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

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