Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Northern Lights March 2013 - The Northern Lights

***This post is part 5 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

During my last night in Fairbanks, I had one of the most surreal experiences of my life while trying to see the northern lights. But before I get into the details, let me go through the two previous nights, the first of which was a disappointment, and the second of which was somewhat more successful.

I got into Fairbanks around 5:40 pm on the first day, and after getting settled in at the hostel and grabbing a quick dinner, I set out on the Steese Highway. My thought was to get out of the city limits so light pollution would be at a minimum. The Steese Highway extends 161 miles from Fairbanks to the town of Circle on the Yukon River, roughly 50 miles south of the Arctic Circle. After the 81-mile marker, much of the road becomes unpaved, but even in the paved sections, it can be a rather treacherous journey during the winter.

The highway traverses several passes, including Cleary Summit, approximately half an hour outside of Fairbanks, and Twelvemile Summit, at around the 86-mile marker. After doing a bit of research online, I decided to try and see the northern lights at both summits, although I was a bit hesitant on making the nearly two-hour drive out to Twelvemile with the road still covered in snow.

Map of the Steese Highway (slightly out of date)

As I mentioned in my previous post, the weather wasn't cooperating on the first night I arrived. Overcast skies gave way to light snow as I ventured out onto the Steese Highway. I have to admit, I was somewhat scared to be driving alone on the winding, ice-covered road in complete darkness with a rental car. Going at a maximum of maybe 40 mph, I slowly made my way up, hoping I wouldn't slide off the road at any moment.

I had heard Cleary Summit was a popular tourist spot to see the lights, but when I arrived, there were no other cars there. At around 10:30 pm, a small bus pulled up to the turnout and turned off its engines. I saw a number of people sitting inside, and I felt at least a bit more certain that I was in the right spot. No other cars showed up that night.

Unfortunately, the snow started coming down harder, and as I much as I peered into the dark sky, I couldn't make out even a tiny trace of the green glow. After another hour and half of waiting in the freezing car, I decided that was enough, and I turned the car around and headed back down the summit. I suppose the smarter tourists had all seen the weather reports that night and stayed indoors! Stubbornly, I thought I would try my luck anyways and came up empty.

On the second night, I once again drove up to Cleary Summit along with some hostel-mates. The weather had been beautiful all afternoon, with barely a cloud in the sky, so I had high hopes of finally seeing the lights. When we arrived, I was surprised to see a virtual parking lot full of cars and tourists. I guess this was indeed a very popular spot!

The temperature was even colder than the night before, but at least there was no snow coming down. At around 11:00 pm, people began to notice a very faint glow in the eastern sky. This glow slowly intensified, and I smiled, relieved and excited that my goal of seeing the northern lights was actually happening right before my eyes. The glow gradually became a curtain of light that would undulate and sweep across the horizon. Sections would quietly fade, but new regions would suddenly light up, connect and disconnect, and fade again. It was simply breathtaking.

At this point, I have to burst some people's bubbles regarding how the northern lights actually appear in reality. Every single picture you see, from the amateur shots I've posted here to the jaw-dropping professional works of art you might find on Google Images, is not representative of the real northern lights. The lights you see in person are actually quite dim when compared to the resulting photos.

This is because in order to even get a visible shot, you almost always have to utilize long-exposure photography. And most people end up using a 15-30 second shutter speed setting that inevitably enhances the glow of the lights. In fact, as I was testing out my camera and taking some initial shots, I was really surprised at how bright the lights looked compared to the actual thing right in front of me. Then add to the fact that people typically Photoshop the hell out of their northern lights pictures, and you might end up with something like this.

All I'm saying is, when booking a trip to see the northern lights, temper your expectations, because they won't look nearly as amazing as those pictures you've been staring at. Understand that the camera intensifies the brightness and captures colors that you may not even see with your naked eye. At the hostel, I heard a few grumbles about the lights being more dim than they had imagined. The truth of the matter is, that is exactly how they look in real life. If you approach the phenomenon realistically, they will still be remarkable despite the pictures you've seen!

Finally, on my last full day in Fairbanks, I decided to make the long trek out to Twelvemile Summit. Frankly, I was very nervous about making this two-hour drive since I had no idea what the road conditions were like. Talking with some locals, they made it sound a bit scary, especially since very few cars are on the Steese Highway in the winter past Cleary Summit. If I were to get into an accident or have car troubles, it literally may take hours to get any help. Even worse, they warned me about crashing into moose and other animals, especially at night.

I set out before sunset, hoping to get a feel for the road while there was still light. Luckily, the weather was perfect like the day before. While it was very desolate along the way, the scenery was sublime. Road conditions turned out to be fairly manageable, with some sections cleared of snow and others still covered in a thick layer. By the time I approached Twelvemile Summit, however, the weather suddenly took a turn for the worse. The winds picked up and dense clouds rolled over the horizon. Strangely, the bad weather was only confined to the summit, as I could still see beautiful clear skies in the direction I came from.

Steese Highway

View from Twelvemile Summit

I parked at a turnout next to the summit, and decided to wait out the weather and hope for the best. The sun had already set by then, and the temperatures began to plunge. As time passed, I became more and more worried. Snow began to fall and accumulate quickly on the car, and even the hand warmers and thick layers of clothes I brought weren't helping. Worst of all, when I went outside the car to take pictures, the wind was literally howling down the slopes. There was no way I would be able to set up my tripod, even if the weather cleared up.

At this point, I decided it would be best to head back. I had not seen another car in over an hour, and it just didn't make any logical sense to stay there given the weather. As I turned around, the last glow of daylight faded from the sky and I was left in complete darkness. I stared intently at the long stretch of road ahead of me, illuminated only by the high beams of my car.

About ten miles into the drive back, I suddenly slammed on the brakes after noticing something on the road. It appeared to be running, but for a moment, I couldn't tell if it was running at me, or away from me. As I slowly pulled forward, I realized it was a grey wolf racing down the Steese Highway at full speed. It was trying to escape from the blinding headlights.

My heart was literally pounding out of my chest at this point, as I didn't know what to do. Even though the wolf was fast, my car still could have easily outpaced it. At the same time, the road was narrow enough that I couldn't pass by. So I decided to follow behind it, hoping it would eventually jump over the side embankment and into the forest. But straight down the Steese Highway it went, and for more than two miles I chased that grey wolf. I flashed my high beams and honked my horn to no avail. Finally, as it became noticeably tired, it slowly drifted towards the left side of the road, and gave me just enough of an opening to step on the gas and fly past it. I turned my head slightly and caught one last glimpse at the first, and perhaps only, grey wolf I'll ever seen.

Just as my adrenaline was beginning to calm down, I had to slam on my brakes yet again. This time, the wheels lost traction for a second as the car slid forward and came to rest slightly askew. Right in front of me, perhaps no more than 20 feet, were two giant moose that had jumped up and onto the road from the left embankment. They proceeded to casually cross the two-lane road, taking their time and not even turning to look at my headlights. It took all of 15 seconds at most and they were gone, fading into the dark trees to my right. Luckily, I had been driving extremely slow after my encounter with the grey wolf. If I had been speeding down the road, the night may have very well ended tragically.

I must have gone less than half the speed limit the rest of the way, with my eyes wide open and glued to the road ahead. About halfway back to Cleary Summit, I found a wide turnout on the side of the highway and decided to pull over. It was still freezing cold outside, but at least the winds were completely gone and there was not a cloud in the sky. Perfect conditions for viewing the northern lights. I pulled out my tripod and camera and set it up on top of the car roof.

At around 10:30-11:00 pm, I noticed a faint glow appear in the sky and quickly positioned my camera towards that direction. Over the next three hours, my jaws literally dropped as the northern lights took over the horizon. The intensity was much greater than the night before and the movements were quick and succinct. It was so beautiful I half-expected sound effects to suddenly ring out through the atmosphere. The realization that I was alone on the side of the Steese Highway in the middle of Alaska, taking in the northern lights as they danced across the sky, was almost too much for me to handle.

The only thing that kept snapping me out of my daze was the fact that my fingers, toes, and even my nose was beginning to hurt from the numbing cold. And while my camera was taking the long exposures and processing the photos, I would do jumping jacks and run in place just to keep warm. Eventually, I could only stay outside for brief periods of time before retreating back into the car and turning on the heater.

For three hours, I took pictures and stared up at the sky, taking it all in. It was easily one of the most surreal nights of my life, and I sincerely doubt there will be many more experiences that can top that. At around 2:00 am, I drove the rest of the way back to Fairbanks in a haze. Since my flight was departing at 8:00 am, I gave up on getting any sleep that night. After a nice hot shower, I packed up my belongings and once again braved the -10 °F weather outside. I had never been so cold in my life.

Finally, one quick note about my camera. I didn't have a fancy DSLR, so I made do with my Sony DSC-HX7V in manual mode. Most point-and-shoots these days have a manual mode where you can set the f-stop, exposure time, and ISO value. While the pictures may not look as nice as DSLRs, I thought my results turned out okay. A tripod is absolutely essential if you don't want your shots to become a blurry mess. I typically set the exposure time to 30 seconds with an f-stop value of 3.5. Initially, my ISO was set to 400, but I upped it to 800 to get a bit more intensity. Also, be sure to use the self-timer on your camera, or else even the movement of your finger clicking the shutter button can cause slight motion blur. For more information on how to photograph the northern lights, check out this very informative website.

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