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.