The Hunt for Aurora

6c8db-img The Aurora Borealis as captured on the icy banks of the Knik River south of Anchorage

I am so happy to report that I have completed one of my life bucket list items. I have seen the AURORA BOREALIS in Alaska!

In September I received a notice from Delta Airlines that I had a $500 voucher that was going to expire at the end of the month if I did not use it. I received the voucher because I volunteered to take a different flight due to overbooking. The vouchers are good for a year and my year was just about up.

Of course, I wasn’t going to let the money go to waste. Since I am new in my role at Connections Education, I do not have lots of vacation until Jan. 2017. Keeping that in mind I knew I needed to use it for a weekend getaway somewhere. After carefully thinking about it, I decided that a weekend trip to Alaska would be a great way to use the voucher. I checked the fares and found that I could get one for $520. I then checked to see what availability they had for Marriott hotels and for Hertz rental cars. Since I travel frequently, I have loads of points to use. Turns out I found a hotel for free and rental car for free.

Other than the cost of food, the entire trip was only going to cost $20. So I booked it for a Friday through Sunday trip.

The little green tip is Kincaid Park and is located at the intersection of the Cook Inlet and the Knik Arm. See close up below. The little green tip is Kincaid Park and is located at the intersection of the Cook Inlet and the Knik Arm. See close up below.

This past weekend was the long-awaited trip. I was so giddy with excitement on Friday morning that I surprised myself. I had connected with an Anchorage-based photographer and our plan was to meet Friday night at 9p to go Aurora hunting.

My plane was scheduled to arrive in Anchorage at 2:35p. Fortunately we were on time. The sun sets a bit after 4p so I knew I had to hurry off the plane, get to my rental car and then get somewhere quickly if I wanted to shoot before dark. I knew the airport was close to the sea, so as soon as I got my car, I started driving toward the sunset. There is a park that is by the airport that borders the water. That’s all I knew and I was determined to find it.

Within about 10 minutes of leaving the airport, I came upon Kincaid Park. I drove to the end of the road, hurriedly parked the car and grabbed my camera bag and started walking toward the sun. There were multiple paths to choose from and I simply chose the one in the middle.

I can see the sun dipping and I figured I didn’t have much time so I started to run down the path. As I came around a bend in the path, I was started to see that I was about 5 feet from a big female moose. She is shown in the photo below.

I was staring face to face with this moose as I was trying to get to the sea to capture a sunset I was staring face to face with this moose as I was trying to get to the sea to capture a sunset

I wasn’t sure what to do. I didn’t know if it was better to stand still, back up, or keep walking. After a few moments, I decided to walk perpendicular to the moose.  Not forward, not backward, but sideways. I moved slowly to the side and kept a careful eye on the moose to make sure she was not getting scared or agitated. After I made it about 30 feet away, I decided to start taking pictures. She was eating and frequently had her head down but I did not want a shot of her head down; I wanted a shot of her head up and looking my way.

I was stuck between my desire to get the water and my love of this unforeseen moose encounter. The good news is that after a few minutes, she finally looked up to check me out and I was able to snap a few frames like the one above.

The 2nd moose encounter of my short time in AK The 2nd moose encounter of my short time in AK

After getting a decent photo of the moose, I looked back at the sun and new time was running out. I carefully walked past the moose and started running again. After another 3 or 4 minutes, I came across another moose. This moose was much smaller than the first and seemed a little more interested in me and my movements. I took a few pix and then slowly continued on the path. We both kept a close eye on each other and as soon as we got past each other, we both started to run in opposite directions.

Finally, after a few turns and decisions on which path to follow to get to the water, I ended up at a spot that I thought was nice for shooting the setting sun. Below are some of my favorite shots from that location. I particularly like the ones that highlight the shapes in the shallow water as the tide was out at the time.

I also included a shot of a 747 aircraft landing at the nearby airport. There were so many 747s at that airport from the Pacific. I have never seen that many in one place. More on that later.

My first sunset in Alaska My first sunset in Alaska

Since I was in such a hurry to get to and through the park, when it came time for me to walk back to my car, I had no idea which paths I needed to take. Turns out, I made a few wrong turns, went a little farther than I needed to, but I made it back to my care in decent time. I was fearing getting stuck in the dark. However, I learned something about sunsets in Alaska…they linger a very long time. I am used to seeing the sun quickly tuck itself below the horizon but in Alaska at this time of year, the sun doesn’t even fully rise during the day and the sunrise and the sunset take a long time. I actually like that. From a photographer’s perspective, it gives you great late day sun all day long.

When I started to drive away from the park, I noticed a few snowy things. Shown below.

Once I left Kincaid Park, I started driving toward my hotel which was near downtown Anchorage. Although it was getting dark, I could still see the majestic Chugach Mountain range off in the distance. It made me excited to see what they would look like in the morning when the sun was out.

I received an email from Carl Johnson, the photographer who was going to take me on the Aurora hunt, that the weather conditions were not favorable for the Aurora due to clouds. We agreed to try on Saturday night instead. Of course, since I was leaving Sunday, Saturday night would be my last chance to catch the Aurora. I checked out the forecast for Saturday and it did look better. So now I had an entire Friday evening open. I found a Pho restaurant, enjoyed the nice meal, and then did some souvenir shopping for my kiddos. I researched the area online and plotted my plan of action for Saturday morning and afternoon.

I decided I would try to take an aerial tour of the mountains and waterways. However, I was not looking to spend a fortune, and I could not get any of the tour places to fly their smaller packages. I chose not to spend $500 to fly to Denali, land on glaciers and do that scene. While I will do that at some point, it was not meant for this trip. It turned out totally fine.

The chilly, foggy scene at Lake Eklutna The chilly, foggy scene at Lake Eklutna My Sat morning photo geek moment My Sat morning photo geek moment

Saturday morning, after photo geeking out with some bathroom mirror selfies, I literally said out loud, “I am still in Alaska!” I was filled with such joy in saying those words.

I left the hotel around 8a. Keep in mind that the sun does not ride until after 9a. I started driving north on Alaska Hwy 1 toward Wasilla. The highway goes along the path of the mountains and Eagle River. I thought I would try to catch some sunrise shots of the mountain range.

That did not bring forth any fruit but it did get my further north. As I was driving some more on Hwy 1, I saw a sign that said Eklutna Lake campground and Chugatch State Park. It just so happened that I also had to take a bio break at this time, so I exited. My curiosity took over and I checked out the journey to Lake Eklutna. It was a 10 mile journey over a snowy mountain with slight icy roads. So I had to do it!

While it was a bit freaky due to road conditions and because of the heights, I am VERY GLAD I made the journey. The road had many amazing views, many of which I could not capture due to obstructions.

Lake Eklutna Road Lake Eklutna Road

I stopped several times to take pix, but it was a bit treacherous as the road was narrow and curvy. The shot below was one of the few clearings of trees where I could somewhat capture what I was seeing.

One of the huge views on the road to Lake Eklutna. The white is fog that was flowing through the valley like a river of water. One of the huge views on the road to Lake Eklutna. The white is fog that was flowing through the valley like a river of water.

Some more of the pix of my journey to Eklutna Lake. Also a piece of goofy video I shot on the ice by the lake.

I love this thick fog view of Lake Eklutna I love this thick fog view of Lake Eklutna

Please forgive my goofiness in this video so you can see some beautiful images of a small stream running underneath the ice at the lake.

The Knik River bridges, one bridge for each traffic flow The Knik River bridges, one bridge for each traffic flow

After leaving the Lake Eklutna area, I continued my journey north. I was moved as I passed over the Knik (pronounced with a hard K sound) River. One side of the bridge had a beautiful mountain range and the other side showed the openness of the Knik Arm. Flowing underneath the bridge and out into the arm were chunks of ice. The river was partially frozen but big chunks of ice continuously broke free and floated out into the open waters. Fortunately there was a turn out for fisherman to have access to the water. I am guessing that this is a terrific spot to fish throughout most of the year. I got out and took pix on one side and then climbed on rocks underneath both bridges to shoot the other side as well. Those photos are found below. The photo on the left shows the side that had the mountains in the background. They are obscured by clouds and fog. The photo on the right shows the ice flow going out into the open arm.

One of the amazing views in Wasilla. This peak looks like it is just floating in air. One of the amazing views in Wasilla. This peak looks like it is just floating in air. Hockey on Lake Wasilla Hockey on Lake Wasilla

When I left the Knik River, I had a short drive until I reached the town of Wasilla. You may remember Wasilla to be the town where Sara Palin was mayor.

This was a cute little town surround by stunning views of mountains. Wasilla was not as small as I thought it was going to be. It had several Starbucks just to give you sense. I drove around town looking for photo angles. One of my favorite things that I saw was people play hockey on Wasilla Lake with sticks and rocks. Below are some of the better shots from Wasilla.

One of the main streets in Wasilla had quite the view One of the main streets in Wasilla had quite the view

After spending some time in Wasilla, I drove back to Anchorage. Even though I took the same route back, well because it was the only route, I still soaked in the scenery. I stopped in Anchorage at gift shop and bought some more shirts for my kiddos. I then headed back to the hotel to catch the Oklahoma Sooners defeat West Virginia in an important game for both the Big 12 Championship and for the remaining slim hope of them making it into the BCS Playoffs.

While I was totally enjoying watching the game, I was even more excited waiting for 9p to roll around so we could embark on our Aurora Borealis hunt.

When Carl showed up shortly after 9p, I carried all my gear to his car and we embarked on our journey. I had no idea what he had in store for me. He was very nice and very knowledgeable about Alaska. He informed me that we were going to head south because his review of the weather indicated that it was the best chance to capture the Aurora. We hopped on Seward Highway and headed toward the Turnagain Arm. As we were driving, we couldn’t see a lot of stars, then after about 30 minutes, we started seeing snow flurries. Carl remarked that it may just be a passing flurry and that skies could be clear on the other side. However, the further south we went, the more the snow fell. By the time we got past Alyeska, we were in a full on snow storm.

My heart sank as I felt like perhaps this one not going to be the night.

Carl and I decided to turn around and make the trip back to Anchorage. He suggested with take some night shots of the city and then perhaps head north to see what we could find. The pix of the city came out ok, I wasn’t thrill with what I took.

A view of the Anchorage skyline take from Point Woronzof near Ted Stevens International Airport. Note the silhouette of the Chugatch Mountain range in the background. A view of the Anchorage skyline take from Point Woronzof near Ted Stevens International Airport. Note the silhouette of the Chugatch Mountain range in the background.

Leaving Point Woronzof at about 12:30a, we headed north on the same path that I had been on earlier in the day on my trip to Wasilla. In fact, Carl told me we were going to go to the Knik River area. I was thrilled because I felt that area was beautiful and it would make a great backdrop for the Aurora, if we were so lucky to find it. Carl knew of a spot off of Old Glen Highway. The first shooting location was on the banks of the river near a slough. Down a bit on the slough was an old bridge and the water was very foggy. As soon as I stepped out of the car, I was overwhelmed by how clear the sky was and I have never seen so many stars at once.

This was what I first saw when getting out of the car. It was my first pic of the evening. This was what I first saw when getting out of the car. It was my first pic of the evening.

I followed Carl down to the water’s edge and set up my tripod to being shooting. He noted that he could see the beginnings of the Aurora forming on the horizon. At first, I couldn’t make it out, but after looking for a bit, I could see a faint green band going across the horizon. I took a few shots of the slough, one is shown below and then I focused my attention on the developing Aurora.

This is the slough off the river. Note the bridge in the distance and moon sparkles on the snow in the foreground. This is the slough off the river. Note the bridge in the distance and moon sparkles on the snow in the foreground.

As the Aurora developed, I kept taking pictures. Below are several photos from the first location. That last is my favorite.

After getting some nice shots at this location, and noting that it was about 2:30a, we decided to go to one more location. There was an old highway bridge going across the river. The banks of the river had  about 50 feet of ice reaching out into the river flow that had big chunks of ice flowing. I will admit that I was a bit concerned about walking out onto the ice at night. Carl was not as concerned. However, at one point, I heard a loud ice cracking noise as he walked out to the banks. It freaked me out a bit, but he did not seem concerned. I gingerly followed his footsteps until I too reached the edge. This was a beautiful location and we immediately began shoot the Aurora which was becoming a bit more active.

In addition to the cover photo at the top of the post, here are some of the variations of the Aurora from this location.

We stayed at this location, getting colder by the minute, until about 4a. At the point, we decided the Aurora was not changing or growing enough to withstand the cold. So we packed up and Carl drove me back to the hotel. I thank him for an amazing evening and headed into my hotel room. I went to sleep a bit after 5a.

I didn’t get to sleep long because I wanted to get up before sunrise to make the daylight drive down the Turnagain Arm, the same drive Carl and I did at the beginning of our Aurora hotel hours earlier. I got up at 7:30a, showered, got my gear together and head out on the road. Even though the official sunrise was not until after 9a, there was light in the sky due to the very slow and long sunrises and sunsets at this time of year. As I drove out of town on this grey and foggy morning, I could tell it was going to be a good morning for shooting.

I stopped several times on my way. Some of my faves are below.

A serene mountain reflection on the Turnagain Arm A serene mountain reflection on the Turnagain Arm

I shot this goofy and stylish video while on the arm. It was my attempt to pretend I knew something about the Bode Tide that takes place on the Turnagain Arm. Be sure to check out my hair!

As my flight was leaving at 3p on this day, I had to limit how far I traveled. So when I arrived at the Alyeska Ski Resort, I decided to make that my turnaround point. But before heading back, I had to go into the resort town for a closer look.  I am so glad I did. The town was a picturesque snowy villa as you can see in the photos below.

The main street heading into the Alyeska Ski Resort The main street heading into the Alyeska Ski Resort

The gather of photogs looking at the dall sheep The gather of photogs looking at the dall sheep

After soaking in Alyeska, I started driving back. Along the way, I passed a turnout on the side of the road where there where 5 or 6 photographers with big time glass looking almost straight up. I quickly pulled over and as soon as I turned around, I saw them. There were a dozen dall sheep perched on the precipice of a sheer cliff. I remembered that Carl had told me about the sheep the night before but I had totally forgotten until this moment.

Of course I had to take out my gear and get some pix. I blew a key photo because I forgot to take a wider shot that showed the whole gathering of the sheep. It would not have been a great photo, but it would have shown the magnitude of the cliffs and the quantity of the sheep. Nonetheless, I did get the shot below. It was a tight as I could shoot at my max of 300mm focal length.

A male dall sheep standing on a jut out rock on the cliffs of the Turnagain Arm A male dall sheep standing on a jut out rock on the cliffs of the Turnagain Arm

As you can tell, my weekend in Alaska was magnificent. I can say I LOVE ALASKA and I cannot wait to go back do so much more. I would love to come here with my children and my friends. I hope to be able to do so as inexpensively as I did this time, but I doubt that will happen.

One last thing to share. I am an airplane geek. I love to look at them and watch them take off and land. One of my favorites since a child is the Boeing 747. I noticed when I landed in Anchorage that there were quite a few parked on the tarmac. Then when I came back to the airport to fly home, I noticed there were close to a dozen. Then all of a sudden, while waiting on my flight  to board, I saw 8 747s in a row take off without interruption. They were all cargo planes from the Pacific. With limited visibility, I was able to catch of show of three of them at one time as they prepared for take off.

It was 747 city at Anchorage airport It was 747 city at Anchorage airport

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