Thursday, March 24, 2011

Alaska Aurora Adventure: Day 5

Our final full day in Alaska ended yesterday with a trip to Mt. Aurora Lodge about 20 miles northeast of Fairbanks for a spectacular home-cooked dinner.  Brenda and Steve Birdsall and their family have owned the lodge for years and, as always, put on quite a spread. Normally our dinners consist of Alaskan salmon with all the fixins', but last night we were treated to great salad, prime rib, roasted potatoes and green beans with almonds.  For desert, some raspberry ice cream made me want to slip away for a nap.  But, alas, it was becoming dark and we had to head over to the ski lodge where we would set up for aurora viewing.

The lights, of course, originate when electrically charged particles from the sun bombard our atmosphere and make it glow, so I spent time during dinner monitoring conditions in the atmosphere as well as between the Earth and sun.  I was quite excited because we were expecting a "cloud" of material to impact sometime during the night--an almost sure sign of active auroral conditions.

The Skiland lodge--also owned by the Birdsalls--sits on a ridge above the Poker Flat Research Range and, during much of the year entertains skiers from all over. And at night it hosts aurora watchers in its upper building--which has tables and chairs, a snack bar and a wide-screen TV screen showing a live aurora webcam--all in subdued lighting to protect our night vision.  The lower building is much the same; instead of the snack bar and live webcam, its northern side is all glass, so aurora viewers can watch the show without even getting cold.  This isn't for me, however, since I usually wander all over the grounds looking for photographs. And besides, there's really no such thing as cold... just poor clothing choices.

Unfortunately the heavens last night displayed more clouds than auroral light.  The cirrus clouds began rolling in late in the afternoon and, while Skiland and points to the northeast of Fairbanks often escape these clouds, it wasn't to be last night.  They got thicker and thinner as time went on obscuring and revealing stars all around the sky.  And so we sat inside, talked and watched the webcam trying to imagine every speck of light there was the beginnings of the lights.

It wasn't until around 1 a.m. that an arc appeared in the northeast, a sign that something was about to begin.  And it did. Within a few minutes it had undergone its "breakup" phase and began to move around. But it wasn't nearly as spectacular as what we had the previous night, and remained rather subtle.  Sure I'd love to see more active conditions, but sometimes subtle lights are equally impressive, such as this wispy display above the ski lift. The quiet cold air combined with the heavens dancing softly is a sight that invokes feelings that words cannot convey.

It was our last night under the Alaskan stars; always sad to say goodbye to the lights for another year.  But on Thursday we have a few things yet to do; this afternoon we'll visit Pioneer Park and after our farewell dinner at the Pump House, we'll conclude our Alaskan Aurora Adventure by viewing another form of colored lights... the 2011 World Ice Art Championships... before heading to the airport.

Always sad to bid adieu to Fairbanks.  Over the past decade it's become sort of a winter home-away-from-home to me. The weather's cold, but the people are warm.  And the terrestrial scenery and celestial lights are beyond description. While I exert great effort trying to capture them with a camera, there is no photo that can possibly do them justice.  So I'll be back next winter... and every winter after.

You can count on THAT!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Alaska Aurora Adventure: Day 4

Another great day in Alaska!  Morning was at leisure--good thing, since most of our group was pretty tired from all our previous travel. But all were excited about our trip to Chena Hot Springs about 62 miles east of Fairbanks. 

We left on our 1.5 hour drive on ice covered roads hoping to see some wildlife out there, but no luck on this day.  Weather was beautiful, though: sunny and in the upper 20s.  I know it seems strange to speak of temperatures like this as beautiful, but the Alaska interior is a desert and is relatively dry.  And, just as people say desert heat is comfortable because it's a "dry heat," this is a "dry cold."  20 degrees here feels (at least to me) much more comfortable than 20 degrees on the U.S. East Coast.

While some of our guests spent the day doing things like dog sled rides or soaking in the hot springs, I hiked around the area to check it out. I hadn't been there for a few years and wanted to refresh my memory of the area.  I hiked up a hill to a small wooden building--the Aurorium--a warming hut with a glass wall to the north for comfortable viewing of the aurora.  It was so peaceful and quiet up there overlooking the snow-covered hills that I fell asleep and napped for half an hour!

After this relaxing time I walked over to the restaurant where I bellied up to the bar for a nice glass of Alaska White on draft.  The corner stool I sat on felt rather strange; the floor had a strange depression in it and I felt like I was going to tip over--even before having the beer.  I suspect this must have been the spot that Norm Peterson sat on all those years on "Cheers!"  I did find a more comfortable spot, and ordered up some lunch and talked with friends.  One of the servers was from San Diego and, of course, that got us talking as well.  A really nice time, but after lunch a couple of us headed over to the coffee shop to continue talking.  I tried to check the weather online; the internet connection was so slow that I never really succeeded.  I was concerned that cirrus clouds were moving in from the southwest but, as is often the case in this area, they dissipated and, when dinnertime came along, the sky was clear as it was earlier in the day.

There are a number of places at Chena to view the aurora; one is, of course the Aurorium. Another is the airfield behind much of the lodging there.  A third--and my choice for the first time since visiting there first years ago--was a hillside about 1,400 feet above the main resort.  To do this we needed to take the "Snow Cat"--an odd looking tractor device that could navigate the snowy landscape up to the top.  It was a bone jarring ride of about 22 minutes; I think all the fillings in my teeth rattled loose!  But once at the top we found a warming yurt and some magnificent scenery--AND a wonderfully clear and starry sky.

Walking around was a bit tough, though, unless one stayed on the already-formed paths.  Virgin snow is still a few feet deep and I found myself several times up to my knees in the white stuff!  But I didn't walk around much because, shortly after arriving the lights began as an arc.  When they do this early in the evening this typically means a good evening of aurora viewing--and that's exactly what we had.

I did get a chance to try out my new camera; I held off until I could shoot the aurora as the "first light" to be captured by it.  And my "first light" was the very beginnings of an arc; I just couldn't wait any longer. I had to get shooting!  The camera joins my Canon 20D as my primary night sky cameras; they will dovetail beautifully together and allow me to do many shots I've not been able to do before.

After experimenting with various settings on the moving lights I met up with one of our group and talking and shooting together.  I set my relatively light carbon fiber tripod down but one of the legs was on soft (virgin) snow and sunk into it, tipping over.  My brand new expensive camera did a header right into the Alaskan landscape!  Thankfully two things saved it; the snow is relatively dry, I had the lens cap on, and I've had this happen before so I knew how to deal with it.  I first took out the battery, then spent the next half hour outside brushing the entire camera and lens down with a camel-hair brush.  No harm, no foul, and the camera is now ready for another night of lights.

Tonight (Wednesday, March 23) we head out to Mt. Aurora--one of my favorite places--for a terrific dinner followed by some "stellar" viewing.  But now it's almost lunchtime, so it's off and running once again.  Wouldn't want to miss a meal!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Alaska Aurora Adventure: Day 3

Another long, busy day.  Began with breakfast and followed by my lecture on viewing and photographing the aurora. My friend and colleague from TWAN (The World at Night) LeRoy Zimmerman from Fairbanks joined us for the program and helped me explain some of the intricacies of aurora shooting. After the lecture we headed out to lunch followed by the Fairbanks Visitor Center and the University of Alaska Museum. 

This evening we headed out for a few hours to see what aurora might be visible. Conditions didn't look good, and sure enough, we saw nothing. We did see some faint green on our digital images--not the sort of auroral light people came thousands of miles to see--but it was something nonetheless.  At least folks got a chance to try out their cameras and tripods in the cold and dark, and that alone is a learning experience.  Not the sort of thing one wants to learn about while auroras are dancing overhead.  I kept tabs on the Fairbanks aurora webcam as well as a number of auroral indicators while we were out there; nothing appeared promising at all, so after a few hours we packed it in.  Early (and long) day tomorrow so it seemed like the prudent thing to do.

Of course when we returned to the hotel I checked out the website and saw a number of aurora photos shot from Canada TONIGHT!!  The activity must have shut off completely before it became dark in Fairbanks, because we got none of it. And then, as if to add insult to injury, after being in my room for half an hour or so I realized that the very faint auroral light was beginning to develop into an arc--nothing that would be visible, but something that might have shown up in our photos.  Well, there's always tomorrow.

We'll be at Chena Hot Springs tomorrow (Tuesday) night and should have about four hours of viewing there.  If anything appears we'll now be ready. If it doesn't, people will be able to follow me around to try their hand at some night sky shooting with some very nice foreground features.  Hopefully we'll have some nice images to post!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Alaska Aurora Adventure: Day 2

Our first full day in Alaska, we woke up to beautifully clear skies and relatively warm temperatures (~20F). Amazing how cold seems different in Alaska than anywhere else.  20 degrees F in my home state of PA would be brutal, but here it's cold, but not that bad.  Perhaps its the dryness... perhaps its just knowing how much worse it could get!

We began our day with a bus tour of Anchorage--the downtown area, the Cook Inlet and Earthquake Park--an area set aside to remember the massive 1964 quake that wiped out major portions of Anchorage and lost 100 feet of shoreline as it dropped into the sea.  Stunning to see the remains of that devastation.  Then it was north on the George Parks Highway for our 350 mile drive to Fairbanks through some of the most dramatic and beautiful scenery on the planet.

About an hour out of Anchorage we stopped for lunch at the Mat-Su Family Restaurant in Wasilla, where we had some truly delicious homemade lasagne.  Haven't had that in ages! Then it was back on the bus.  One of our most amazing stops was a viewpoint to see and photograph Mt. McKinley, aka Denali, North America's tallest mountain at a height of 20,320 feet.  And what a day to see it.  Perfectly clear skies!  This is a bit of a rarity since much of the time the mountain top is shrouded in clouds.  The past three years I've been treated with clear views of Denali, but my previous eight trips it was behind clouds. 

Alaskans are thrilled at the weather now--17 straight days of beautifully clear weather. Let's hope it extends into the next week for us.  It should, since March is historically the clearest month of the year (in Fairbanks anyway).

It was a long drive, with a number of stops for restrooms and photo ops--not necessarily in the same place. But we finally pulled into the Alpine Lodge in Fairbanks at around 9:30 p.m.  Nice to be "home" again.  After many years of returning to Fairbanks I tend to think about it as my winter "home away from home"... wonderful place, warm people, and beautiful skies.  Felt good seeing familiar surroundings again.

At around 10 p.m. a few of us headed off to Denny's for a late bite to hold us until morning.  I always enjoy eating at this particular Denny's; it's claim to fame is that it's the "Northernmost Denny's in the World"!  Our tour leader Luis and our bus driver Paul worked out details for our next day in Fairbanks, and we're all excited about getting this underway.

Today (Monday) we begin in half an hour or so with a breakfast buffet put out for our group, then at 10 a.m. (ADT) I present a lecture ("Capture the Lights!) about viewing and photographing the lights.  Then we'll head out for lunch and a tour of historic Fairbanks, a visit to the downtown Visitor Center museum, followed by the University of Alaska Museum and the UAF in general.  Then we'll make a run to Fred Meyer--a huge superstore--to pick up whatever we'll need for the week--or whatever we've forgotten to bring along. 

After a break we'll head out to dinner and then aurora hunting.  Lights haven't been particularly dramatic the past week or so--one group that visited last week was totally skunked and returned home empty-handed.  But we hope things will be different for us.  Of course, the forecast shows that activity levels may pick up the day after we leave.  Oh, that Mother Nature sure has a sense of humor!

Off to breakfast now and to set up the lecture... and another fun day in Alaska's Golden Heart City!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Alaska Aurora Adventure: Day 1

Long day!  Left the desert last night and drove to San Diego where I spent the night… never much sleep the night before a trip.  Too much excitement it seems!   After a few hours of dozing I got to the airport in plenty of time to sit down and relax. I’ve always been one to arrive at airports very early; drives people crazy.  My reasoning is this: I’ve got to wait anyway, so I might as well wait at the airport where all the stress of driving, traffic, parking, etc. is behind me.  And this morning it gave me a chance to write an article for my Scholastic, Inc. web column that’s due on Monday.  Now that’s out of the way too.

On the flight to Anchorage I read nearly every word of a 444-page manual for a new camera; I might not be able to ace a test on it, but I’m ready to set it up for shooting.  All I need now are some colored lights in the sky.  

Once in Anchorage we gathered everyone and hopped our bus to the hotel.  Our driver, Paul Smith, has escorted my groups for the past several years both in Anchorage and Fairbanks, and is one terrific bus driver.  Then, after a ten minute drive to the hotel, we broke for dinner and headed back to rest up for the night.  Everyone’s quite excited about tomorrow’s agenda. 

Wake up call will come at 06:30 and, after breakfast, we’ll leave at 09:00 for our long drive north to Fairbanks--through some of the most spectacular winter scenery in Denali National Park.  Weather here has been great, so we’re expecting a rare, clear look at Denali itself (Mt. McKinley).  Everyone loves to see that—the tallest mountain in North America.  And, of course, everyone is excited about seeing the aurora.

Two weeks ago the sky above Fairbanks was lit every night; now the auroral forecast for this week is pretty dismal.  But I’ve been up here enough over the past decade to know that forecasts can be wrong.  Sometimes dramatically wrong.  I remember February 2003 in Iceland; all the auroral indicators were bleak, yet we saw one of the two best displays I’ve ever seen.  Since that time I take the forecasts with a grain of salt.

So now it’s time for rest, for tomorrow we head off into one of the most beautiful and majestic terrains on all of planet Earth!
Uneventful flight from San Diego to Seattle; now our group is massing for our flight to Anchorage... and getting quite excited about our week. Weather forecast looks promising, but the aurora forecast not so much. Until we leave, of course. But I've been there enough to know that forecasts mean little. The aurora will do what the aurora will do!

Ready to head to the gate. I'll update our adventures each night... hopefully with a photo or two.

Alaska Aurora trip has Begun!

Flight leaves San Diego in less than an hour. We'll spend the night in Anchorage and make the drive to Fairbanks tomorrow afternoon. Looking forward to another great and productive adventure. Stay tuned!

Friday, March 11, 2011

An Aurora Borealis Adventure!

Follow me on a truly cosmic adventure across Alaska, as I lead my group in search of  the magnificent aurora borealisthe northern lights.  Journey begins March 19, 2011.  Don't miss it!