Shooting The Aurora

March 15: Weatherbug shows the temperature at Fairbanks as minus 31 degrees. That is crazy. The temperatures for this trip were supposed to be extreme, but this is crazy. Now the flight is just hours away, so it’s an adventure, right?

Chena Hot Springs Resort

The purpose of this Arctic expedition is to take pictures of the Aurora, commonly called the northern lights. Unfortunately, the best time way to see the Aurora is to go way up north when it’s the dead of winter. Looks like we’re going to get what Mother Nature ordered.

Our accommodations are at Chena Hot Springs Resort (CHSR). Located about sixty miles northeast of Fairbanks, Alaska, it’s metaphorically and perhaps literally ‘way out in the frozen wasteland’. The lone paved road that leads to the resort was put in strictly to go to the resort, and there is no electric or gas utility connection out there. They are literally off the grid.

CHSR gets around these problems by generating their own electricity from a geothermal-powered generator, providing all their heat from geothermal spring water, and wiring the resort into the Internet with their own microwave relay system. They are nothing if not self-reliant. Let’s remember those hot springs in a moment.

If winter sports are your thing you’ve come to the right place. Strap on a pair of cross country skis and head out into the back country with a satellite-linked GPS reporting your location in case you have any problems. If you’re not quite so athletic, strap yourself onto a snowmobile and roar off on any of a number of trails, enjoying beautiful scenery with little physical effort. Or just go hiking with or without snowshoes, just be sure to take your camera with you.

There’s also the dog-sled ride and puppy tour (if they have any at the time) which is a lot of fun. Dog-sledding is the big sport in Alaska, and while CHSR doesn’t officially enter races like the Iditarod, it is home to many past race dogs and is sometimes a checkpoint for the race. You can take a ten-minute ride in a sled and get to play with some of the dogs, if you wish. It’s all great fun.

CHSR is a nice resort. The word ‘resort’ might lead you astray, making you to believe you’re walking into a 5-star Sandals or Hilton. Expectations is the name of the game here. You’re in the frozen tundra, and the staff is keeping the place safe, warm, clean, and comfortable, which it is. It also has a rustic appearance, and a bit of a ‘campy’ feel. But the food and service are always great, they do have a bar which can serve up Margaritas and pretty much anything else, and the hot springs are marvelous, especially when you’ve been frozen into an icicle the night before!

The Good Stuff

Ok, why was it this trek was taken to this remote, frozen, rustic resort? Ah, yes, Northern Lights.

A group of professional photographers came together for a week-long class to not only learn how to take photographs of the Aurora, but to go home with a camera, no a computer full of photos of the Aurora. Great Escape Photography (GEP) set up the class, making all the on-site arrangements necessary. All we as photographers had to do was show up with our cameras and cold-weather gear.

CHSR has a large Activities room which was put to use right away for our first class the afternoon of our arrival. By the time full darkness had set in around eleven pm, we were hunting the Aurora both with our eyes and with Internet forecasts and webcams from Fairbanks to Iceland. It wasn’t long before the first shrieks of “It’s here!” were heard and everyone, not just our little group, was rushing out through the little doors to set up for pictures. The Aurora had arrived.

The GEP instructors had prepped us on exposure criteria and picture-taking processes, using our tripods and our newly acquired camera parkas (yes, like us, our cameras were all dressed in the latest fashions in camera parkas to keep themselves as warm as possible in the sub-zero weather). That first night saw many fits and starts as even the more experienced photographers in the group struggled with the new practices of changing camera settings in temperatures of twenty or more degrees below zero with thick gloves on, reaching through portals in the camera parkas much like a nuclear technician might when handling radioactive materials with those gloves inside their remote-control box.

The night progressed, the Aurora danced, we got colder, and we took pictures. The Aurora is a fickle performer. It will come and to play and dance then within moments fade away to just ‘simmer’ for a while. Then it will renew itself in other portion of the sky, making everyone pick up their camera tripods to move and re-aim, only to fade again in a few minutes. Yet we stay and click away, thinking she’ll come back in the same spot and we’ll be ready for her resurgence. At some point, the cold wins and we call it a night, drink some hot chocolate and go to bed. I look at the clock beside the bed and realize it’s three-fifteen AM.

We do this again every night in the hope that the next night will be better than the night before, yielding more fantastic pictures than ever. As with everything, some nights are better than others. We were fortunate to see the Aurora every night we were there, culminating in the best night of our stay on our final night. Sadly there are tales of people coming to see the Aurora and going a whole week without seeing anything. Like chasing tornados in the Midwest, Aurora are weather phenomena and rise and ebb on the fickle winds of fate. Forecasting tools are only so effective. Most of the nights we were there, the forecasts were rather grim and what we saw substantially outperformed the forecasts.

 

The Cold War

If you want to try an expedition of your own similar to this, my one recommendation is to properly protect your feet and your hands. Everyone seems to adequately care for arms, legs, and torso, but feet and hands (and toes and fingers) were a common complaint. Wear the ‘bunny boots’ they use for snow sports, even though they don’t look that cool. As for hands, use lots of hand warmers and keep your hands in your pockets unless you have some better glove technology than I had.

Above all else, look at the lights. Don’t get so absorbed in taking pictures that you forget to just look at them. They are amazing! There were times when I just wanted to do nothing but stare at the beauty of the dancing lights in the heavens. Photos and videos will never do justice to seeing the real thing.

 

Till next time,

George

 

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