The Truth About How We See the Northern Lights

March 20, 2018   3 Comments »

The Truth About How We See the Northern Lights

March 20, 2018 3 Comments »

Until I went to Fairbanks Alaska I thought the northern lights were all just hype. No – I haven’t joined a Flat Earth Society or decided Global Warming is a hoax, I just didn’t know if I fully believed in the northern lights. I had good reason to doubt them.

Often the Aurora Isn’t What You Expect

I had ‘seen’ the aurora twice before – but to my disappointment it was nothing like what I had seen in pictures and videos. There was no color (except from what long exposure photography could capture), there was no dancing – it was more of a gray, cloudy glowing blob. These aurora sightings could’ve been mistaken for moon glow; and I never would have even noticed them except people told me it was the aurora.

After my disappointing experiences, I started to think the northern lights were some weird conspiracy by tourism departments and northern lights tour companies.

I even went as far as talking to an aurora physicist at the Geophysical Institute in Fairbanks Alaska. Peter Delemere has built his whole career on studying the northern lights – not only on Earth but also on Jupiter and Saturn! I told him about my conspiracy theory and he explained, “When it’s faint your eye doesn’t detect it as green, it appears as a grayish glow, and it can be a bit disappointing.”

I guess I just had bad luck with the aurora intensity according to Peter. To see any color in the faint aurora, I had to do photography to know it was there because it’s not really visible to the human eye.

Our eyes use two different types of cells to see light: rods and cones. The cone cells perceive fine detail and color but need bright light in order to do so. Rod cells can only see black and white and have poor resolution, but remain sensitive even in very low light. So at night without any bright light source, we normally only see a monochromatic world. So cameras can actually show us what’s there that our eyes cannot see.

I still sort of felt like this whole northern lights thing was a sham if only people taking long exposure photography could see them – right? But I was willing to give it another shot, so I headed to Alaska to see if Fairbanks Northern Lights tours could produce the Northern Lights trip of my expectations.

3 Great Fairbanks Northern Lights Tours

Fairbanks northern lights tours

Photo by Last Frontier Mushing Coop

Aurora Bear Photography Workshop

I felt as if it were tornado season in Oklahoma, as we drove 40 minutes north of Fairbanks to chase aurora. I was slightly on edge, and also fighting to stay awake after an early morning flight to Fairbanks and no time to nap. Now it was 10PM and we were going to Aurora Bear Photography Workshop and somehow I had to stay awake until 3 in the morning. I might need a miracle, I thought to myself.

As we pulled into the driveway lit by torches it gave the whole area a romantic glow in the snow. My excitement level perked up and my sleepiness subsided. This was a small intimate photo workshop in Frank and Miriam’s off-the-grid home. Despite being sleep deprived, I thought doing an aurora photo workshop the first night we were in Fairbanks was the perfect idea to ensure the rest of our time in Alaska chasing aurora would be productive!

Frank and Miriam immediately turned into fast friends as we talked in their little cabin lit by candlelight. We all had a lifetime of travels under out belts and we bonded on travel stories over tapas as we got to know each other. This workshop was private in that only one party could book it. Frank’s goal was to create something more personal and memorable for people rather than doing a tour with a large group. He had traveled for 10 years around the world and now people get welcomed into his home as they travel.

“Aurora watching is an emotional thing – it’s something from their lifelong bucket list. They dream of it for a long time. And it’s a lot of effort, money and time to get to where you can see it. When they do see it – it’s emotional and we often hear very personal stories from people. And that’s what makes it special for us too.” Frank explained.

They’ve hosted Make A Wish recipients, travelers who were mourning friends and wanted to connect again through the aurora, and they’ve hosted people who only had a few months left to live. They obviously offer a very special experience.

The excitement in me was building as we talked about this great scientific phenomenon called the northern lights. Frank provided us a scientific background and then we went into photography tips and settings as he primed us for the big show. All of our apps and forecasts were looking positive. I was hoping this was the night the aurora would finally meet my expectations.

Miriam came in from outside and announced the aurora was just starting to come out. We quickly got our gear ready, bundled up for the cold temps and shoved a bunch of batteries in our pockets. Frank and his dogs led the way into the snowy woods until we came to a clearing where we could get some trees in the foreground of our shots. “There it is,” he said, as he looked skyward.

I looked up in excitement and could discern a faint discrepancy in the sky. Or was it just some cloud? Or was it just the glow of the moon behind a cloud?
Nooooooo, my heart screamed. “That is it?” I asked Frank in a disappointed voice.

northern lights with teh naked eye

What our eyes see…

northern lights viewing

What our cameras can capture

He said, yes it was faint but once we set our up cameras we’d see it. I had been around this block before. Sure enough when we photographed it with a long exposure the whole sky was actually glowing green. I was really happy with the photos, but I was still really let down with the overall northern lights experience.

This had nothing to do with the tour, the workshop was excellent and we not only learned a ton about cold weather northern lights photography, but we ate like queens, and made new friends in Frank and Miriam. The tour was everything I could’ve asked for and more. I loved the intimacy of the small group. I started nodding off around 3AM when we finally called it a night and Frank drove us back to our hotel in Fairbanks.

Our first outing with Aurora Bear was lovely, but I still felt as if I was cheating by only seeing the colorful aurora through my pictures.

Aurora Bear Photography

We had the Deluxe tour which not only gave us photography instruction, but it also kept us nibbling all night on incredible tapas made by Miriam.
Aurora Bear Photo Workshops

Last Frontier Mushing Co-op Aurora Night

When we arrived at the Last Frontier Mushing Co-op we were met with bad news, the original overnight aurora tour we were going to do ( mushing dogs to a yurt an hour away, and then stay over at the yurt to view aurora and mush back in the morning) had encountered a snag. The previous night’s big snowstorm obliterated the trail due to the winds. We went with plan B, doing late night dog mushing there and then back to their office to watch for the aurora. Let me first just explain, the Last Frontiers ‘office’ was not a normal office. It was this adorable off-the-grid yurt, toasty warm complete with an adorable retired sled dog, Maddie. This seemed like a great alternative!

Fairbanks northern lights tours

The Last Frontier’s Yurt office

Amanda and Ryne, the two women who led our northern lights tour, were both experienced mushing racers. They were young, badass, and fun to hang out with. They got us all suited up for a dog sled ride, something I had done before, but I had never mushed in the dark. With the new fallen snow, the black spruce trees were magical looking covered with dollops of white. The dogs were eager to run and we were bundled up so much we resembled Randy from the Christmas Story.

Scared of the cold weather in Fairbanks in the Winter? Don’t Be!

Check out my Alaska Winter Packing List and go prepared!

After the sledding, we warmed up in the yurt and got our cameras ready. The forecast was really positive for the night and the skies were perfectly clear. As we ate delicious smoked salmon and reindeer sausage inside Amanda was outside watching for the aurora. “It’s here!” she exclaimed and we jumped into action.

This time I had adjusted my aurora expectations to pretty low when it came to colors, but I was still eager to photograph it and capture the color. However as soon as I walked outside the yurt I saw it. “Holy crap, “ I said with my mouth agape. There it was, a bright green glowing streak in the sky right above all of the dog kennels. I was about brought to tears; after 3 previous viewings, this scientific wonder finally looked as I had expected it to look.

Fairbanks northern lights tour dog sledding

Green!!! I finally saw the green with my naked eyes!

Northern lights tours fairbanks

Dance for me!

We spent the next 90 minutes running around outside watching as the lights grew in intensity and start to move and flow like a wave in the sky. This was the substorms I had heard about; streaks of light dancing upwards right above our heads. At that point I just watched in awe. I didn’t actually take many pictures that night, because I was mesmerized just watching it with my eyes. The night was cold, but perfect. We sat by the fire, had hot chocolate, took pictures, but mostly we just enjoyed the show.

I felt like I had finally lost my northern lights virginity…which is entirely different than losing your virginity under the northern lights!

How you Can do Aurora Watching and Dog Sledding

4 Hour Aurora Watching and Dog Sledding
Overnight Aurora and Dog Sledding Adventure
See all of Frontiers North Aurora Tours

Taste of Alaska Lodge Aurora Viewing

Now since I knew the northern lights were not some sham, I wanted more; I was hooked. Kory, owner of the Taste of Alaska Lodge, met us and got us all settled in. This wasn’t really a tour, but more of a way to view the lights. This was going to be our home base for the night for one last chance at aurora chasing.

The forecast was a little iffy for the night. The temperatures had taken a nosedive, but it was a perfectly clear sky. However, the intensity in the forecasts were not too strong. “Ignore all weather forecasts and aurora predictions. Nature is out of your control. I repeat nature is out of your control! The only thing you can control when trying to view the aurora is your being awake,” Kory reassured us.

A Taste of Alaska Lodge Yurt

Full moon photography

We set up our gear outside and first did some full moon photography. Contrary to what you mainly read – a full moon is great for northern lights photography. It lights up the snow in the foreground perfectly enhancing the contrast of the shot naturally.

And then we waited.
We drank hot chocolate.
We watched our aurora apps.
We played games on our phones.
We drank scotch.
We walked in circles to stay warm and awake.
And we waited some more.

The temperatures were plunging, it was 1:45 AM and the northern lights still hadn’t shown up. We looked at each other and decided to call it a night. We went out in the cold to get our tripods and cameras (which were completely covered in frost!), and we looked up one last time.

“Is that it?” Michaela asked me. I stared at it – I wasn’t sure if my eyes were just playing tricks on me or not. But as we stood there contemplating they grew in intensity and suddenly the green was just starting to get visible.
We quickly put the batteries back in our cameras and started shooting. My camera slowly tried to come back to life after sitting in -15 F for the last couple of hours. I felt like I was moving in slow motion I was so cold! But sure enough, with a long exposure, there it was – a streak above the lodge!

We stayed out for 45 more minutes as it grew in intensity and even popped up a little substorm for a fleeting moment. So fleeting I couldn’t even turn my camera quick enough to capture it! Then is all died back down.

Michaela and I looked at each other and agreed, “never give up!”. We took Kory’s advice and somehow stayed awake and were persistent; and it paid off!

Over the course of 9 nights, we saw the northern lights 3 times! Just like each Fairbanks northern lights tour was different, each of the three nights produced auroras of different intensity. I can now confidently say the Earth is round, global warming is real, and the northern lights are not all hype – they are real! Come to Fairbanks Alaska to see for yourself, it’s the best place for a northern lights trip!

Disclosure:

I was a guest of Explore Fairbanks for this trip, however all opinions expressed here are my own.


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