30 June 2013

Aurora borealis: When the sun goes down, the lights go up!

Photos by Jerod & Bethann Merkle

I remember, once when I was young, riding back in to town from my grandparents' place on a dark night.  The three miles of highway between our homes ran through the flood plane of the Teton River, and on either side, velvet-black ridges rose up from cottonwood bottoms.  As my mother prudently passed through a gauntlet of willows known to harbor kamikaze deer, we glanced up at the inky ridge to the east.

Above the colorless outline of shrubs and the occasional fence post, we saw glimmers of light.  No one lived up on that hill, so we looked more closely. . . and then the lights danced.

Rather than finishing the drive and settling into our beds, we turned off the main road.  Mama followed the beacon up a gritty gravel road, past hushed farms, and rolled to a stop right where generations of amorous teenagers have come star-gazing.  We stepped out into the chilly night, leaned our backs against cold metal and glass, threw our heads back, and watched in awe.  

I have no idea how long we stood there.  I do recall vividly that the lights undulated, rose and fell, shining from horizon to as high overhead as we could see.  The northern lights are rarely visible as far south as Montana, and that night was the first and only time in my childhood that I saw them.

So, when Jerod recently read an aurora forecast that said we would be able to see them, highly active, here in Saskatchewan, I was all in.  

There are a handful of websites that provide real-time information about aurora activity.  Our favorite, the Alaska Geophysical Institute, sends out aurora alerts and provides a wealth of information.  It was this website that tipped us off, with these handy maps:

That night, we stayed up well past midnight.  Around 11:30 PM we took every bit of camera equipment we could get our hands on, made up thermoses of tea, and headed down the road to the Sturgeon River.  We settled smack in the middle of the bridge as the vestiges of the sunset faded.  This is one of the few spots in the area where we can see a fair distance, and we had a notion that the lights might reflect off of the river.

As water gurgled around the bridge pilings, and ducks and an occasional beaver splashed somewhere out of sight, the sun dropped.  Night joined the horizon and sky into a seamless ebony wash.  Aside from the Big Dipper and other recognizable constellations, only a faint swath of hazy white to the southeast suggested anything out of the ordinary.  

Without warning, as though someone flipped a switch, the lights came on.  To the north, curtains of greenish-white light rippled, while down river that band of cloudiness transformed into a rippling serpentine arc.  I balanced my camera on the cab of the truck and tried to capture the greenness.  Jerod chased the snake of light with a pair of cameras on tripods.

A while later, I was enjoying a tea break when Jerod exclaimed my name.  I looked up, and all around us were immense pillars of lights, streaming broadly into the air and waving about as though advertising the next big Vegas show.  They stretched from the horizon to so far above that if felt as if we might tip over if we followed the swoop too rapidly to its peak.  

We stood dumbstruck for a few moments, then scrambled with cameras and tripods, finally oblivious of the mob of mosquitoes so delighted to find such large midnight snacks.  We stayed out there in the bugs and blackness, surrounded by the murmur of water, birds, and the cosmos, until a vivid orange moon rose and outshone the aurora.

Want a little more?  Here's an article published in this week's QCT which explains how the light are generated, and how to plan your own photo expedition.


Christy R. said...

Awesome!! I dragged Remi out in the middle of the night last year and he was glad I did because we got to see a few minutes of these amazing lights! It is not easy to see them but soooo worth it if you happen to be in the right place at the right time! YOU got such good photos and what a show! Congratulations and thanks for posting and for article in QCT, I am already sharing it with friends and family:)

Christy R.

J. Craig said...

I really liked your Northern Lights article. Wow! The photos are incredible. It is on my bucket list to see the Northern Lights in colour like that. I saw them for the first time on my wedding night dancing across the sky, but they weren't in colour like that. Another time!!

fruit.root.leaf. said...

Thank you for writing about that article! It was a lot of fun to see them (late June), and then we were able to share them with Jerod's dad (who is here visiting) last weekend.

How neat that you saw them on your wedding night! What a phenomenal omen! As for the color, the lights don't actually look as colorful to the naked eye as they do in the pictures. I think cameras are more sensitive than our eyes. :)

Auntie Trudy said...

Bethann, these are absolutely FABULOUS! Thx for sharing. We occasionally get to see the lights dance across the sky at breakneck speed, but not as awesome as your pics. Our boys remember getting drug out of bed at 1 or 2 am to come stand on the deck and watch this great spectacle--even tho it only lasts only a very short time.
Hope this finds you both well, and enjoying your time together!

fruit.root.leaf. said...

Auntie Trudy, I'm glad you enjoyed the post. We had such a great time watching those lights - it's a pretty spectacular sight! We were able to see them again last Saturday night, and even better, Jerod's dad was able to see them, too. He's here visiting for a couple of weeks, and I think it was a "bucket list" event.

I love it that you got them up at night to see the lights. Interesting that you were able to see them so well so far south. Perhaps we were just all in bed most nights when they were dancing over Choteau. :)

We are doing really well. We only have about 3.5 weeks left here, and then it's back to the city life. We're half looking forward to it and half dreading it. It will be nice to have more immediate access to some of the conveniences that come with living in town...not the least of which is exponentially less mosquitoes! On the other hand, we will deeply miss the serenity and abundance of wildlife.

fruit.root.leaf. said...

Christy, so glad you enjoyed the article, and that you got to see the lights last summer! Would you be interested in slightly re-wording your comments (above), and/or I can, so we could print them in the QCT?

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