Chasing the Northern Lights in the Alaska Range

Wild Aurora over Denali.

Wild Aurora over the Tokosha Mountains, Mount Hunter and Denali.

I have never been a fan of roadside photography or images of iconic places during “perfect” light. I like to photograph the unfamiliar, I like the challenge of the unknown. Don’t get me wrong, I am a diligent trip planner, I can spend months looking at maps and Google Earth. But once I am in the field, I like to just “go with the flow”, work with what the wilderness gives me.

However, I am a professional photographer and sometimes I need to “go after” a shot. I have been on over twenty expeditions in the Alaska Range and have never had a chance to photograph the Aurora Borealis. It’s not that I haven’t seen them, I have, but I never had an opportunity to photograph them. I was hoping to photograph them on last year’s Gillam Glacier trip. We had seven days of crystal clear skies and the setting was perfect, with towering peaks in all directions, but the lights refused to dance for me.

Part of me just wanted to let it go, to forget about them, but I decided that the Aurora did play a part in the Alaska Range story and should be included, so I decided to go “Aurora Chasing”.

I watched the weather forecast and the aurora forecast simultaneously, looking for the perfect combination. Last weekend, the two lined up and I felt I would have a good chance of photographing them. It was also a full moon, which was perfect for illuminating the mountains but also required that I put extra effort into finding a good foreground, something many night photographers overlook.

I seduced my two regular partners in adventure crime, Opie and Sy and we headed up to Denali State Park, the closet access point into the Alaska Range from Anchorage.

Up to that point, we had a record-setting warm fall and winter. I had a feeling that there would be some open water, which could act as an interesting foreground. We arrive at the South Denali Overlook around 11:00. It was stunning, super clear with the mountains exploding out of the ground. I was tempted to stay high, with unobstructed views. It would be easy to head up higher towards Curry Ridge or Kesugi Ridge, we had skis and sleds, but I wanted something different.

Moving river ice and the last light on Denali.

Moving river ice and the last light on Denali.

I could see that the Chulitna River was open with moving ice in it, that was what I was looking for. Dropping down to the river would mean we would lose many of the mountains, so it was important we found a spot with plenty of open space.

We loaded up sleds and packs, leaving the skis behind. It was a crisp 0F at the car and we knew that it would be a solid 10 degrees colder down by the river. We post holed and bush-whacked our way down the steep cliff to the river floor. Within a few minutes we found a perfect spot for camp and photography.

The Chulitna River was really flowing and was deep and swift. It was pretty scary, being that close to it. I truly hate cold water and the thought of making a stupid mistake at 4 in the morning, like getting too close to the edge and busting through the ice was very unappealing. There was a lot of thin ledges of over hanging ice with deep water underneath, I even put a foot through some ice, that I thought was thick enough and far from the open water, I was wrong. I spent a good amount of time scouting locations, marking safe places where I could set up. It was similar to the precautions I make on glaciers, when our camp is surrounded by crevasses, I mark safe areas to photograph for late at night and when I am tired.

We were amazed how quickly the day ends in January, before we knew it, the mountains were bathed in beautiful pink light. The pink light was quickly replaced by the white light of the amazing moon, so bold and powerful. The shadows of the trees stretched with its arrival.

Around 5:00PM we decided to begin brewing hot drinks and food. We couldn’t get the stove lit, for some reason the bottle wouldn’t hold pressure. Turning on our headlamps (the moon was so bright, we didn’t really need them) we realized that fuel was pouring out pump, total failure. We didn’t bring a second pump because this was just a quick, overnight trip.

We decided to go old school and make a fire. Opie and Sy went into the willows and alders like ravenous beavers, dragging out log after log of dead wood.

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The fire worked well and before we knew it, hot food and drinks were plentiful. We kept the fire sizzling the rest of he night.

The first glimpse of the lady Aurora showed as a gentle glow north behind the mountains. With each hour it would move higher into the sky and quicken its movements.

Photographing the aurora is not easy. Of course, modern cameras are amazing and have greatly simplified and improved the quality of aurora photography. A quick search online and you realize how popular aurora photography is.

Aurora over Denali and the Chulitna River on a full moon night.

Aurora over Denali and the moving ice in the Chulitna River on a full moon night.

Because of the bright moon, I wanted to include some nice foreground. My first challenge was to get decent depth of field in the image. The other challenge was to have a quick enough shutter to stop the dancing aurora. Too long of an exposure and the aurora becomes more of a smooth splash of color instead of dancing swirls and waves.

Huge aurora band over Denali.

Huge aurora band over Hunter and  Denali.

I kept my ISO around 800 and stopped the lens to about F4. This gave exposures around 4-6 seconds, really fast for night photography, that was because of the full moon and the reflected light off the snow. A few images I stopped down to f5.6, but then the exposures became 15 seconds and the aurora was less defined, I increased the ISO to 1600, the max I am happy with on my d800e, which quickened the exposure but there was some detail loss in the mountains.

Critical focus is key with night photography. The infinity mark on most AF lenses isn’t really infinity, you can’t just manually set it and shoot. The best method is switch to live view, zoom in on a star and manually focus it. Seasoned aurora and night photographer then tape the lens so the focus can’t get changed, I forgot the tape so each time I put my camera away during a lull in the activity, or switched lenses,  I would have to re-focus when I pull it back out, lame on my part.

Somebody turn out the lights! Its wasn't the cold that kept us awake, it was the full moon and the aurora!

Somebody turn out the lights! Its wasn’t the cold that kept us awake, it was the full moon and the aurora!

By 2:00AM the aurora had moved south-east and directly above us and away from the mountains. The three of us were frozen stiff, even with the fire going and filled with hot drinks, sitting around 10 hours at -15F, your body finally says “Get moving or crawl into you bag!”. So we crawled into our bags and tried to settle in. I got up to pee around 4:00AM and the aurora was bursting from the sky. It looked like color rain pouring down on me, it was the mighty corona aurora. I thought of putting all my warm gear back on and dragging the cameras out but decided to just enjoy the lights, sometimes, my best experiences are when the camera is put away.

The lights begin to move south east away from the mountains, but gain in intensity.

The lights begin to move south east away from the mountains, but grew in intensity.

I woke to catch the sunrise on the mountains, but the camera gear would have none of that. As soon as I took the lens cap off the lenses, they were coated with a sheet of ice. Oh well, I did laps around camp to stay warm, watching the amazing scene in front of me. Soon Sy and Opie woke to enjoy the scene. With no stove and the fire stone dead, we quickly made haste out of there.

It was great experience. Good friends experiencing a truly dazzling night together, I would happily have cold feet and hands again to share that experience with others. It is something every Alaskan should do, get out of your comfort zone and experience one of the great light shows on Earth.

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3 thoughts on “Chasing the Northern Lights in the Alaska Range

  1. Great adventure to shoot the aurora ! I have often thought a fire and bacon and eggs in the early morning would be nice after all night shooting the aurora. Thank you for sharing your night time fun !

  2. Nice pictures if the northern light, and sounds like a great experience just laying in your sleeping bag watching it! 🙂

  3. Wow! Those are some brilliant photos. There is something about the excitement of seeing the lights that keep you warm. I especially love the top photo with Denali and the Chulitna. Thanks for taking us along with you.

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