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I had three nights and three tries to see and photograph the Northern Lights over Churchill, Manitoba.
The first night, after flying in to the small airport on the edge of Hudson Bay and checking into the Tundra Hotel, after dinner in one of the two restaurants open during the winter season, we climbed into the massive Frontiers North Tundra Buggy, the vehicle that carries tourists close to the polar bears that overtake the little town each fall. We lumbered out onto the frozen Churchill river, navigating around massive tidal hummocks and drifts of deep snow.
Finally, at the edge of the wide, bare, tundra we stopped. The Northern Lights were already spreading across the sky just above the horizon, shapeshifting slowly, almost imperceptibly changing from swirls to vertical streaks to a wide arc overhead. We quickly gathered our gear and rushed out of the buggy, leaving the warmth of the two big propane heaters, and stepped out into the frigid March night.
The air was as clear and sharp as glass.
My gloved hands fumbled over the controls of my camera and when I freed them to adjust the settings and touched the frozen metal of my tripod, the tips of my fingers burned. My breath instantly froze in my nose and in the scarf around my neck. Even layered in fleece and wool and heavy boots, my toes began to chill and ache but I didn’t want to give in. My eyes watered, making it hard to focus through my viewfinder, but I kept pushing the shutter as the lights shifted, moved and teased. They faded and then returned, growing stronger then disappearing only to reappear in another place.
There were others on the ice nearby, hunched over their tripods or gazing up at the sky, but the silence was broken only by the sound of our footsteps on crusted snow that crunched with a peculiar dry, hollow, sound. The deep darkness separated us with more than distance and we didn’t just watch the lights, we were immersed in the experience. But finally, at 2 a.m., when it seemed as though the show was over for the night and we were growing slow and clumsy with fatigue and cold, we surrendered, packed up our gear and climbed back into the warmth of the big vehicle.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise, nature usually gets the last word, but as though waving farewell, the lights suddenly reappeared and pulled together until they coalesced in the sky directly above our tundra buggy. Someone called out and the group spilled back out into the cold as the lights began to dance above us, weaving and undulating as we tipped up our faces to watch. This time we were unencumbered by heavy cameras and gear. There was nothing to distract us. All we could do was gaze up and exclaim.
The next night was cloudy and dangerously cold—with a windchill of almost 60 below zero—so we stayed in the hotel, trading stories and comparing photos. But the third night the clouds blew away and we loaded up again. The trail over the frozen river had been swept clean by the scouring wind so we headed out— this time in smaller vans—to a dark road just beyond town.
Doug, our guide, had told me that sometimes the light show begins with a faint glow just over the horizon. Keeping my eyes above a row of tall spruce trees, wiping away the frost where my breath crystalized on the van window, I waited. At first I was sure I’d imagined it, but soon others in the van could see the gathering brightness. The Northern Lights were back. Again, we grabbed our cameras and hopped out into the night.
It was even colder than our first night out but this time it didn’t bother me as much. Perhaps it’s because we were more experienced, better prepared for the cutting wind and bone-deep chill—I’d added a layer and tucked extra handwarmers into my pockets and mittens. Maybe it was because we knew we were running out of time. Our adventure was almost over.
The lights were even more brilliant than they'd been before, painting the sky in wide strokes, streaking down toward the ground like silent fireworks. I pressed the shutter again and again but I’d already decided that whatever kind of photo I brought home with me wouldn’t matter. The real magic had imprinted in me and I knew I would never forget it.
But frozen fingers and all, I did manage to get a few photographs. So I have proof of the adventure and a reward for standing in the dark Manitoba night, tracing the stars with my eyes, watching a cold and distant fire sweep across the sky.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer whose audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at email@example.com You can read previous ‘Home Planet’ columns at www.spokesman.com/blogs/homeplanet
Where were you?
Did you realize immediately what it was you were seeing?
- Aurora Borealis
SKY WATCHING — If the city lights and cloudy skies have prevented you from enjoying the recent solor storms generating great shows of Northern Lights, relax, sit back and enjoy this Washington Post story and a gallery of northern lights images by a Montana native who lives in Homer, Alaska.
Dennis Anderson is one of a handful of photographers who make a living by catching the aurora borealis on film.
SKY WATCHING — The Northern lights put on a great show over Washington's Methow Valley last night, and the nordic ski trail operators where on the job to see the spectacle.
“Our groomer Ed got this incredible shot last night,” says the Methow Valley Sport Trails Association Facebook page.
“Last night was pretty epic,” the groomer operator said. “I didn't drive off the trail looking at the sky, but it would have been a fair excuse. Photo was taken on View Ridge Trail about 12:30 a.m. Unfortunately I didn't have my tripod so this is hand held… braced against a shut off Pisten Bully! It is a 1.6 second shot.”
Read more about the unusual solar storm bombarding the night sky today and continuing tonight.
SKY WATCHING — A big solar flare — perhaps the biggest in five years — combined with a chance for clear skies over much of the region, could offer up a rare chance to see the northern lights in the few hours before dawn on Thursday and maybe Thursday night.
Also, there' a chance your GPS unit may not perform accurately tomorrow, scientists say.
See the New York Post story.
Here is a forecasting tool that updates every 2 minutes!
SKYWATCHING — Tonight might be prime time, if you can swing it, to go high away from city lights and above the clouds to watch the expected light show in the northern sky.
A massive explosion on the sun's surface has triggered the largest solar radiation storm since 2005, unleashing a torrent of charged plasma particles toward Earth.
The bad news: Could cause trouble with satellites and GPS navigation, power grids and other high-tech hardware.
The good news: Likely will trigger displays of aurora borealis, a.k.a the northern lights.
Predicting shows of northern lights is much the same for scientists as predicting the weather, since the aurora is a result of space weather.
While this week is special, scientists expect higher than normal solar activity to persist through the year. Scientists say there's been a minimum rate of solar and aurora activity since 2007.
Northern lights info and forecasts
Find a wealth of info, links, photos and forecasts at this website maintained by the Geophysical Institute at the Unviversity of Alaska Fairbanks.
Good evening, Netizens…
If you are somewhat paranoid, prone to ethereal blasts of half-baked fantasy or otherwise have been following some of the believers in latter-day theorists, perhaps you might want to don your tinfoil aluminum hats and dive into your custom-built underground shelter because a solar storm has been reported by the National Space Weather Prediction Center http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/ which, if predictions are correct, might arrive on Earth sometime beginning the 16th through the 18th.
After the initial blast of radiation accompanying the coronal mass ejection (CME) — the first of its magnitude to occur in the new solar cycle of activity — a huge cloud of charged particles is headed toward Earth and is expected possible to wreck mild-mannered havoc with high frequency communications. Among the many potential disasters that can come from a massive CME: disturbances in the planet’s geomagnetic field that may lead to malfunctioning telecom and GPS satellite equipment. However, the current CME does not appear to be that serious, although there are already reports of radio disruptions in Southern China.
What we may see here locally are some of the finest aurora borealis or Northern Lights that we have seen since 2006. Or perhaps, if you are among those blessed with a more vivid imagination, perhaps we will discover President Obama's true solution for our national budget. Your results, may differ.
Good morning, Netizens…
I was hopeful. However, I also accepted that the night skies somewhat overcast with smoke and haze might not be the ideal situation for viewing of Northern Lights. Still, I optimistically set up my lawn chair occasionally glancing at the northern horizon in the hopes of seeing a flash of color. Since I had to be in bed early, because mornings start just before dawn around here, I hedged my bet by asking a friend who lives well outside the city lights if he would perhaps stay up a bit later in the hopes of seeing the elusive aurora borealis.
While I haven’t heard an official word from the talking news heads on television, northern lights were a definite no-show last night, even from my friend’s home outside Springdale, Washington which is about as far from the city lights as one could wish for.
I’ve seen, or rather heard Northern Lights several times before. My first caught me unawares on the highway leading to Juneau, Alaska nearly 30 years ago. I had stopped the truck on a particularly lonely stretch of highway to stretch my legs and answer nature’s call approximately three hours before dawn. I had just completed my “walk-around” the truck, checking tail and marker lights and tires, when I heard what sounded like someone hissing at me. I spun around, fearful that one of the indigenous wildlife forms of Alaska had crept up on me unawares, but no.
It was just the aurora whispering in the snow. I could plainly see the lights as they shifted and moved across the sky. No one has ever explained how or why this sound happens, but I later learned from some “old hands” at the business of driving long-haul trucks in our Northernmost state that aurora is just part of the many mysteries of Alaska.
I had such high hopes, but aurora sightings are actually quite rare in Washington State, especially when you factor in city lights. Perhaps if we have another solar eruption similar to earlier this week, we might still have a chance. One never knows.
Good morning, Netizens…
Take a close look at this picture shot over Norway and see if you can define what it is. Scientists, UFO-ologists and various others have tried, and the closest they can come, according to various news wires, is that this is a picture of a Russian missile in its dying last moments. Still some others are insisting this is Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights, which are quite common in Northern Norway on the Arctic Circle.
According to various news agencies, The Bulava missile was test-fired from the Dmitry Donskoi submarine in the White Sea early on Wednesday but failed at the third stage, say newspapers in Moscow today. However, the Russians are denying that the submarine launched any missiles.
I have been far enough north in the United States and Europe that you could read by the Northern Lights in total darkness. During my sojourns in Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay, it was related to me that if you went out on the ice you could hear the sounds of the Aurora as it rasped across the ice shelf. Despite all its splendor, I never saw anything even closely resembling this strange event.
Was it a missile gone astray or aliens putting on a lightshow for the Norwegians? That is a dandy question.