Aurora Borealis, Fairbanks, Alaska 2013 Trip Report

By Joe Van Os on Apr 04, 2013

It is 11 PM and we are standing on a hill at the end of a long and lonely back road in the cold and dark. Far from the lights of Fairbanks, the Milky Way stretches across the sky while shooting stars streak earthward. A faint glow appears above the northern horizon. It is obviously the aurora borealis—but what a weak and disappointing display! A half hour passes and a small section of this dull northern glow starts to brighten. It quickly expands and grows taller and a bright vertical beam suddenly bursts upward from its center. Wider and wider it grows as rippling curtains of green and white light start to streak across the sky. Red curtains appear above the green ones. Hints of lavender light slowly begin to wave above the red.

But our patience has paid off and we are experiencing a spectacular aurora! Some members of our group laugh with delight. Others are silent, reverently taking in one of nature’s most dazzling lightshows. But now it’s time to get to work! With each exposure taking around 20 seconds we won’t be producing too many gigabytes of images during the next several hours! If we can make 30 or 40 respectable aurora images we will have done a lot on this night. For the next several hours the “lights” brighten and recede. Waiting between shoots—when the “lights are low”—the sky full of infinite stars occupies your mind in contemplation of your own insignificance! Finally, cold and tired, we pack our gear and head back to our hotel. For most of the group this was the best (and for many the first) aurora borealis we have ever seen. Luckily for us, our next four nights of aurora shooting gets better and better!

It is certainly strange when one of the best features of a photo shoot is photographed in the dark after midnight. But such is the case with the aurora at Fairbanks. Stay up late and sleep in is the daily order of business.

Our nocturnal shoots around Fairbanks started immediately after dinner when our group headed to the new “Ice Park” on the outskirts of town for the World Ice Art Championships. Two different ice carving competitions are featured here—both very photogenic and certainly worthy of a couple of nights of intensive shooting. At night, close to 70 sculptures are wonderfully lit with white and multi-colored floodlights, enhancing each sculpture’s best features and making them highly desirable as photography subjects—whether as an entire piece of ice art or as a colorful photo abstraction of sections of a carving.

The competition is divided by “Single Block” (of ice) statues and “Multi-Block” dioramas. The single block teams consist of one to two members. Each team is given one block of ice measuring 5′ x 8′ x 3′. They have 60 continuous hours to complete the sculpture before the judging. With the Multi-Block Competition, each team (up to 4 sculptors) is given 10 blocks of ice. Each block measures approximately 4′ x 6′ x 3′. Artists can pile these up into a colossal ice block—up to 25 feet high—or use them in smaller units to create a variety of pieces that relate to each other (for example, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs). Multi-block carvers receive the aid of heavy hydraulic equipment and skilled machine operators to lift and place the weighty ice blocks. They have 132 continuous hours to complete their frozen artistry before judging. On two days we were there, the daytime temperature reached 43 degrees and wreaked havoc on some of the multi-block creations during their construction.

Being a very early riser, sleeping until 9 AM took some time getting used to. By nine o’clock the sun was high in the sky. On those first clear mornings the sun glared on the fresh snow and was coupled with those unusual 43 degree temperatures! Like Punxsutawney Phil seeing his shadow on Groundhog Day, it didn’t take long to figure out spring was probably in the air—or we were facing impending doom by climate change? That is, until the thermometer dropped down to minus eight degrees below while we were out at night shooting the aurora—it was definitely still winter!

The 43-degree afternoon temperatures did have an impact on our shooting—we could photograph the Limited North American Championship Sled Dog Races without wearing our heavy parkas! Following “brunch” we headed over to the starting point for these action-packed races. As we positioned ourselves to get good shots we could see the dogs and the “mushers” getting ready by the starting line. Each dog team independently runs the same prescribed route over several miles of groomed trails and is timed down to tenths of seconds. In some cases, winners were only a few tenths of a second faster than the runner-up.

Though I had seen many photos of this event it was hardly the shoot I had envisioned. In my mind’s eye I wanted to photograph huge hairy huskies in kind of an Alaskan Ben-Hur-style chariot/sled race! But these dogs were skinny “Eurohounds”—crossbreeds between German shorthaired pointers and English pointers with a touch of Alaskan husky—dogs bred for sprinting and quickly pulling light loads over the snow. They looked so thin, short-haired and cold I felt compelled to offer them the coat I wasn’t wearing! They enthusiastically raced by, tongues and ears flapping in the breeze. Many of the mushers were petite women—not burly fur-trapper dudes with scraggly beards, thick handlebar moustaches and wolverine-skin hats. Again, this makes perfect sense as the musher should be as light as possible since more weight only slows down the whole team and the race is not handicapped for the weight the dogs have to pull.

But, the two afternoons of races were fun—we got great shots and we learned a lot about sled dog speed racing, as well. If you want to shoot big hairy huskies pulling a sled in the wilderness—shoot the Iditarod!

By now we were getting used to our nocturnal schedule. I still reacted, like the Frankenstein monster to fire, when I pulled the hotel room curtains open at 9 AM—squinting and recoiling at the brilliant light reflected my way from the snow and ice-covered parking lot. Our shooting around Fairbanks finished, we packed our vans and headed northeast to Chena Hot Springs—about 60 miles from the city.

Literally, going “over the river and through the woods” we passed several carloads of Japanese tourists from Tokyo also heading to Chena who had skidded their rental cars off the snow-packed road. Like my hometown Seattle drivers, they apparently had little experience driving in snow. Obviously okay, they documented their predicaments with cell phone cameras from every possible angle while waiting for tow trucks. We arrived at the hot springs by late afternoon and, following dinner, got our gear in order and headed up to a nearby mountaintop by a snowcoach around 9:30 PM.

For the next three nights we photographed incredible auroras. We had no camera difficulties, our gear performed beautifully—and most charged batteries lasted throughout the night. The biggest problem was fine-tuning critical focus in the dark. Like our previous sessions outside of Fairbanks, the lights ebbed and flowed throughout the night and allowed us some time to enter a “warming yurt” to thaw out a bit between the photogenic, intense aurora peaks. Fortunately, all of us were well-prepared with warm clothing and good boots—no one ended up frozen like a popsicle atop their tripod! So there was little serious discomfort when the nighttime temperature may have dipped as low as minus 16 degrees!

I have had many chances to see the aurora borealis over the years, but the nights in Alaska were, no doubt, the best! Nature’s Light Show is an apt description for the dancing lights across the northern sky—a show every photographer should certainly include on their “bucket list!”