Night Aglow – the Northern Lights

Excerpted from The Northern Lights: Celestial Performances of the Aurora Borealis by permission of Sasquatch Books

Daryl Pederson figures that he misses capturing a great aurora image nine out of every 10 attempts. But 10 percent is pretty good, he figures, especially when the effort rewards him like it did a November night long ago. He pulled on his parka and ventured from his home in Girdwood, Alaska late at night to see the snow glowing red. The hills reflected one of those auroras that made his heart beat as if he was a hunter hearing twigs snap at the approach of a bull moose.

Up on a hillside above Turnagain Arm Pederson shot for an hour in a state he describes as “stunned” before clouds began obscuring his compositions. He then packed his gear and drove an arc around Cook Inlet to the tiny town of Hope, Alaska. There, he found the perfect spot. A faint moon provided definition for his foreground—snow crystals twinkling like a field of rubies. He felt the thrill of thumbing his cable shutter, knowing he was capturing something new and majestic. Looking toward the lights of Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city just across Turnagain Arm, he thought of the thousands sleeping through the magic.

Hope clouded over within five minutes of his captures. Thinking of his day job that would commence in a few hours, Pederson drove home. There, he took a hot shower and pondered his magical night. As dawn lit his living room window, he by habit looked upward. There, the aurora was still active, mixing with the first scattered rays of dawn. He ran out on his deck wearing only a towel. There, he shot for twenty minutes until the morning light quenched the display. His hair had frozen into a helmet, but he had the rarest of prizes on his rolls of film, along with the delicious anticipation that accompanied the wait for development. He remembers that November night of 2001 as his “walk-off grand slam.”

That same unusual night, Calvin Hall was also out in pursuit, a bit farther north than his friend. He remembers the hint that this evening would be different—the fog created by the vapors of an unfrozen river seemed to be glowing pink.

As the night progressed the red aurora revealed itself, painting the sky to a much more southern extent than more common displays. With shooting locations stored in his mind’s eye, Hall remembered the Matanuska Glacier. He’d long hoped to shoot there, but it took a robust display to show itself that far southward. He knew this might be his night, so he drove to the glacier overlook on the Glenn Highway and witnessed the grand finale of the aurora night of the century.

He fired away until daylight. Like Pederson, he remembers the aurora that resulted from that solar storm as his best ever.
“The range of colors I saw in that time was the most amazing of my career. There was a partial moon, then the twilight coming in from the eastern sky, and that combination created an ever-changing sky, from rich reds and blues and greens and orange to light pastels of blues and pink and green and yellow in continually changing shapes and shades.”

In addition to capturing images they might sell, both photographers have gained much more from their aurora hunting—an appreciation for the beautiful, harsh place they live and the creatures that share all those unpeopled acres.

Remembering a night he was alone on a ridgetop, Hall swears coyotes on a neighboring ridge howled just as a big auroral display flared up. As the aurora awakened at 3 a.m., the coyotes sang again, this time from Hall’s ridgetop.

“I could hear them take a breath between howls.” Pederson, too, appreciates the feeling of unity aurora chasing has given him. He remembers standing in his bunny boots to begin a night of patience on the shore of Cook Inlet. There, his heart skipped a beat as a beluga whale exploded a breath of fishy air into the night. The sonic eruption was perhaps 50 feet away, but seemed closer. As the aurora showed itself and he framed his composition, Pederson imagined smiling white whales sharing the black night, invisibly chasing salmon below the same surface that reflected a ballet of aquamarine light from the heavens.