Often times I visit bucket list destinations during the shoulder season (going at the very beginning of the season or at the tail end). The advantages include the possibility of finding cheaper flights, lodging, tours, adventures and flexibility on reservations…Most importantly, the number of tourists are way down!
This being my first time to the massive state of Alaska, I wanted to focus on a specific region. The plan was to spend a night or two north of Anchorage chasing the northern lights, then head southbound on the scenic Seaward Drive to Homer, Alaska and, finally, finish the trip with a back country bear excursion in Katmai National Park or Lake Clark National Park. So with no hotels booked or reservations tying us down, we were ready to explore the Kenia Peninsula free of obligation and a clear conscience if we were to spend time exploring a road less traveled. Although there are many advantages of the shoulder season it does not come free of vice. This hack is a bit of a gamble. Especially when your photographing nature! I “doubled down” on this trip by going late in the brown bear season to hopefully fulfill my life long dream of seeing the aurora borealis. Spoiler alert- I hit the Jackpot!!
The phenomenon commonly referred to as the “northern lights” are one of the most magnificent displays of nature that I have yet to witness. Try and wrap your head around the fact that the bright lights dancing in the night are actually collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth's atmosphere by solar wind. The earth's magnetic field is weaker at either pole which causes some particles to enter the earth's atmosphere and collide with gas particles. The result is something you truly have to see to believe.
Although tough to predict, it’s not a complete shot in the dark. The season starts in mid September and peaks in March. Also, the further north you go the better chance you have of seeing the auroras. It must be a clear night with no clouds or moonlight and far away from any city lights. This forecast provided by the University of Alaska is a very useful tool when tracking this phenomenon . Here is a link to the website: https://www.gi.alaska.edu/monitors/aurora-forecast
Prior to my trip, I mapped out some areas outside of Anchorage that looked promising to shoot the event. All day I was checking the weather/ aurora forecasts and the conditions were looking unseasonably favorable. My flight landed in Anchorage early at about 1:00 am. Hoping I could score a bonus night of shooting, I quickly got my bags, rushed to a rental car agency and got the cheapest deal I could get. I opted out of a hotel and a good nights sleep and set out to find a secluded part of the Chugach National Forest. Once I got a few miles outside of Anchorage I started to see a faint green band form across the sky. It took every bit of me to not pull of and start photographing. I knew the further away from the city I got, the better my experience would be. So I continued driving for another hour or so before eventually turning off the highway and driving down a long windy road.
At this point I hadn’t seen any green in the sky for a while and started second guessing my decision to ditch a night of sleep. Shortly there after I saw another green band form out of the dark Alaskan sky. This time way more vibrant then the one I saw in Anchorage. I pulled off to make sure I captured a few shots. Using the road as part of my composition I set up my tripod and watched in awe. Slowly but surely the band started to expand across the sky. Before I knew it, the entire night sky was illuminated and the lights began rapidly swirling around my head! I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing! The sky came alive and looked like some sort of portal into another dimension. I could have never in a million years braced my self for this experience. It was the most intense thing I’ve ever seen since I became a father…..Did I just compare the northern lights to childbirth? The point is, it was that overwhelming of an emotion and I couldn’t possibly put it into words. I spent the rest of the night looking for better foregrounds and compositions to work with and photographed all the way through sunrise.
It was a night that I’ll never forget. I remember thinking that I could drive directly back to the airport, hop on a plane and go home and it would have been one of the best photographic adventures of my life.
The next morning I met some local star gazers on a hike at Eagle River Nature Center who said it was one of the best displays of light they have ever seen. The next night would be a friendly reminder from mother nature of just how lucky I was.
The next day I explored Alaska in the daylight and day dreamed about what the night ahead would offer. With clear sky’s and a promising aurora forecast, I had my hopes up extremely high. That night I picked up my buddy from the airport at 11:00 PM after he was coming off a 48 hour shift and a full day of travel from NY. Promising him the best experience of his life, we drove a couple of hours outside of the city to watch the sky come alive. We sat there all night with out seeing a thing. It was about as entertaining as this years Superbowl, and almost a bigger disappointment then the Patriots winning.
Other then a quick day nap in my rental car at a gas station parking lot I had not slept in days. So we packed up and went back to Anchorage to find a hostel. The next day we decided to head north to better our odds of seeing the northern lights. We found an adorable little town called Talkeetna located just south of Denali National Park. We explored the town, ate some amazing food and found this beautiful view of the backside of Denali (formerly known as Mt McKinley) which is the highest mountain peak in North America. Seeing the top of the mountain is actually pretty rare.
That night we set out at the mercy of mother nature. With the forecast looking less promising then the prior night. our expectations were managed a bit. To our surprise we scored an epic night of protons and electrons colliding into gas that put on a more entertaining show then David Copperfield, The Blue Man Group and Cirque du Soleil rolled into one. Sometimes I wonder how I was not absolutely hanging on the edge of my seat during science class as a kid. It must have been my teachers fault. It certainly could not have been the fact that my attention span was shorter than that of a squirrel monkey.
On the way back to our cabin we stopped by a little roadside eatery called Payos Thai Kitchen. By kitchen I mean a little old lady serving Thai food out of a renovated RV. Needless to say, it was amazing! After a big meal, I got the most sleep I’ve had since leaving San Diego……a full 5 hours. It was worth it and then some! Check out a few more of my favorite shots from the first leg of the trip below.
I easily could have dedicated a week to photographing the northern lights, but it was time to head south for the second leg of the trip, which I will discuss in Part II of this blog. Sign up for my email list below or make sure to check back soon to see continue reading!