Trip Report: Alaska Northern Lights – September 2021

The Northern Lights has inspired the human imagination for millennia. These ribbons and patterns of lights are caused by the solar winds interacting with the magnetic field to divert over the earth’s polar region. As the solar wind’s plasma collides with the atmosphere, it creates lights in the sky. The ribbons of northern lights, most visible at night time, illuminate the sky with green, violet, silvery blue, yellow, and red light. The color of the glow depends on what gas the particles collide with and how far into the atmosphere. Oxygen emits either a greenish-yellow light (the most familiar color of the aurora and generated by high-energy electrons) or a red light (caused by lower-energy electrons). Nitrogen generally gives off a violet or pink light but can also give off blue and silver light when electrons of the solar winds collide with ionized nitrogen. 

The primarily green lights dance across the sky in the northern latitudes called the aurora oval, which lies about 3º to 6º latitude from the geographical poles. Fairbanks is the prime location in the aurora oval for viewing the aurora borealis. Fun fact: the term aurora borealis is a combination of the Greek word for northern (Borealis) and the Roman name for the god of the dawn (Aurora) and most closely translates to the “northern dawn.” The aurora occurs high in the atmosphere, around 100 miles from sea level. So clouds are the major limiting factor in seeing the Northern lights on any given night in the fall in Fairbanks. So often, it feels like a hunt to find the Northern Lights and get out from under the clouds. 

After a quick reset from our previous trip, Interior Alaska, Denali, and Prince William Sound, we add a few new guests; meet for a short orientation and dinner, then we are off for the hunt. The first night we head north on the Elliott Highway towards the famed Dalton Highway to get to our shooting location. The clouds were in, but it looked like they would clear off if we waited long enough. The clouds cleared, and we saw the stars. We even saw with our cameras a slightly green haze on the horizon. So we waited for the aurora to come. And so we waited, shooting some test shots, and waited some more, shot the milky way, warmed up with some coffee and freshly popped popcorn, and waited. Finally, we decided that we needed to head back towards Fairbanks around 2:15 or 2:30 AM. And then, about half an hour down the road back to Fairbanks, everyone in the van asleep, the sky began to lighten in places. It was strange, like little highlights. I thought that the tiredness was catching up with me at first. So I woke up Alex and had to ask. “Is that the…” His immediate response was, “YES!” We pulled over onto Silver Fox Road north of Fairbanks, and everyone piled out of the van. 

The group quickly set up our cameras, and then the light show began in earnest. Within minutes of pulling over, we were spectators in the greatest show on earth! Our cameras out, we began to shoot bold green ribbons with notes of violet on their top. They reached all the way across the sky. At last, we had them, the northern light! At around 4 am, we headed back to our hotel for some much-deserved rest. 

With day one in the bag and spectacular northern lights secure in our hard drives, we met on the afternoon of day two for a trip to The Museum of the North at the University of Alaska Fairbanks where we watched a short documentary about the Northern Lights called Dynamic Aurora (Preview: https://youtu.be/yXbWTAH1FB4).

That evening we head out to Olnes Pond, where we set up our tripods to get some reflection shots at the northern lights to come in over the sky. We are in luck. Just after midnight, the light show begins! Across about half of the sky, the green ribbons with violet fringing reach out from the horizon. The water of Olnes Pond offers perfect reflections. The effect is surreal. Our evening light show lasts until about 3:30 am, and then fades into the night: day two, another success. 

When we woke up on the morning of day three, the clouds were in and not leaving. There is a thick blanket of low clouds covering the entire region. After a session on Lightroom, we head out on the Chena Hot Springs Road, looking for landscape and wildlife images. This is a beautiful drive that has it all, from sweeping landscapes to small ponds and where all sorts of animals stop to drink. We ate dinner at Chena Hot Springs, but when we got out, the clouds were still in, and there was no sign of them breaking. As a final Hail Mary, we head north again on the Elliot Highway, and then the unexpected happens, snow. Snow in the middle of September in Fairbanks isn’t unheard of, but it’s more heard of than actually happening. The snow is light, but the clouds are getting closer to the ground as we increase elevation. The hunt continued as we decided to drive down the Steese Highway, trying for lower elevation.

We called it around 4 am; the lights had illuded us on our final day of the Northern Lights Extension. The images from the two spectacular first two nights of northern lights danced in our memories as we pulled into our hotel in Fairbanks. 

A day and a half later, it started all over again for me when I met with our group, and just like that, we were off again. Our first evening was a race against the clouds. Through my research, I saw that there would be a break in the cloud ceiling way north, along the Dalton Highway north of the Yukon River crossing. So we were off. Three and a half hours later, we crossed the Yukon river, found our pull-out location, and waited for the northern lights. Slightly before 11 pm, we began to make out a faint green line of light in the northern sky through the breaking cloud cover. Setting up, we focused our cameras and began to shoot.

The lights were faint at first, but by 11:30 pm, they began to dance quickly back and forth across the sky. Long streamers across the sky at one point collided with the light of the moon. By 12:30 am that morning, they began to fade away, and by 1 am, they were all but gone, just the faintest hint of light in the sky. But the speculative drive proved out. We had won the throw against the clouds. Our gamble won.  

The following day we headed to the Museum of the North to watch the Dynamic Aurora, and then our to Birch Lake Cabins. We set up our camera on the shore of Birch Lake and then headed over to the cabin for some coffee and a snack. Finally, after a long wait, the lights began to show up in the northern sky. We all rushed out to shoot and started making images from the shoreline. After enjoying the reflections from the shore close to the cabin, the group decided to head over to a new vantage point, this one pointing directly north. The new area paid off big! With our wide-angle lenses, we could get the lights stretching across the sky and reflecting in the lake. With beautiful fringes of violet, these heavenly garlands swirled and twirled, creating spirals in the sky! Another success. 

Our final outing the following evening was unfortunately similar to the last evening with the previous group. The clouds covered the sky for miles around, but unlike our first night with this group, there was no hole, no escape; the sky did not clear. So after a few Hail Marys and hours in the van, we called it and headed to our hotel. Once again, we had two great evenings photographing the northern lights.  

The northern lights were a bucket-list life moment for our guests, who accompanied Backcountry Journeys on these two adventures. Both groups were two for three nights of seeing the northern lights. Both had seen beautiful reflections across pristine Alaskan lakes, reflections that offer a surreal glimpse at an already surreal event. The awe they evoke, the green, violet, and blue, long pennants waving and unfurled across the sky; the aurora borealis live in the memory of all who see the northern dawn. 

Tom Turner

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tom Turner is an artist and educator based in Eagle River, Alaska. Turner has taught at the Art Institute of San Antonio, Northwest Vista College, Saint Mary’s University, Texas Tech University, and The Creative Light Workshops in San Antonio, Texas.

Turner’s artistic practice, which is principally in the medium of photography, focuses chiefly on the landscape, how we perceive time, and how our memory alters that perception of the natural world. His fascination with image-making began during his undergraduate studies at McMurry University in Abilene, Texas. He continued this pursuit at The Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. After completing his education, he spent the next seven years working as a photojournalist. He worked for newspapers and magazines in Michigan, Southern California, Central, and East Texas. In 2010 Turner began his graduate studies at Texas Tech University, where he completed an MFA in Photography.

Turner, known for landscape imagery, which uses color and time to abstract the scene, his subjects range from national parks to appropriations of scientific imagery. He has exhibited locally, nationally, and internationally. Turner feels honored to have his work seen in Wired Photo4th International Photography Annual (INPHA 4)Juxtapoz Art and Culture Magazine, and most recently in Fraction Magazine. Check out Tom Turner’s website at https://tomturnerphotography.com.

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