Another crazy thing – Photograph the Aurora Borealis

IMG_5669Photographing the Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights, had been on my original list of 50 Crazy things. It’s something you can’t really plan for, however, you just need to be ready for it when it can happen.

I asked friends and fellow photographers John Buchanan and Yvonne Odber if they’d like to do this one with me. We all agreed. John had shot them once before and had a place in mind in the Lac Du Bois grasslands that would work. We just had to wait. There were plenty of opportunities during the winter and lots of local photographers were very successful. The timing just didn’t work out for us.

While we waited I did a bit of research on how to photograph auroras. There is lots of information online. I also did some research on what the Aurora Borealis is. Here’s what Northernlightscentre.ca says:

The bright dancing lights of the aurora are actually collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth’s atmosphere. The lights are seen above the magnetic poles of the northern and southern hemispheres. They are known as ‘Aurora borealis’ in the north and ‘Aurora australis’ in the south.

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This site has a lot of great information and is worth a look.

Typically I’m not a late night person so just staying up to do this was going to be a big part of the challenge. John and I had one false start in February but the skies were cloudy and they didn’t turn up where we were although there were plenty of coyotes! I had a backup plan for a Crazy Thing to include in my list in case this one didn’t work out. I believe I now have my nose pierced because of it!

I had downloaded a few borealis apps that would indicate when the aurora was going to be strongest in our area. On a clear night, theoretically, it should work. The best app we’ve found is AuroraNotifier. It sends us a message when the aurora is at a certain level for our area.

On Sunday, March 6th, the same day I got the lynx pictures in the morning, the notifier app went off and John texted me and Yvonne – were we in? The skies were clear so… yes! We raced to meet at Yvonne’s and jumped into John’s trusty truck, Ava. We were off. I still hadn’t caught up on my sleep from the night before.

We got to the spot where it was freezing and very windy. It was just getting dark when we were setting up our cameras. Then we waited. We weren’t disappointed. Not only were the stars spectacular, a dim green haze began to show up on the horizon. This wasn’t the most spectacular northern lights show ever seen, but they were pretty good for our early photography attempt.

We started taking pictures, experimenting with exposure length, ISO, and other settings. I discovered many things. I had a hard time focusing in the dark. My tripod is old and very light. It shook a bit in the wind. We also discovered we should have been wearing snowsuits! We were freezing! Eventually we were thrilled with our early attempt and are now committed to keep trying. I am soon going to treat myself to a heavy duty tripod and some warmer clothes. Possibly a new lens too. The place we chose would also be pretty good for star trails so we’re going to be trying that as well. Our goal, as always, is to perfect our photographic techniques and expose beauty whenever we can.

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All in all I was pleased with my first attempts at shooting the aurora. My pictures are a bit shaky but I haven’t enhanced them at all. These are straight out of my camera.

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Big thanks to John Buchanan and Yvonne Odber for helping make this happen. The joy is really in the adventure and not in the results. Even if the lights hadn’t made an appearance we would still have a great time and an adventure to remember.

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More wonders of wildlife: An addendum to Crazy Thing #22.

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When I started this year’s ski season I had many goals –distance skied, covering all the trails in both directions, and photographing wildlife. My photography goals included photographing a moose, lynx, and owl. On Christmas Eve I got the most awesome Moose pictures I could imagine. I kept seeing lynx tracks, and other people were getting photos of them, but I kept missing out. As the season was drawing to a close and conditions (at the time) were not spectacular, I wasn’t holding out much hope.

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“Are you coming?”

On Sunday, March 6th, I was coming home in the morning from enjoying a great night with some friends in Logan Lake. I had been up until 2 am and I was seriously tired. I stopped at Stake Lake for a short ski. It was a bit slushy and it had been too warm to get the big groomer out so the tracks weren’t great and it was a little slippery. Still, any ski is better than no ski. I headed out on the green trails and felt myself following instinct again. I had no plan. I started on Ponderosa and thought I would turn right on Hoss but after making it about 10m on the trail I changed my mind – I almost NEVER do that. I decided to go back and finish the loop on Ponderosa. It was nice but uneventful. When I came to the other end of Hoss I headed onto it for real this time. This is not my regular way of doing these trails and I’m a creature of habit so I don’t often vary my routine. I passed some snowshoers crossing Hoss, and right after them I met an elderly man skiing toward me. I said hi and kept skiing. Right around the corner I nearly crashed – there was a lynx walking away from me on the trail, about 20m ahead of me. I could hardly breathe. I looked around and there was nobody else coming. I grabbed my big camera in my right hand and both of my poles in my left and started skiing on the slippery track. Suddenly I was less afraid of going fast or falling – I wanted those pictures! The lynx stopped and looked back at me, almost as if it was saying, “Are you coming?”

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The lynx walked on the skate lane in the middle of the trail up a hill and around a bend. I skied after as fast as I could. I got pictures from behind but I really wanted pictures from the front. The corner is a blind corner and the cat disappeared at the top of the hill. Seconds later a guy skate skiing came flying around the corner toward me  in the middle of the trail and nearly fell because he saw the lynx just off the top. I caught up and both of us watched as the lynx walked about 5m from us. If that skier had been a minute or so earlier he would have run right over that cat! That would have made for an awesome picture!

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My glasses were fogged up so I just kept taking pictures hoping they would work out.  I kept taking pictures at the top and, while I didn’t get ahead of it, I did get along side of it and took some awesome pictures. It disappeared in the trees right after that.

Again I proved to myself that magic really does happen when I let go of control and follow my instincts. I was finally on the right trail at the right time and I was given an amazing reward!