The aurora borealis was #1 on my Alaska bucket list. I can now cross that off my list!
After a week of work in Juneau, I headed north to Chena Hot Springs for the weekend, about 60 miles east of Fairbanks, one of the best places in Alaska for aurora-viewing.
I had only two nights there, so the minute I arrived Friday night, I plunked down $75 for a bumpy 30-minute Snow Coach ride up a mountain for an unobstructed view of the sky. Four hours of star gazing in minus 8 degree temperature later, the only thing visible was a faint gray smudge in the sky, which the driver identified as the aurora. Had I seen that in Rochester, I would have dismissed it as a cloud. By 4:00 AM, the last Snow Coach was leaving the mountain, so I had to call it a night. I went to bed sorely disappointed that night.
The next day, which also happened to be the Winter Solstice (the shortest day and longest night of the year), I was taking an early-evening nap in preparation for another all-night vigil, when the "Aurora Is Out!" call came from the front desk. I raced out the door and up the nearest hill. Actually, to say I raced is probably an exaggeration; what I really did was pile on 7 layers of clothing and snow boots and slowly trudge up an icy hill with my tripod and camera in tow. And by then, the show was over. They're finicky, those auroras. Sometimes they last an hour, sometimes a minute.
I hunkered down for the night on the hill, and several hours later, it was back. What amazed me was how fluid it was. It didn't just appear, and sit there. It flowed and moved and expanded, like someone painting the sky with giant green brush strokes, or like those lava lamps, where blobs of colored liquid slowly flow into new patterns.
This time, it lasted at least 20-30 minutes, plenty of time for the 400 pictures I ended up with. With all the photographing I've done, I've rarely ventured out of Program mode on my camera; I'm content to let my camera make those decisions. But that wasn't working very well in this situation; this was my first serious try at night photography, and I had to bite the bullet and think about shutter speeds and f-stops and ISO numbers. There was a lot of trial and error and I ended up with a gazillion under- and over-exposed shots. But also a few that I will treasure.
Green is the most common aurora color, although occasionally they are purple and red as well. On this night, they were all green.
Interestingly enough, the camera captures even more of the color than the naked eye. Although it was a beautiful green when I was seeing it, it looks even more vivid in the photographs. (None of the photographs were retouched in any way.)
I think that may be one of the Dippers here - not sure if it's Big Dipper or Little Dipper.
Sherry - I kept thinking of that quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson that you love:
"If the stars should appear but one night every thousand years how man would marvel and stare."
I marveled and stared and though my fingers were numb with cold, I laughed out loud. There was something so majestic and moving about this performance.
This may have just eclipsed the African safari as my all-time favorite travel adventure.
Happy Winter Solstice, everyone!
P.S. Someone told me later that the way you can tell a cloud from an aurora is that you can see the stars through an aurora, which you can't through a cloud. Those little blue dots in the photos above were stars.