Walking out of the hotel lobby, I looked up and saw the wave of an auroral mass flickering overhead. While the Fairbanks city lights created a dome of light pollution, the aurora was sufficiently bright to cut through the luminescent haze.
When the rest of the group followed me outside, I pointed to the emerging aurora and I could see the excitement in their eyes. Within minutes we are on the road driving headlong into the night; leaving the lights of the city behind us.
It doesn’t take long for us to be under truly dark skies and I hear one of the guests gasp at the enormity of the sky and the countless number of stars that hang at what seems to be, just out of arm’s reach. Half an hour later, we pull nest to Olnes Pond. Over the frozen water, the aurora erupts. I turn to the guests in the van and give them recommendations on camera settings. Soon, each photographer is scattered about the snow, all in awe and wonder of the scene before us.
I make my way around to each person and check on their progress in setting up the shot. Everyone is good and I leave them to their craft. For two hours, auroral emissions wax, and wane overhead, dancing across the horizon. The photographers in the group take shot after shot and move around to create different compositions.
As the Aurora Borealis wanes, we take to the vehicle and drive a few miles north to gain a new perspective and the Northern Lights erupt again. Shot after shot affirms the beauty of the northern sky and before we know it, it’s 4 am and we head back to the hotel for a few hours of sleep.
Time flies quickly and just afternoon on the next day, we once again convene to enjoy some of Alaska’s local culture. Near the village of Nenana, we travel to Bill Cotter’s place. Bill Cotter is a long-time sledder in Alaska who’s competed in the Iditarod and Yukon Quest dog sled races dozens of times. There he gives us a tutorial on dog sledding while we pet his dogs who are extremely social and well cared for.
After a short orientation, each of the guests climbs aboard a sled and slips off through the birch trees on an hour-long sled dog adventure.
Predictably, time flies. Leaving Bill Cotter’s place we drive down to Nenana – a small village that sits on the banks of the Tanana River. Curiously, a large black and white tripod sits atop the ice where the river’s frozen. It’s the buoy that marks the site of a long-running tradition here: the Nenana Ice Classic. Here people buy tickets to predict the date and time in which the ice will break. It’s a tradition that dates back to the early years of the 20th century where locals and railroad workers would wager to see when the ice would break. Today, this tradition continues and the proceeds go to charity. Therefore, we buy our tickets and make our best guess as to when the ice will melt and then we cross our collective fingers.
After dinner at Pike’s Landing, we head out to Birch Lake. Once in the cabin, we build a fire and make s’mores until the aurora becomes active. We didn’t have to wait long. Soon, bands of auroras start drifting from the north.
The slow-moving disturbances in the earth’s upper atmosphere were mostly stagnant at first but without warning, they erupted into a kaleidoscope of color: Green and a bit of purple and magenta contrasted nicely against an indigo sky peppered with brilliant stars. It is all so surreal.
Once the aurora wanes, we warm by the fire in the cabin and reflect on another amazing night.
On Tuesday, the weather conditions turned on us. As magnificent as the first two nights were, the third night would prove to be challenging so we went sightseeing. Just north of town, we visit a site where you can see and photograph the Alaska Pipeline – an immense public works project that brings oil from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, Alaska. Then we head up to the Chena Wilderness where we photograph moose for the remainder of the evening.
Once back in Fairbanks, we eat supper at Lavelle’s and I decide to cancel aurora hunting for the night because the weather and a low KP (an auroral activity index) meant our chances for seeing an exciting sky show was zero. Therefore, we convened at the hotel’s conference room and talked Photoshop, Lightroom, and swapped photography stories into the early morning hours. While we didn’t see the aurora tonight, our time was still spent productively.
Come Tuesday, we once again convene after a few hours of well-earned sleep. Today, we head out to Chena Hot Springs to experience an unusual part of the Alaska wilderness. On the way, however, we drive slowly through the Chena River Wilderness and stop on a couple of occasions to photograph moose.
A couple of hours later we arrive at the resort and take in the lay of the land. Chena Hot Springs is home to a geothermic feature that powers the resort and the water bubbles from the earth to create a pool in which swimmers can enjoy.
For two hours the guests partake in the warm waters that are strangely juxtaposed in a basin surrounded by snow and ice. Soon we are communing around a dinner table in the Chena Hot Springs restaurant. As I look around the table, seafood seems to be the preferred meal of the night. The food is satisfying and as we walk to the van, the sky darkens quickly. Despite the weather forecasts that say to the contrary, the skies above are clear and the stars begin to pop. Therefore, we head down the road to a cabin we’ve secured for the night.
Above the cabin, the skies are wide and clear. While everyone moves around and readies their gear, I build a fire inside to warm the wood structure. The fire is efficient and warms the cabin nicely and soon, we’re gathered in the cabin, engaging in conversation and planning the night’s shoot.
Tonight, however, the KP levels are low and the aurora only appears as a faint light on the northern horizon but we see it nonetheless. We salvage the photo opportunities by shooting star trails and doing a bit of light painting on the cabin.
For three hours we warm by the fire, listen to music, and intermittently take photos until we concede that the aurora borealis will not appear tonight. At 3 am we call it a night.
According to the website in which I gather my scouting data, the KP levels are on the rise for Wednesday night. Therefore, we rearrange our schedule a bit to put us in the best location to witness the activity. Beforehand, though we spend what’s left of daylight doing a bit of touring. From the hotel, we head over to the Museum of the North. Located on the campus of the University of Fairbanks, the museum is full of historical vignettes that hint at Alaska’s colorful history.
From there, we head up to Murphy’s Dome. A low mountain just south of Fairbanks gives views of the surrounding landscape. To the South across the Tanana Valley, you can see the immense Alaska Mountain Range rise from the mostly flat landscape. The most prominent peak, Denali, stands prominent amongst the other peaks scattered across the range. This massive landscape feature often influences the weather around it. Therefore, seeing the big mountain (Denali) on any given day is a crap-shoot. Today, however, it is out. While shrouded in a bit of haze, the peak is still proud as she stands over 20,000 feet over the land. As the highest peak in North America, we can see the top of our world from here.
For the rest of the afternoon, we work on landscape photography and I give a lesson in panoramic photography. Panoramas are a great way to shoot board landscapes when the scene lacks a strong foreground element.
The conversation at dinner at The Pump House is lively and we all take in the excellent Alaskan fare. As the conversation turns to the night shoot, we are soon back on the road headed north to the Chena River cabin once again.
By this time of the week, the group moves swiftly and efficiently and within minutes, the van’s unpacked and we have a fire stoked sufficiently to begin warming the cabin. Before the first logs had even turned to coals, the aurora began to erupt outside. Along the rim of the parking lot, a cadre of tripod-mounted cameras strung out randomly in the snow. Each person conjured up their own composition and in their mind, defined what a good photo will look like, and crafted a composition that will live forever on their digital media and in their mind.
For hours, the aurora came and went and each time we were there to photograph it – only using the cabin to warm for a bit. By 4 am the group and the aurora were finished for the night so we headed back to the hotel. The day was complete and we’d seen the aurora for four of the five nights we’d been out.
Everyone’s excited for what the final night will hold.
With a ticked-up aurora forecast coupled with deteriorating sky conditions, we had to scramble to figure out the best opportunity for the final night. So the call was made to head east out towards Chena Hot Springs. On the road, everyone was ready for a wildlife sighting and soon, moose were seemingly everywhere. Deep into the trees, however, the big ungulates didn’t provide the best opportunities to photograph them. That opportunity came just a few miles from Chena Hot Springs when we spotted a lynx just off the side of the road. It was exhilarating. One of the guests managed to get photos of the beautiful animal while the rest of us watched in awe. Soon the lynx is gone and we continue to Chena Hot Springs for supper.
When our meal is complete the sun is just starting to sink behind the hills. We drive away from Chena Hot Springs and head to our cabin for the evening. There we build a fire and warm a bit and wait for the aurora to appear. Within thirty minutes of our arrival, a band of auroral energy appears to the north. Soon, it’s expanding and appears all around. Cameras click and guests gasp in awe as the lights dance overhead. The aurora is filled with greens, reds, and pinks, and picture after picture is made. The aurora is flighty, however, and soon after the display begins, it fades.
At 2 am we pack up because the aurora has waned and a low scum of clouds hang over us. Seeking clearer skies, we drive north of Fairbanks to the spot where our trip first began. Until 4 am we all stood in the cold with our tripod-mounted cameras and watched in awe of what Mother Nature gives us. For five out of six nights we’d seen nature’s greatest light show. We drove back to the hotel at 5 am, satisfied and having earned some much-needed sleep.
As a post-script, sometimes lightning strikes -or in this case, the Aurora – just after you wish it would have. Case in point, the night following this trip, I was blessed with some really good stuff as the KP Index was off the charts and the skies were pure magic. I’ll share a few of those images here, too:
It’s precisely this sort of unreal stuff that has me coming back for more each time I have a chance to photograph the Northern Lights, in Fairbanks, with Backcountry Journeys!
If you’ve read any Texas-based magazines over the past twenty-five years chances are you’ve seen some of Russell’s photos or read some of his words. Since 1989, he has been traveling the state telling authentic Texas stories with his camera and his words – both written and spoken.
A graduate of Dodd City High School and East Texas State University, Russell was an ag science teacher in Childress, Texas for 16 years where he was named Texas Agriscience Teacher of the Year on three occasions.
After leaving that career in 2009, he continued to photograph, write, and speak about his experiences and the people he meets and in 2010, he began delving into television production. His first documentary film, Bois d’Arc Goodbye was filmed entirely in Fannin County and chronicled he and his brother Bubba’s canoe journey as they traversed the creek before a lake forever changes the landscape. The film aired three times to a prime-time, national audience.
Recently he’s worked with such celebrities as the Robertson Family from Duck Dynasty television show, T. Boone Pickens, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Pat Green, and Tracy Lawrence, but he insists that regular people are his favorite subjects.
Currently, Russell lives in the country north of Childress, Texas with his wife Kristy and their two children Bailee and Ryan but still manages to spend a considerable amount of time near his boyhood home north of Dodd City.
You can see Russell’s work and portfolio on his webpage at www.russellgraves.com