, it is inevitable that in a matter of only days our greetings and anticipation will be replaced by a sense of accomplishment (or regret) and fare-thee-wells.  On the flip-side, I wonder if it's possible to be so inundated with aurora action that it could be possible to be bored by them.  To spend 10 or more days witnessing them that they become mundane, something overlooked, like the mountains do to those that live in eye-line of the Rockies or the Himalayas.

I am acutely aware of time and the tricks it plays on the mind.  How, when abroad for example, in the face of unspeakable beauty, one can long for home.  How in 20 years, maybe only 10, no matter what we see or how committed to the idea of holding the memory, it may be difficult to call up any specific moment of this journey. Like all memories, this one will inevitably fade at the corners, little by little, until eventually and ultimately the mental picture will be blurred beyond recognition.  I wonder if I'll experience something so spectacular - a sound, or smell, something visceral and deeper than that which the eyes can store in the mind - that will provide me a solitary memory unique enough that years down the line the memory will still be wholly mine and not informed - as my memories of the Grand Canyon are for example - by the postcards I see of it now.  Of course the main reason we're undertaking this project is to film the phenomenon, to relieve the brain a bit of its burden to remember by shifting the weight of memory to film.  Yet I wonder if it's enough to rely on digital media to inform me of what I've seen.  Hence the eternal struggle of travel and new experience: to sacrifice some of the present experience  in the name of recording it for posterity; or rather to know, whether a picture ever exists of it or not, that you were there, and no matter what tale a photograph tries to tell it cannot touch the thing itself as it was lived. 

It is of the utmost importance to keep it all in front of us.  To try, as much as possible (as a crew whose top priority it is to record) to abide entirely in the present moment.  To firmly plant ourselves in one place for even the briefest of moments, in the desperate hope we might remember on our own we were there.  So it was that this morning, upon waking in the old cabin of an old friend on an island off of West Seattle that I took a walk familiar to my memory, familiar even to my feet from walking it so many times before, down the hill to the shoreline where the wrecked remains of ancient giant Fir trees lay in permanent repose in the waterside sand, abiding the constant gentle lapping of the Puget Sound waters, where beyond the water and beyond Tacoma and the land to the southeast sits the hulking mass of majestic Mt. Ranier rising up from the snow-covered foothills and thrusting itself into the solid cloud-cover above.  And I sat on the worn down, tumble-smoothed trunk of an accommodating Fir, over the lapping waters and rolling sea glass and shifting sand dollars, beneath the eagles soaring on outstretched wings above, and sought for a few moments only to breathe.  And the salt-tinged air that tickled the hairs inside my nose as it entered was clear and clean and free.