Grant and I watched the Kp-index–an indicator of the strength of a geomagnetic storm–forge itself higher throughout the day as we sat in our Fairbanks hotel room. We cross-checked applications on our phone with internet-based references and all aligned to tell the same story. There was a forecasted Kp-index of 5 with clear skies on the horizon. We looked at each other and without a word knew we were in for a spectacular first evening.
That morning, guests for our weeklong Aurora trip began stepping off of their respective planes and into the cold, harsh weather that Alaska is notorious for. It was only October but the overnight temperatures were near freezing level. Facing the cold is an inherent part of seeing the Aurora Borealis! As folks began making their way to the lodging located downtown Grant and I decided to make a change to our evening plans. Originally, the night was supposed to begin with an orientation in the late evening followed by dinner at Lavellʼs (a wonderful steakhouse and personal favorite of mine) before driving north out of town. With such a promising forecast we figured that being in a position to photograph the Aurora early in the night was more important than an apt orientation and dinner at the hotel. We figured right!
My perfectly cooked, honey-glazed lamb chops would have to wait for a reservation later in the week. Instead, Grant and I opted for a late afternoon orientation and requested a pizza delivery from a local shop. The pizza arrived on time, and, forgoing a more standard Backcountry Journeyʼs orientation, we provided a brief overview of our itinerary. Hand-in-hand with this overview was a layout of Northern Lights-specific camera settings, the essential camera equipment needed for the evening (this wasnʼt the night to forget your tripod), and the appropriate layers. We knew we would be outside hovering over our cameraʼs LCD screens for the next 8 hours so it was crucial to have the appropriate apparel to keep us comfortable. After hitting on the necessary topics for the evening Grant packed away the projector while I brought the van to the front of the building. During my brief walk to the vehicle, I noticed faded green waves dancing gently over the city lights. The sun was still setting off on a far horizon as the show of the Aurora began. It was game on.
As we raced out of city limits those waves began to move more quickly and the saturation of the multi-hued greens intensified. Guests hooted and hollered as they looked out of the side windows in awe. We were only two hours into our trip and the magic of the Aurora could already be felt. As I drove, Grant provided another quick overview of camera settings and answered any lingering questions about how to capture this unique phenomenon. I added in the sometimes not-so-obvious advice to breathe, as I know how excitable one becomes in these situations. Weʼve all had scenarios where weʼve been so enthralled by what weʼre viewing that we forget to take our camera out of an unwanted setting, only to end up with a memory card filled with ʻwhat could have been ʼ images.
We began our evening at Olnes Pond, a wonderful little arena for both viewing and photographing the Northern Lights. As we jumped out of the vehicle, vivid colors of pink and magenta intertwined themselves with the varietal greens we had seen on the way in. The display was paralyzing, but Grant handed out tripods and packs as I ushered guests to our first location. The lights danced and sung above us for hours as we photographed their liveliness. We captured perfect reflections of the Aurora as itʼs lights flickered off of the water in front of us. After a while, the show began to simmer, and we decided to drive further north to change our perspective.
As we drove we witnessed varying degrees of Aurora shooting across the sky. We would stop, photograph for some time, and then move again to continue gaining new angles and foreground elements. It truly was a gift that continued to give. During one particular stop we all stepped out of the van, this time without cameras, and simply watched as the lights sparkled and writhed across a black canvas sky dotted with stars. I had never seen such a mesmerizing display. As quickly as they had arrived the ephemeral lights were lost in the vacuum of the atmosphere.
Happy and with sore necks, we made our way back to the warmth of our vehicle. We decided to head back since in just over an hour the hotel would begin serving breakfast! To say it was a successful first night would trivialize what we had just witnessed.
Having photographed early into that morning we rested for most of the day. We joined back together in the early evening for dinner at the Pump House. As we enjoyed wonderful local cuisine (it seemed everyone had a plate of fresh salmon in front of them) we all shared stories from the night prior. Table talk quickly transformed into an exciting conversation with each guest boasting about images they had created, and rightly so. As soon as final bites were taken and the last drops of post-dinner coffee were gone we were back on the road for another night of hunting.
To great surprise, we again quickly witnessed green bands lace the sky above us. The colors were less vibrant than the evening before, but intoxicating nonetheless. Again we photographed deep into the night. This evening’s showing dwindled shortly after midnight and never picked back up. Groggy-eyed yet content we packed our bags and laid our tripods in the back of the van knowing we had a long drive back to Fairbanks. As we drove the winding highway, low altitude mountains cast a bold shadow over us. It was a beautiful way to end the evening.
The following day we drove south of Fairbanks towards Delta Junction. We began our drive in the late afternoon, with fingers crossed to view wildlife along the Richardson Highway. We had little luck in this department but were able to capture a setting sun saturate linear clouds in tones of orange and red. We photographed sunset over the calming sounds of the Tanana River until the colors of the sky became a muted gray. We then drove back up the highway to the Salchaket Roadhouse for dinner. This up-kept Roadhouse still offers a true Alaska diner experience that exudes the spirit of the area. Old photographs of the area line the restaurant’s interior, and we were greeted with a joyous “Hello, Darlings!” from our hostess. Better yet, they had offered to keep the restaurant open after hours in an effort to cater to our specific itinerary and needs. You will be hard-pressed to find this type of service elsewhere.
Dinner was filled with laughs and an often sought after–and realized–group camaraderie. By the third day, we had become a small family, and we shared stories that ran the full gamut of personal experiences. The food was great and the company even better. Afterward, we made our way to our reserved cabin for the night on Birch Lake.
I stoked a fire inside while Grant led guests to a viewing spot right alongside the lake. Itʼs a mere minute walk from the cabin making this the perfect location to spend time at. The Aurora was hiding behind a blanket of clouds so we congregated inside. With a fire already set, I sparked our portable gas stove and began taking requests for hot drinks. We had a full menu available that evening, including coffee, cider, and multiple types of tea. We sipped warm drinks and waited for the lights to arrive. We had a Kp-index of 3, meaning if the clouds dissipated we would have an opportunity for great viewing. Unfortunately, we were again thwarted by un-accompanying skies. Nonetheless, we enjoyed each other’s company, hydrated off of hot beverages, and discussed a variety of topics, photography-related and otherwise.
It was now Thursday and we were tipping over the halfway mark of the trip. We offered everyone a relatively relaxed afternoon and met in the early evening for a post-processing demo session. Grant led this session wonderfully showing how to properly begin editing Aurora images. Editing is an extension of oneʼs creative process and is definitely subjective, but there are some tips & tricks for an appropriate baseline edit! This also provided a quick glance into each personʼs work from the week. It was exciting to see images each guest had made, and now they were learning how to distill a different type of life into them. The room was vibrating as we all revisited the emotions felt from two days of great Aurora viewing early in the trip. As these types of activities tend to do, this session lasted an hour longer than we had anticipated. It was time for dinner! We paid a visit to another local restaurant before preparing for a night of driving.
Unfortunately, an unexpected light cloud coverage managed to sweep across the Interior north and south of Fairbanks making for a mundane evening of driving. We decided to turn in early for the night in an attempt to catch up on sleep. On Friday we found ourselves driving to Chena Hot Springs. The road that leads to this resort is notorious for Moose sightings. Because of this, we set out in the early evening, driving slowly along the fabled two-lane highway. Our eyes were glued to the banks of the road and the heavily forested environment. It was the onset of dusk and the environment around us felt closer to where these large creatures might live than anywhere else Iʼve been. Unfortunately, after an hour of heavy searching, we came up empty-handed. The road and surrounding area are extremely beautiful, and we took in and photographed it nonetheless.
We ate dinner at the resort, and after taking a quick look at the hot springs (the following week’s group would take full advantage of the hot springs) drove back to our cabin for the evening. Again I stoked a fire as Grant and the rest of our team moved in for the evening. Once settled inside we all moved outward to the snowy banks that surrounded the cabin.
We didnʼt wait long before green lights suddenly surged above us! Before we knew it we were back in a daze, enjoying the splendors these lights offered. We spent the next few hours making fine photographs of these overheard visuals.
The strength of the lights fell back and forth between heavy flow and recess. We used both the nearby tree line and our cabin as strong foreground elements to build fantastic images. The Northern Lights ended just as our last bundle of firewood began turning into ash. We all huddled around the fire, warming our hands from the coolness of our cameras and tripods. Comfortable once again, we packed up our things and began driving back to town. Everyoneʼs face mirrored that of the person next to them, bearing wide eyes and outstretched grins. It was the bookend to another successful evening.
On our last day, we came together for an evening image review. It was beautiful to see everyoneʼs images side-by-side and was a testament to the great week we had all had together. Looking at the images displayed on the screen we couldnʼt help but feel fortunate for the experience. We shared a last meal together before attempting one last night of Aurora photography. It was at Lavellʼs, but instead of the lamb chops, I opted for the homemade lasagna. Spoiler: It was just as good.
Although moonlight pierced small holes in the layer of clouds above us, there was little in the way of action. Having seen the Northern Lights more nights than not, the group decided to retire early and rest for return travel the following day. This trip provides a different schedule than most, and tiredness from multiple long nights in a row quickly compounds.
We said our goodbyes and went separate ways, but all with a smile and memories to last a lifetime. I had another trip beginning in two days and was quick to begin resting, but I couldnʼt help but feel excited for the next group to witness what we just had.
Alex Hansen is a photographer currently based in Colorado’s Vail Valley. His drive for photography and adventure stems from time spent in our world’s biggest mountain ranges. Alex’s goal with photography is to distill the beauty in the subtle moments we so often experience while out in nature. From extending ridgelines to carved out river basins he has a passion for capturing these places in a raw and emotional way.
Alex is an active climber and traveler as well. Climbing was his initial foray into the world of adventure–and adventure photography–and he has spent much of his life on mountainsides across North America. Before Alex pursued photography full time he was a project manager for an outdoor digital media publication. This is where he picked up a camera for the first time, helping to build brand stories and share them in an authentic way.
As someone who continually aims to push his own boundaries, Alex is passionate about helping others do the same. He loves discussing everything related to travel, culture, and photography, and how we can use these as vehicles to better understand the world and ourselves. This aspect of the journey is inherent to what he does and he’s excited to share that with others.
You can view more of Alex’s creative works at his website alexjosephalpine.com