Wednesday, March 24, 2010

End of Day 6 in Alaska

Final day... finished the morning with one last aurora lecture by Jim Burke of the Planetary Society.  Afterwards we headed out to the University of Alaska Museum of the North ( and then to the Large Animal Research Station ( we checked out some musk oxen and caribou.

Early in the evening we had our farewell dinner, followed by a visit to the Fairbanks Curling Club (, where a few of our group had a chance to try this difficult sport. I, of course, have trouble remaining upright on solid ground, so I didn't go out onto the ice.

Evening ended with our last trip to SkiLand where we waited under totally cloudy skies for about four hours before giving up and heading back to the hotel.

Out of fifteen aurora trips this is the first time I've been completely skunked. Not even a wisp of green light in the sky while we were out there--others, of course, saw them, but they were out later than we were.  This is the limitation of being with a group, where some people are interested in staying out and others want to give up. 

Next year I should have two trips to Alaska, and will plan on spending some time on my own as well to make sure I come back with some new photos!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

End of Day 5 in Alaska

Day began with a late breakfast in the hotel, followed by my aurora photography lecture.  All went well; lots of interest. Now all we need are some lights!

Our afternoon began with a trip to the Alaska Pipeline, followed by arrival at the Poker Flat Research Range where we got a great lecture by Neal Brown (former director) about the history of the site--the only University-owned rocket range in the world.  Photos appear at  Then it was off to Mt. Aurora for a terrific salmon dinner followed by another lecture by Neal on the research that PFRR has done to advance aurora science.

Afterwards we headed up the hill to SkiLand for aurora viewing. It was quite cold and windy there, and the auroras decided not to make an appearance.  We wound up leaving early since there was absolutely no indication that anything was about to appear.  A few folks did manage to get some photos of stars over the snowy landscape, but most didn't want to leave the warmth of the lodge for such a "mundane" sight as a beautiful starry sky!

We'll try again on Tuesday--our last night in Fairbanks.  We're all hoping... despite the fact that the forecast (both weather and aurora) are not promising.

Monday, March 22, 2010

End of Day 4 in Alaska

Another busy day.  Began with an excellent lecture on volcanology of Alaska at the Geophysical Institute by Dr. Michael West.  If my professors in school had been as good as Dr. West I might have actually learned something about geology!

The lecture was followed by lunch; our group split into two and we went to separate restaurants before heading a few miles east to see some sled dogs ( and how they're raised.  Always fun to visit there--the dogs just love to run and can't wait to get hooked up to the sleds.

Afterwards we headed over to Ice Alaska to see the ice sculptures (  I enjoyed this year's show because it was relatively warm (in the 30s).  Last year I sat indoors and drank hot chocolate because it was bitterly cold.  I'm always amazed how people from all over the world can take clear blocks of ice and use everything from chain saws to scalpels to hair driers to create such intricate shapes.

This evening we ventured over to Creamer's Field ( where the local amateur astronomers had telescopes set up.  Caught up with a couple of friends--two from San Diego and one from Fairbanks.  Though everyone was prepared to view and photograph the aurora, we were totally skunked.  It made no appearance whatsoever; usually it shows up even modestly, but it's been pretty bleak this week.  Later this week the forecast doesn't look much better ( until next Saturday when it should improve just a bit.

Tomorrow is my first presentation about shooting the lights; hopefully tomorrow night we'll get something to photograph.  In the afternoon we'll be visiting the Pipeline and then the Poker Flat Research Range ( where they launch rockets into the aurora, followed by dinner and a talk at Mt. Aurora (  After dark we'll head over to Skiland ( for some late night viewing of a dark sky.  Photos to follow... IF I get some photos!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

End of Day 3 in Alaska

After a short ride to the train station this a.m., the train departed around 08:40.  Spectacular scenery almost all the way--especially through regions known as Hurricane Gulch and Denali National Park.  Mt. McKinley (aka Denali) was clear from top to bottom--a rare occurrence.  Usually there are clouds obscuring the top.  But this year--as with last year--we got a perfect view.  The train conductor did something he rarely does: stopped the train for us to get off for even better photos.

We pulled into Fairbanks around 20:15 p.m.; the bus had already brought the luggage from Anchorage and delivered it to the hotel rooms, so we were out of the train and on the bus within minutes.  On the short ride to the Sophie Station, we drove past the 2010 World Ice Art Championships to get a quick glimpse of the sculptures with lights on them (  We'll be getting back there soon, but in the daytime.  If you've never seen these, it's worth the trip to Fairbanks just for that.

After arriving at the hotel we checked the aurora data and it appeared that things were quiet, so we used that as an excuse for a good night's sleep.  Most were tired from the long train ride anyway.  A couple of friends from San Diego were visiting to shoot the auroras, and they teamed up with a mutual friend from Fairbanks ( to head out tonight anyway since the sky is clear.  I caught up with them but decided to pass, with the request that if anything should turn up in the sky they should call me.  I don't expect the phone to ring!  The lights are as quiet as I've ever seen them. We're, of course, hoping that they pick up in the next few days, though there's no evidence that they will.  Time will tell.

Tomorrow (Sunday) will be another long, but interesting, day.  08:45 the bus arrives to take us the the UA Fairbanks Geophysical Institute where we'll hear about the aurora and seismology research they're doing there, and receive a tour of their research labs.  Then, after lunch, it's on to learn about raising sled dogs and the Ice Art Festival. Evening will see us at Creamer's Field ( where the local amateur astronomy group will set up telescopes for our folks and, if we're lucky, we'll get to see some lights as well.

Tonight, however, it's an early night for me!

Friday, March 19, 2010

End of Day 2 in Alaska

Another long day... began this morning with a two-hour bus trip to Seward through beautiful Sitka Spruce forests, and along the Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet.  Once in Seward we visited the Alaska SeaLife Center--an interactive aquarium of some of the sea life that inhabits Alaska.  Quite a few photos, but it was tough with moving animals and very low light levels.  Will take some processing to get them to look good; I think there are a few winners in there though.

After an hour and a half there we walked across the street to Cristo's Palace for lunch.  I had the day's special--deep fried halibut, salmon, shrimp and scallops--and I must say I've never had fish that light and flaky.   Every seafood dinner I have from here on out will have to compete with that!  Topped off with a glass of Alaska Amber and it was a perfect lunch.

I tried to tweet some text and images while there, but my phone battery was weak and I could barely even see the screen.  Tomorrow I'll try to keep the charger handy in case we get reception out in the bush.

On the way back to Anchorage we stopped off at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center where we saw animals that had been injured or abandoned--moose, caribou, bears--and got some pretty good photos there too.  Of course this is where I discovered I left my coat back at the SeaLife Center... weather has been relatively warm (30s) that I didn't need it and walked away with it still on the hanger in the lobby.  Tomorrow a.m. I'll need to get on the phone to see if they can mail it back to me!  Thankfully I also have a parka which I'll be using once in Fairbanks.  Temps there are about 10-30F colder.

Pulled into the hotel again around 6 p.m., and followed that with dinner at a local restaurant (the Snow Goose).  I tried the salmon with a bourbon bbq sauce and, while it was good, it was no match for that amazing lunch we had earlier.

Tomorrow at 08:15 we depart for Fairbanks on the Alaska Railroad.  The station is across the street from the hotel, so we'll be walking over around 07:45.  Our luggage will take the bus north and will be waiting for us in our rooms when  we arrive.  The trip takes around 12 hours because of all the stops--people getting on and off, mail and newspaper delivery, etc.  But the scenery we pass on the way through Denali National Park and all the small communities along the way is breathtaking in the wintertime.  Last year we had a spectacular view of Mt. McKinley (Denali) and we're hoping that the weather cooperates again tomorrow.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

End of Day 1 in Alaska

Despite the second leg of the trip (from Seattle to Anchorage) getting started an hour late, I got here in plenty of time to settle in a bit.  While moving the desk to plug in my computer my back hit the large picture on the wall and--though it was supposed to be "locked" to the wall--it came crashing down behind me, smashing the glass.  I'm sure the neighbors must have thought some heavy-metal band was trashing the room!

Orientation dinner was great; got to meet everyone tonight--about 40 people (including the leader and the two lecturers).  Most are from the Planetary Society and UCLA alumni, but some have never heard of either!  Handed out aurora sweatshirts (featuring a photo by yours truly) and an aurora book by Dr. Syun-Ichi Akasofu of UA Fairbanks.

Tomorrow, breakfast at 06:00, then on the bus at 08:00 for the drive through Sitka Spruce forests to Seward.  Always a fun trip, and I'm sure many will have questions about their cameras and photography, so I'll be quite busy on the way down and back.
The journey begins. Flight from San Diego to Seattle, then on to Anchorage, set for departure at 08:30. Get ready lights.  Here we come!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Northern Lights tour

Thank you for visiting. I hope you'll follow my Cosmic Adventures here and on Twitter (

Next up: Alaska and the Northern Lights, March 18-24, 2010.