Posted by: kerryl29 | February 28, 2022

Alaska Revisited, Day 8 (Part II): Aurora Borealis

When I left off my tale of Day 8 of last year’s Alaska trip, we had hiked back from the glacial ice cave and said good-bye to Steven Miley. It was still the better part of three hours until sunset, but we had a fair amount of distance to cover. We had roughly 40 miles to travel on the Richardson Highway to get to Paxson, a speck of a town that is at the junction of the Richardson and Denali Highways. Once we reached the junction, we had 42 more miles to travel on the Denali Highway to reach the Maclaren River, which is where our lodging was located. The Denali Highway is paved for 21 miles on its west end and is gravel for the next 111 miles as Cantwell, the tiny town on the highway’s eastern terminus, is approached.

Since we expected to stop to photograph whenever the moment suited us on the drive to the Maclaren River, we fully anticipated that it would be dark by the time we arrived at our destination. We were correct.

We stopped at a roadside pullout when we reached the Rainbow Ridge area of the Richardson Highway and I produced an image, even though I wasn’t particularly happy with it.

Rainbow Ridge, Richardson Highway, Alaska

We moved on, with the road climbing as we approached Paxson, clearing the tree line in the process. We skirted the shores of the large Summit Lake and ultimately reached points along the road endowed with smaller bodies of water. The light, at this point, was very nice and improving by the minute, the wind had dropped to nothing and the sky was compelling; we took advantage of the scenery and the conditions by stopping on several occasions.

Mountain Reflections, Richardson Highway, Alaska
Mountain Reflections Black & White, Richardson Highway, Alaska
Mountain Reflections, Richardson Highway, Alaska
Mountain Reflections, Richardson Highway, Alaska
Mountain Reflections, Richardson Highway, Alaska

When we reached Paxson, it was no more than 45 minutes until sunset. We made a right turn onto to the Denali Highway and began the drive toward the Maclaren River. After about 15 miles, with the light now exquisite and the sky splashed with color all around us, I suggested to Ellen that we find a place to pull off, pronto. I spotted a gravel drive to our right–north of the highway–and pulled into it. From here–back above the treeline–we had views approaching 360 degrees. Tundra, at the very peak of fall color, sprawled around us for miles. The Alaska Range loomed to our north. It was time to go to work.

Alaska Range Sunset, Denali Highway, Alaska
Sunset, Denali Highway, Alaska

I found myself going back and forth to opposite sides of the gravel drive as the sky lit up in all directions.

Sunset, Denali Highway, Alaska
Sunset, Denali Highway, Alaska

We were on a hillside. In one direction, we were looking out over a vast tundra-strewn plain. In the opposite direction, we were staring uphill at a fiery sky. I couldn’t make up my mind which side to focus on so I centered on neither…or both, depending upon your point of view.

Sunset, Denali Highway, Alaska
Sunset, Denali Highway, Alaska

When the light faded, we packed up and prepared to move on. We still had at least a 30-minute drive to reach the Maclaren River.

As expected, it was dark when we arrived at the Maclaren River. We checked into our lodgings (there aren’t many places to stay on the Denali Highway–only two or three over a distance of 135 miles).

One of the last things that Steven had mentioned to us when we parted company several hours earlier was a reminder: tonight was forecast to have an excellent opportunity for aurora viewing where we would be. It was supposed to be mostly clear and the likelihood of aurora activity was high. We had kept this in mind when we drove to the Maclaren River; had we made it in daylight we were hoping to be able to scout a location with a nearby pond or small lake so that we’d have the opportunity to photograph reflections of any aurora activity but, as I mentioned, it was dark well before we arrived, so that was out.

The best aurora action was expected to be around 2 AM, as is typically the case at that time of year. It needs to be as dark as possible for good aurora viewing and ambient light tends to linger at these far north latitudes for an hour or so after sunset. In the past, on both this trip and the one back in 2018, when conditions were reportedly viable for aurora viewing, we had tended to employ a strategy of going to sleep and then setting an alarm, getting up periodically during the night to check for sky action. This had proven…how shall I put this…wildly unsuccessful. So with this evening shaping up to be very possibly our best opportunity on the entire trip to photograph an aurora event, I suggested to Ellen that we simply attempt to stay up and check the sky regularly. That was readily agreed to.

One thing that we did every evening on the trip was to download images to our computers (we each had a laptop with us) and then rename files based on location. Ellen took copious location notes throughout the day so we got together each night and collaborated on image location identification. We did this, as usual, this night after checking in.

After we completed the exercise, it was about 11:30 PM, still well shy of expected prime aurora viewing time. We had adjoining cabins in the complex we were staying at and had been doing our file naming in Ellen’s cabin. After we finished, I said I was going back to my cabin to take a quick shower and we could reconnoiter after I was done–perhaps actually head out and find a location and wait for the aurora, hopefully, to make an appearance. On my way out the door I looked up at the sky–it was clear. Innumerable stars were visible in the sky, almost completely devoid of light pollution. “Looks good,” I said, and then closed the door behind me.

I had just finished getting dressed after showering when I heard a knock at the door. It was Ellen. “It’s started!” she said. I quickly put my shoes on, stuck my head out and looked to the north. Sure enough, I could see greenish streaks in the sky. We were going to have an aurora event! Now we just had to get ourselves in a position to photograph it.

Hoping to find something with a particularly compelling foreground, we got in the car and drove west–covering a part of the Denali Highway we hadn’t traversed earlier. We hoped we’d come across a pond alongside the road. But after about five minutes, we couldn’t see much of anything–not even a clear view of the northern sky. It was too dark to be certain why, but we assumed that there was thick vegetation on the side of the road blocking our view. After another few minutes I stopped the car and suggested that we head back to the Maclaren River. Worst case, I figured, we’d be able to photograph from the bridge spanning the river; at least we’d have a clear view to the north and, maybe, we’d be able to squeeze some reflections out of the water, even if it was moving.

We drove back to the river and I crossed the bridge, parking the car at a pullout on the far side. We were, at this point, maybe 1000 feet from our rooms at the lodge. We had our headlamps, to help deal with the overwhelming darkness where we were, though we used them as little as possible to avoid compromising our night vision. There was no one around–we quite literally never saw another soul that night even though there were other people staying at the lodge and despite the fact that a campground, with a number of vehicles, was no farther away from our shooting positions than our lodge rooms.

Before we had ever set foot out of the lodge–actually, before I’d even gone in the shower–I’d gone through the process of getting my gear ready, based on my previous experience with aurora photography. I attached my Sigma 24-35/f2 lens on one of my Z7ii bodies, via the FTZ adapter. I pre-focused the lens to infinity. I made sure that the aperture was set at f/2. I raised the ISO to 800, as a starting point. When we got into the field, I firmly attached my camera, via the L-bracket, to the tripod head and made sure the head was level using the leveling base after setting up on the bridge. The bulk of the action was right in front of us, unsurprisingly facing north. Given our position, the 24-35 mm focal range was just about perfect; I certainly didn’t want to go any wider and found that 35 mm was a perfectly fine long length for the scene. I took a test shot, and tweaked the shutter speed; 3 seconds was a perfectly reasonable base at that point (though this would change as the aurora brightened and dimmed).

I then assisted Ellen who was understandably a bit concerned about the possibility of a rerun of the quasi-tragic events of three years prior. We both wanted to be absolutely certain that nothing like that would happen again. (Spoiler alert: it didn’t; there were no equipment malfunctions.) Ellen was shooting with a 2.8 maximum aperture lens so I converted my metered exposure baseline with that in mind and suggested she dial in adjusted settings as a starting point, and then we made sure her focus was properly set to obtain sharp images. At that point we began to photograph in earnest.

Aurora Borealis, Maclaren River, Denali Highway, Alaska
Aurora Borealis, Maclaren River, Denali Highway, Alaska

The aurora experience on this evening felt very different than the 2018 aurora show we viewed in Denali National Park. I think the 2018 aurora was a better viewing experience than the 2021 event. The 2018 aurora was awe-inspiring; it was all over the sky, in every direction we looked, including directly over our heads, and was dancing constantly. It was an unforgettable visual. By comparison, this aurora was much less exciting; it was concentrated in the northern sky, with some action moving to the northeast and east as the night moved along, and it did much less dancing, more or less staying in place for fairly long stretches of time. But what made the 2021 experience less of a visual experience made it a far better photographic event. It was much, much easier to compose the frame, make aesthetic and technical tweaks, and still get essentially the same image that presented itself when the decision was made to trip the shutter. And because this aurora was so much slower moving, longer exposures were a much more viable option than they had been in 2018, which helped us keep the ISO down. (I never needed to raise my ISO setting above 800 and about half the images I captured were at 400. It helped to be able to photograph at f/2; f/1.4 or 1.2 would have been even better, but I’m not complaining.) Having even the narrow zoom versatility provided by the 24-35 mm focal range was very helpful as well.

Aurora Borealis, Maclaren River, Denali Highway, Alaska
Aurora Borealis, Maclaren River, Denali Highway, Alaska

When we started photographing, the aurora was still getting organized, so to speak. Its patterns were less distinct than they would eventually become. The sky wasn’t completely clear, as you can see from the images; there were some light clouds near the northern horizon, and I actually think that adds a bit of dimension and atmosphere to the images. Clouds, eventually, became an even bigger factor, as you’ll see.

Aurora Borealis, Maclaren River, Denali Highway, Alaska
Aurora Borealis, Maclaren River, Denali Highway, Alaska

Before the moon rose (and before the cloud cover became a bit more prominent), the sky was sufficiently dark that many constellations–including, quite prominently, Ursa Major (the Big Dipper)–were quite distinct, both to the naked eye and the camera’s sensors. In one image, I subsequently discovered, I caught a meteor.

Aurora Borealis, Maclaren River, Denali Highway, Alaska
Aurora Borealis, Maclaren River, Denali Highway, Alaska
Aurora Borealis, Maclaren River, Denali Highway, Alaska

The aurora on this evening was overwhelmingly green, though we did see fringing of purple and red on the margins. It was chilly, but not super-cold during the time we were out–and that was about 2 1/2 hours all told. The temperature was probably in the upper 30s F, but, fortunately, there was no wind to speak of and we were properly attired.

Aurora Borealis, Maclaren River, Denali Highway, Alaska
Aurora Borealis, Maclaren River, Denali Highway, Alaska
Aurora Borealis, Maclaren River, Denali Highway, Alaska

When the moon rose in the east, I couldn’t forego the opportunity to capture the other-worldly scene that resulted. The aurora was much weaker, naturally, but the cloud line and reflecting aurora and moonlight off the formation produced a unique effect.

Aurora Borealis Moonrise, Maclaren River, Denali Highway, Alaska
Aurora Borealis Moonrise, Maclaren River, Denali Highway, Alaska

After more than two hours, the aurora faded and, in relatively short order, disappeared almost completely. The show was over; it was nearly 3 AM, and though we were tired, the adrenaline that accompanied the excitement of the event–excitement I could clearly recall as I typed this narrative–kept us going. The first thing I did when I returned to my room was download my images.

The extremely late night meant that we would get a relatively late start the next day, but I think we both felt that the tradeoff was well worth it.


Responses

  1. Wow! What an amazing experience! I hope one day I’ll be able to see it too!

    • Thanks very much! And I, too, hope you have that opportunity.

  2. Fabulous images!

  3. Fantastic looking

    • Thanks very much!

  4. Kerry, what a fantastic aurora experience! Your 2018 experience, which you describe as visually more exciting, is reminiscent of some sunrise/sunset experiences which are visually stunning but impossible to capture in photographs. I love the river reflections — choosing that as a foreground was very opportunistic and smart.

    I especially like the mono mountain reflections image — it’s easy to become lost in the image, as it almost becomes an abstract without the reference colors. Very nicely done!

    • Thanks, Steve.

      Agreed, sometimes the very best visual natural events are among the least conducive to good photography, for a variety of reasons. (Hmm….there might be a blog topic in there somewhere…)

      I’m really happy with how that b&w from the Richardson Highway came out. If I said that I was thinking monochrome at the time of capture I’d be lying through my teeth, but something pushed me to try a conversion when I was processing the color rendition and I very quickly concluded that it was an idea with promise. When I was experimenting with local contrast adjustments and a digital red filter application I noticed that, because of the way darker areas of the sky naturally fell in place when composing the image, it took on a kind of faux vignetting effect (focus on the corners to see this if it doesn’t pop out spontaneously) in black & white and I ran with it.

  5. Nice photos of Alaska, and I really like your Arora Borealis photos.

    • Thanks very much!

  6. You need a holiday after that trip 😄 love the selected images

    • Thanks!

      LOLing at your comment about the aftermath of the trip. Truth be told, my narrative has just about reached the halfway point of the trip–Day 9, the next day on the agenda, was the midpoint, so there’s a lot left to cover. But you’re right…it was pretty exhausting (particularly after a brutal red eye connecting flight back home) and I needed 2-3 days to recover after returning.

  7. Stunning photo’s

    • Thanks very much!

      I tried to take a look at your blog, but the associated link states that it’s no longer available.

  8. I like the last four sunsets the most shot from a lower perspective with the lines of the sun-kissed clouds , as well as the second-last aurora shot with the moon and clouds. You had a good night with the aurora images, especially over water. Quite the adventure!

    • Thanks, Jane!

  9. […] day. If you’ve been reading along, you’re already privy to the residue, which netted a nice sunset shoot and a glorious aurora borealis viewing and photo session. In the end, we ended up spending three full days on the Denali Highway…but I’m getting […]


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