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.