Fairbanks, Alaska - Part III: The Northern Lights! (March 2014)

... continued from Part II...

Susan writes...  It's not easy seeing green... :-)  Our alarms would go off at 11:30pm or midnight after afternoon and/or evening naps. We'd check our devices and apps -- "Fairbanks has lights!" the Facebook Aurora Borealis Notifications (ABN) page would announce.

We might be seeing a greenish glow to the north... We'd jump out of bed, put on four or five layers of clothes, throw our camera gear and tripod into the car, and head out into the cold darkness. Usually it was around midnight, give or take an hour, and we'd return to bed sometime between 3 and 5 AM. We were continually exhausted, but the exhilaration of seeing this remarkable event of the universe kept us going. We had a difficult time doing anything during the daytime because one or the other of us was always catching up on sleep.

At first we didn't know how to see the Aurora. We didn't even try the first night because of clouds. The second night Mike caught a faint green glow out our front door. The third night the forecast looked better for clear skies and aurora so we headed out towards the Alaska Pipeline viewpoint.

On the way I looked out my window and saw some strange cloud like movement in the sky. Wow, I was seeing it! Because of the surrounding lights I could not detect the green until we stopped and our eyes adjusted to the dark. We stumbled on to a great first viewing experience at the Pipeline, then again later on a side road on the way home. And we were absolutely stoked for more.

Trans-Alaska Pipeline with aurora borealis

We got serious about studying the data and finding more local reports of how and when to see the lights. Seriously obsessed.

Mike writes...

After the first full day, which was overcast, the skies cleared, and stayed that way for almost the entire two weeks we were in Fairbanks. And to add to how ideal conditions were, the moon was either a sliver, or never was up during the night.

Our first night was at the Trans-Alaska Pipeline viewpoint pullout. There were several other cars/people there, no doubt seeking the same thing we were.

Photographers at the pipeline pullout

Although the pipeline pullout was north of Fairbanks and its lights, it was also very close to the main highway going north all the way to Prudhoe Bay, so there was a lot of truck and car traffic and headlights. And because this was a popular, close-in aurora viewing spot, there was a lot of traffic pulling in and out, too.

Highway traffic lights

So we began exploring other locations besides the pipeline pullout. On the Facebook ABN page we saw some pictures taken in Fox, so we drove in there behind the Silver Gulch brewery, but didn't really find the dark spot we were looking for. We decided to head over to Goldstream Rd and found a pullout that gave us some nice views of the sky and some trees to add foreground interest.

Our car on Goldstream Road

Looking down Goldstream Rd towards the northwest; one of our favorite shots

Looking southeast with the moon rising in the Fairbanks "light bubble"

Traffic was much lighter along Goldstream, and there was almost no light from homes. But we kept reading about other locations, so we tried to balance doing a lot of late night driving around in the dark with actually getting to stop and watch and photograph the aurora.

The Steese highway was definitely interesting, but it was a pretty long drive. Plus, the green laser from the LIDAR at the Poker Flat Research Range was often "in the way" of our aurora images.

Along Steese highway, a little past Skiland (can you see the green laser?)

The first few images I shot near Poker Flat I wasn't even aware of the laser, as I didn't notice it with the naked eye. But when I "chimped" the camera display after each shot, I was seeing this very bright vertical line and didn't know what it was. I checked the front of the lens. I reseated the lens. I checked focus. I turned the camera off/on. Finally, I just stared out, and began to see the faint laser. Later I discovered other photographers on the Facebook ABN page had a similar experience.

iPhone shot of our location on Steese highway :-)

Another fun thing we did with photography was renting a fisheye lens. We thought about buying one, but they are expensive and would probably be infrequently used. But we learned that a local Fairbanks camera shop, Alaska Camera - Fairbanks Fast Foto, rented out lenses, so we picked up a Canon EF 8-15mm f/4.0 fisheye zoom lens for a week, and had a lot of fun with it.

8mm fisheye view of most of the sky, taken along Steese highway

Not an aurora shot, but a fun fisheye view of the trees surrounding our Fairbanks home

From a photography perspective, shooting the aurora isn't too different from capturing the night sky or Milky Way. A tripod is a must for long exposures. However, sometimes when the aurora is moving, you'll want a little shorter exposure time to freeze the action, rather than have it blurred. Most of our best shots capturing "structure" were around ISO 4000, f/1.8 - f/2.2, with exposure times of 4-10 seconds. We shot in RAW mode and later adjusted white balance somewhere in the 3800-4200 range. But really, the most challenging part of shooting the aurora is staying warm!

Another night we decided to check out the aurora viewing at Chena Lake Recreation Area, a little east of North Pole. We hadn't scouted this location in the daytime as we did with the pipeline and Steese locations, but it worked out great. We went to the Lake Park first, and could've walked out onto the frozen lake, but it was windy there and we didn't have as good a view of the sky. We drove on into the park, going north to the River Park. There was a big parking lot with excellent views of the sky and just enough interesting stuff on the horizon.

One of our first shots at Chena Lakes

And what a great spot this turned out to be! Not only was the sky dark and the auroral activity some of the very best we saw on our trip, but we ran into a couple of friendly local amateur photographers, Bill and Terry, who gave us some helpful photography tricks and good location tips.

Fun shot in the parking lot: Terry's dog wearing a blinking collar, with Terry at his tripod; our car to his right

15mm fisheye view, almost 180 degrees of the sky at Chena Lakes

We learned a lot here, partly from Bill and Terry, and partly because we saw a level of activity that added new words to our aurora vocabulary: "curtains" and "structure" and "patterns" and "dancing."

I can see a "distorted skull face" in this shot; do you?

We also had a lot of very active displays directly overhead, yielding really cool and ephemeral patterns and colors.

Looking directly overhead

And we learned from our new friends that one "space weather" parameter we newbies had been relying on, "Kp," wasn't nearly as useful as some of the other space weather indicators, like the Bz component (direction) of the Interplanetary Magnetic Field or IMF. A negative Bz value seemed to correlate to more active auroral display.

We had a new appreciation for the scientific, governmental and academic entities watching the sun for solar activity and providing forecasts for not only aurora, but for potential radio blackouts, and in extreme solar events, even impacts to electrical grids like the one in Quebec in March 1989.

Not to mention all the new acronyms: SWPC, GOES, POES, ACE, SOHO, etc.

We spent many hours at home and in the field, looking at space weather, trying to understand the forecasts and match what we'd been seeing with previous forecasts.

Several local photographers and business had great resources for alerting us to auroral conditions. One popular website many of us used was Ronn Murray's webcam.

It was all very educational and fascinating to finally be able to witness firsthand a planetary-scale phenomenon.

Structure and curtains and dancing

Though it was very cold and windy, the high auroral activity at Chena Lake kept the adrenaline flowing and it wasn't that hard to stay warm, especially when you could take a break in the warm car. Plus, we'd learned a lot on previous nights about how to layer up. For Mike, it was poly-pro long johns, fleece pants, cargo pants and wind pants for the bottom, and on top, long johns, fleece shirt, wind-block fleece jacket, and a nylon shell, plus Loki mittens, balaclava, and wool watch cap. And perhaps the most valuable gear for Mike was Sorel mukluk-style boots good down to -100F. His feet were toasty warm!

Our final aurora-viewing location was another closer-in one we learned about from Facebook ABN -- Nordale Road, a north-south running road between North Pole and Chena Hot Springs Rd. It was a quick drive from our place on the north edge of Fairbanks over to Nordale, and though there were more lights from homes, the pullouts along road afforded excellent views of the northern sky.

Along Nordale Road, near North Pole, looking north at 2:42am, March 26

8mm fisheye all-sky shot at Nordale Rd (visible lower left center)

Along Nordale Road, looking east-north-east

About the time we figured out how to dress, where to go, how to be rested, and how to shoot the aurora, it was time to pack up and return to Colorado. But wait! Space Weather forecasts were suggesting that recent solar activity was possibly sending a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) our way! Should we extend?! We considered it very seriously, even asking the locals on ABN.

On our last night out, we shot some of the night sky from the deck of our house, and went back to Nordale Road for what we hoped would be a grand finale of aurora.

Shooting star captured from the deck

A huge cloud of green aurora filled sky

More curtains descended from the north

Here's a short time-lapse video of the aurora viewed from Nordale Road

The Milky Way was trying to peek through the aurora

We didn't. And it was OK. The CME wasn't a direct hit and didn't produce very much activity, so we felt comfortable with our decision to go home as planned.

We had an early flight, on another clear day, and during the flight to Seattle we had views of Alaskan mountains that rivaled our Denali flight-seeing trip!

Cool sunrise at the Fairbanks airport, waiting for de-icing

Flying over the Alaska Range

And as we approached Seattle, we got a good look at the Olympic Peninsula, including Dungeness Spit, an excellent hike we did last spring.

After we returned home, it took a week or more to settle back into a more normal sleep pattern. And we kept looking at aurora forecasts, wondering what the skies looked like and whether we were missing anything. Sometime in April, the aurora show will be over. The length of the day in Alaska will be much too long to see anything but the very brightest aurora.

Almost back to the Denver airport (above and to right green patch in center)

I think we will want to chase more aurora someday. And maybe not only in Alaska! :-)

Our self-portrait, taken near Goldstream Road

Fairbanks, Alaska - Part II: Denali (March 2014)

... continued from Part I...

On Sunday night we didn't go out to look for the aurora, so feeling rested with an uninterrupted night's sleep, we took a flight-seeing trip to Denali. The two hour flight, through Northern Alaska Tour Company at the Fairbanks Airport, offered unique and breathtaking views of the massif and surrounding mountains of the Alaska Range. Our 1982 Piper Navajo aircraft held 8 passengers, 9 if someone rode shotgun in the co-pilot seat, and every seat was a window seat.

Mike with our tour aircraft
Fairbanks airport just after take-off

First view of Denali from the air

Denali up close

Our pilot, Andrew, at work

The mountains near Denali

Our flight path from Fairbanks to Denali and back

As stunningly beautiful as this flight was, it didn't quite match up to the experience we had on our flight out of Haines in 2009. A high-wing plane definitely affords better visibility for a flight-seeing trip.

The flightseeing trip apparently didn't totally satisfy our need to see Denali because Mike woke up Friday talking about taking a drive to the National Park. I was on board with the idea immediately. On our way out of town we looked one direction to see an outdoor thermometer reporting 22F. When we looked the other direction, we saw a guy on a motorcycle!

Brrr, 22 degrees on a motorcycle

We stopped in Nenana to see about buying a Nenana Ice Classic ticket at the little visitor center we'd stopped at in '09, but it, as well as the whole town, was deserted. At least we got to see the famed tripod on the river.

Nenana Train Depot

Parks Highway Bridge, Tanana River, and the Ice Classic breakup Tripod

Susan with the Ice Classic sign and tripod, along with our car

A few miles south of Nenana we spotted a bump near the top of a dead evergreen tree and we knew it must be one of our target birds, the Northern Hawk-Owl.  The previous Saturday at Creamer's Field we learned from Mark that the birds perch high and look like a ball this time of year.

Northern Hawk Owl (Surnia ulula)

Turning the car around and pulling off the busy Parks Highway as far as possible, we got a good look at him through the window. When Mike stepped out to get closer the bird not only didn't leave, but responded to our iPhone app's bird call with repeated vocalizations. Finally he flew right over our heads, landing on a power line post across the way. What a great encounter!

Northern Hawk-Owl leaving its perch...

... for its new perch

View of Denali from the George Parks Highway

On arrival at Denali National Park and Preserve we learned that the Murie Science and Learning Center serves as the Denali visitor center in winter. We saw our first Boreal Chickadee just outside before heading down the 15 miles of recently plowed (and paved) road.

Boreal Chickadee

Along the road we stopped to walk to the Savage Cabin where an artist-in-residence was staying. Then on the way back we walked the Mountain Vista Trailhead which led to some nice views of Denali.

View of Denali from near the Mountain Vista viewpoint

Gray Jay near Savage Cabin

Mountains to the east of Denali NP&P

Mike along the Denali Road

Thinking back about our time in Denali in the Summer of '09 and how difficult it was to see the mountain due to clouds, we couldn't resist driving on to the south viewpoint under the non-stop sunny skies. The parking lot was not maintained in winter, so we pulled off and walked on in on snow-packed trails. The claims that the views from here are unparalleled are not exaggerated.

Denali from the Denali South Viewpoint

Panorama shot from the Denali South Viewpoint; frozen Chulitna River in foreground (click to enlarge)

Random iPhone snapshot out the car window on the way home