Chasing Aurora in the Yukon: Week 6

Aside from drowning in data on a completely inadequate netbook computer, things in the Yukon are going well. My second New Moon has come and gone, but I have a lot of photos to show for the miles I've driven and nights I've spent around the Yukon in the last two weeks.


Aurora Road Trip

With some doubt in my mind, I waited out a few cloudy nights and tried to get some quality sleep, then with New Moon approaching fast, for better or worse I started out on Tuesday 21st Feb for four nights out on the road. I headed west to the Kluane Lake Region, and found myself a spot to pull off the road (not easy in winter!) where it crosses Slims River at the start of Kluane Lake, one of the most picturesque spots on the Alaska Highway.

Skies were clear and the aurora turned up. Although somewhat late and relatively subdued it was enough to make for some nice timelapse sequences. The freight and fuel trucks headed to Alaska were a little distracting early on, but the traffic stopped at midnight, which I later realised is when the border posts close. The first night sleeping in the back of the truck (ute) did not seem too bad, despite the temperature dropping to around -20C (inside and out), so I was reasonably optimistic about my chances of continuing for another three nights.

On the road to Haines Alaska

The second day, Wednesday 22nd Feb, I headed back to Haines Junction then south on a more remote road through the top end of British Columbia towards Haines Alaska. I had 60 litres of extra fuel on board as there were no services from this point on and I needed to keep the car idling much of the nights to recharge batteries and the laptop (for clearing memory cards) and to keep the car warm.

The clouds were pretty closed in up on the plateau, so despite the approaching evening I continued driving down into the valley and to the Alaska border so that I would at least know what my options were for the following nights. After stopping near the Canadian customs buildings, the young officer came out to ask if she could help me. I explained what I was doing and checked that there were no public toilets (there weren't) but was offered the toilet in their office instead, since they hadn't seen anybody for almost the whole day. After a short chat, I headed back up the road and chose a spot in the first cleared pull-out at the tree line.

To my surprise, the clouds mostly cleared up not too long into the night, so I rustled up some energy and set up the gear again. Despite a reasonable view to the north, the aurora struggled to produce much more than a faint glow. I began to wonder whether I had sacrificed too much on the northern lights front by heading south in search of mountainous foreground scenery. The temperature dropped again to around -18C and with just a hint of breeze it felt cooler than the previous night. My favoured down jacket combo under the snow suit did the trick though.

Click images to view them on SmugMug.

Third Night Not So Lucky

The third day, Thursday 23rd Feb, I drove back up onto the plateau and planted myself in front of the nicest mountains I could find. With no obvious places to park, I dug a pull-out of my own, which only made it look like I was stuck. So two snow-mobilers and the school bus stopped to ask if I was OK. There was also the attraction of a toilet in a rest area 500 metres away, so I dug that out from three feet of snow (on the inside as well), which I found was worth the effort.

It was a beautiful, clear blue sky day in the mountains with the promise of a great night to come. Unfortunately, the wisps of cloud around the summits grew as the night wore on, wiping out most of the sky. The north was the last to go, but again the aurora barely showed up. Either aurora activity was *really* quiet or I was indeed too far south.

About the time it started snowing at 1:45am, a four wheel drive sped past, which surprised me no end as I had seen no other vehicles on the road after midnight for the previous two nights. They quickly stopped and turned around to say hello - the same two customs officers I'd met the day before, on a newly inspired hunt for the aurora. They were half way through their two year posting to this remote border post, where they lived with just four other staff and.. well nothing else really. Hearing of my multiple successes in the space of four weeks, they had decided to try and see the northern lights for themselves. We had a longer chat, but with the weather set in and the aurora missing in action, they headed back to base. I may never know if they've seen the lights yet or even tried again.

I took the opportunity for an earlier night, and felt much better rested when I woke at 10am the next day. Problem was, by then the wind was buffeting the car and blowing snow across the road. The temperature wasn't particularly cold but it felt a whole lot less pleasant than anytime in the previous two days. It took some serious motivation to get out of the sleeping bag, knowing that I had camera gear scattered out in the snow that I needed to collect and pack in the car before I could move on.

Enduring the Wind

With thoughts of heading for home, or at least back to lower ground, I waited out half the day for the weather to make up its mind. It was the first time for my month in the Yukon that I'd felt such a northerly wind, but I at least surmised that there could not be much moisture in a wind blowing across the vast expanse of dry, Arctic Canada to the north (as opposed to the moist and cloudy southerlies from the Bay of Alaska that I'd seen plenty of). So I decided to stick it out.

As the sun got lower in the sky, I parked on the side of the wide open road and setup a twilight timelapse to capture the sunset colours, followed by the Moon, Venus and Jupiter setting in the west. But the wind kept blowing and the temperature kept dropping. I can't think of a night I've experienced where astronomy has been any tougher. As a result, I kept the photography a little simpler. I left the Dynamic Perception timelapse dolly in the car, since there wasn't much close foreground to work with and I concentrated on panning the cameras across the mountains instead. For this fourth night on the road, I also had to be a little inventive with battery power but managed to keep most things ticking over.

The aurora glow was bright and higher in the sky, so there seemed promise of a little activity later. Sure enough, around midnight there started a long period of nice activity, with tall delicate rays and good colour variation showing in the photos. With a nice mountain ridge and peaks in the foreground, I was getting what I came for and so the hard work was easy to justify.

By the time the show was winding down, I was conscious of the drive home the following day, so started thinking about the logistics of getting some sleep. The back of the truck was pretty drafty, so I slept in my snowsuit and down jacket which was also so that I could get up to change a memory card in the main camera at 5:30am. But after waking up for that change, and suffering from a really sore and stiff back, I couldn't get back to sleep. Eventually I gave up and enjoyed watching twilight unfold from the front of car which was relatively warm and comfortable. I tried taking a few photos, but with a naturally low body temperature after sleeping, even my gloved hands hardly lasted a minute before I had to take shelter in the car again.

I was looking forward to getting out of the wind, so just on sunrise I packed the last of the gear into the car and headed back towards home. Now Haines Junction is not a large town, but after refilling the car there with fuel and me with a hot chocolate, things felt a a whole lot more civilised. Back home, after all the unpacking was complete, a comfortable bed that night was pure luxury!

White Pass and Skagway, Alaska

A few cloudy nights provided some forced recovery time, but with the moon waxing bright towards first quarter again I still had my hopes pinned on one more trip before conceding the loss of dark skies. With time running out, on Wednesday 29th February, I was somewhat surprised to wake (late) to sunshine and clear skies and the forecast of a clear evening with cloud increasing the following day. That was my cue for one more night away in the mountains.

Since it was 3pm before I left, I thought I might only get as far as Windy Arm south of Carcross. But the drive there passed quickly, and the view north was not inspiring so I headed on. I arrived at White Pass just on sunset, another point on the Canada/Alaska border. Since it was in the no-mans-land between the two border posts, I told the (far less interested) Canada customs officers what my plan was for the night, in case it mattered to them.

The aurora band was not obvious in the moonlight, but there was more than a hint of something reasonably high and bright and so again the promise of a show to come. This time, it started to break up into rays quite early, which was lucky as the cloud arrived early too. Just as the show was starting, I had a lady pull up in the parking area near me. Originally from Wisconsin, but married to a Canadian and on her way home to Whitehorse, she described it as the best aurora she had seen in years. Which was interesting, as I'd seen several better shows in just four weeks. But if you're not constantly outside in the cold looking (why would you be?!), they're easy to miss. That was a familiar anecdote, particularly from people in town. Young people have often never even seen a good northern lights show.

Although I got some good footage, the clouds wiped things out early, so I tucked in for a reasonable night's sleep on a new Exped down mattress - a great improvement on the makeshift mattress of a few nights earlier. The following day, I greatly enjoyed having my finger prints and retina scanned while getting interrogated by a U.S. customs officer, all for the privilege of spending a few dollars on lunch and a pair of gloves in Skagway, Alaska on a fairly bleak day. Apparently it is buzzing in summer with cruise ships tripling the population of the town. But this day the dramatic fjords were clouded in and the town was clean, cold and eerily deserted.

Full Moon Number Two

A few days later and well after first quarter moon, there was a rather bright aurora display which while not visually spectacular still appeared impressive on camera. And enduring a week of moonlight is not so bad. There have been a few work related tasks for people back home, but also a chance or two for a skate ski which is a quick way to exhaust an unfit astronomer. Then on Wednesday I hope to go snowshoeing with Louis from the local camera club. There's some work to do on my Night Sky Photography eBook, and an impossible pile of image processing and video rendering that I force my little netbook to work on each night while I sleep.

In just a week, it will be time to gear up for one last round of aurora hunting, before this winter astronomy adventure comes to a rapid close on the 30th March.

Prior to this, there was Week 1 and Week 3.

Comments

Congratulations and Thank You

I saw the solar eclipse photo you took this week on APOD today. Just wanted to say thanks for sharing it.
(During 1980 I was lucky to see a total solar eclipse. No other natural phenomenon could match a total solar eclipse.)