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Photo: Northern lights frame Glacier Park - whoa!

NIGHT SKIES — Wherever you're headed outdoors this holiday weekend, I hope Nature leaves the Lights on for you.

S-R Readers’ Outdoor Photo Gallery captures March moments

OUTDOOR PHOTOGRAPHY — Newspaper editors knew the great outdoors would provide inspiration when they put out the call for your images, but the photographic talent readers are sharing has surpassed all expectations.

The Spokesman-Review Readers Outdoor Photos web page hasn't just been popular — it's become a regular pit stop for a breath of fresh air.

Equipped with cameras ranging from smartphones to SLRs with monster lenses, readers aren't just sending snapshots of big fish.  They're providing a broad perspective of what's up outside, one photo at a time.

Since the online feature debuted a year ago, more than 650 images have been uploaded at spokesman.com/outdoors

People are telling us where they're going, what they're doing outdoors and what catches their eye.

The photos offer insight on the changing of seasons, the emergence of wildflowers and the return of migratory birds.

The Spokane River, with all of its moods and the recreation it provides, is a popular subject. So are sunsets — the kind that make you vow to be out there next time weather serves up such a beautiful end of the day.

But some photos are coming from west in the scablands, south in the big-river canyon lands and northeast from high in the wilderness where readers are sharing sights many folks would never see.

Our March 2015 Readers Outdoors Photo Gallery may be the best overall monthly collection since the online feature debuted last year. 

I tried to pick  the top 10 and failed miserably at narrowing it down that tight. 

I'm posting my picks for the top 25 images (above) from the photos uploaded this month, and I'm still leaving out a lot of shots that caught my interest.

Some of the images are excellent because of their photo quality. Others are great because they capture a moment to enlighten us about the outdoors. Some are appreciated real-time field reports on conditions.

The images capture the flows of rivers and waterfalls from downtown Spokane to Towell Falls on Rock Creek south of Sprague.

They chronicle where the snow is, and where it isn't anymore.

Photographers looked this month up to capture porcupines and birds in trees as well as the full moon. They gazed down to picture the first flowers bursting from the soil, marmots venturing from their holes, lady bird beetles swarming in the duff and amphibians emerging from the recently thawed pond mud.

It's not surprising that people head out with cameras at night chasing the Northern Lights, although the quality of the results has us begging for more solar flares

More enlightening, perhaps, is how many hikers and even cyclists leave the warmth of home to enjoy the quiet under the stars.

Check out the good work readers are posting. Upload your own.

Collectively you're creating a picture story of the outdoors around the Inland Northwest that no other single person could tell.

Northern lights photo has star power

SKYWATCHING — Craig Goodwin, pastor of Millwood Community Presbyterian Church and outdoor photographer, gave us the heads up on Saturday that the weekend was sizing up to be a good opportunity to see the Northern Lights.

Indeed, the aurora borealis did put on a dance, although it wasn't up to great performance standards.

So the photographer juiced it up for the photo above: a composite of 150 individual, 25-second shutter clicks at Sullivan Lake.

Look closely and you can see several shooting stars, he noted.

  • Note: that's the North Star in the center of the circle.  Navigators and photographers have long known that the rotation of the earth offers the "time exposure" effect of all the stars rotating around the North Star.

Goodwin posted this and other fall photos on the S-R's Reader Outdoor Photos page on our website. 

Check them out — and add your best shot to the standout collection.

Watch for northern lights tonight

SKYWATCHING — This is a good weekend for sky watching, with increased solar activity coinciding with clear skies.

Craig Goodwin, pastor of Millwood Community Presbyterian Church and outdoor photographer, captured the photo above at Sullivan Lake and posted this comment Saturday:

The Aurora is active. Should be better tonight and tomorrow, but as always, who knows for sure. This is taken from the shores of Sullivan Lake. Note the shooting star half way through. The moon came up at the end so I shut it down. Yes, that's snow in the foreground.

Northern lights may put on show in Northwest skies

SKY WATCHING — The solar activity that put on a light show in the northern skies of the Inland Northwest on Aug. 26 (above) are likely to put on a repeat performance for late night viewers from Seattle through Montana tonight and Saturday.

The Aurora borealis, or northern lights, are more typically seen in northwest Canada, Alaska and Scandinavia, but sun flares this week are expected to affect the magnetic poles, bringing the lights south, according to the NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center.

Predicting the exact timing is difficult, but “the chances are really good” for Friday and Saturday nights, said Bob Rutledge of the Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colo.

The best viewing areas are far away from city lights.

The best time to view the lights is usually around midnight, but the weather, brightness of the moon and dusk and dawn times are also factors in determining the ideal time, according to the Geophysical Institute, which explains:

The sun produces mass ejections which interact with the Earth’s magnetic field, and when electric currents begin to flow in the upper atmosphere, the result is an Aurora borealis. The sun flares disrupt the magnetic field, providing conditions for the lights to be seen elsewhere.

Photo: Northern Lights over Priest Lake

OUTDOOR PHOTOGRAPHY — It pays to lose yourself watching the stars on a clear summer night.

In the photo above, Craig Goodwin, pastor of Millwood Community Presbyterian Church, sits by the still-glowing embers of a fire some other Priest Lake visitors to Hill's Resort had enjoyed.  But they left at a reasonable hour early Wednesday morning.

Goodwin, who's become entranced with photographing the Milky Way this summer, stayed around past 2 a.m. …. and the Northern Lights were his payoff.

If you see the Northern Lights tonight…

…what are going to do?

A) Howl at the sky. B) Do a little dance. Make a little love. C) Toast the heavens with strong libation. D) Go back inside and get ready for bed. E) Say it's nothing compared to what you saw back in…. F) Other.

Northern lights expected to put on show tonight

SKY WATCHING — If the weather clears up and gives us a break, the solar system is poised to deliver a light show tonight.

See the story about the prime conditions for northern lights.

Best views would be from high areas away from town lights if cloud cover is gone.

Travel: Kicking the Bucket List

    So often when the subject of travel comes up, someone will invariably mention their 'bucket list.' They will talk about a city or continent, a monument or some kind of natural wonder or even an event they want to see before they die. Before, as the cliché goes, they kick the bucket.

    I heard the phrase whispered several times last year as I stood on the deck of a small ship in Alaska, watching humpback whales swim so close I could hear them breathing. I heard it just a few weeks ago watching the Northern Lights undulate across the spring sky over Manitoba, standing in a night so dark and cold it was as if I’d floated out into space.

    I never actually put my list down on paper, I’m not that organized, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. Instead, I have carried a kind of mental itinerary in my head, images of places I want to see and things I want to experience. But that mental list, like the Northern Lights, is not constant. It shifts and changes, shining on one landscape and then another as I add and subtract. Every time I see a great photograph or read an exceptional travel story, I pencil in new locations. Sometimes the world changes and war, weather or political upheaval get in the way and a destination drops off.

    Of course, the truth is there will never be enough time to see it all, and not just because I got a late start at the second half of my traveling life, staying home to raise a family and then working around that family to build a career. Even if I’d started on a round-the-world trip the day I was born, there still wouldn’t be time enough to experience it all because the more I learn about the world around me, the more I want to see and do. But life is short so I try to treat every trip—large or small— like it will be my last. I remind myself stop and savor the moments instead of pushing to do more and see more. I have learned it’s important to appreciate where you are and where you’ve been, before hurrying on to the next adventure.

     Several years ago, as my daughter and I walked along the Great Wall in China, navigating the ancient, uneven steps, I suddenly remembered a photo of the wall in one of my school Geography books. At that time, China was still a closed and shuttered place. I’d studied the photo with interest but it never once occurred to me that I might one day stand at the place pictured in it, especially with a child of my own. But I did. And in that moment, watching my daughter focus her camera on one of the marvels of the world, I felt a swell of gratitude for the rambling path my life had taken to put us both there.

    So, no real list for me. When my time is up I want more than a column of checkmarks to define my wanderlust. Instead, I want to be the woman who didn’t always know where she was going but always took the time to appreciate where she was.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel journalist  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 catmillsap@gmail.com

Travel: Northern Lights over Churchill, Manitoba

    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 catmillsap@gmail.com You can read previous ‘Home Planet’ columns at www.spokesman.com/blogs/homeplanet

Trish: The Wheel In The Sky

My eyes struggled to adjust to the darkness outside as they focused on the faint flashes of light in the southern sky spread out above my back step. Lightning? I squinted, slowly noting the emerald green tinge to the light. Lightning’s not green, I thought, as the occasional flashes became interspersed with beams of green reflecting off cloud cover. Oh, cool! Northern Lights! But what are they doing in the southern sky? Either my eyes adjusted or the lights brightened noticeably and the action picked up. “Tyler!” I called to my grandson, unwilling to take my eyes from the sky. “Tyler!” The wretched child didn’t come. Probably fell asleep, I thought. It is after midnight. More and more lights filled the sky and I was torn between missing the show and wanting to share the sight with my grandson. Quickly I ran inside the house. “Tyler, come quick!”/Trish Gannon, River Journal. More here.( (AP file photo for illustrative purposes of Northern Lights above Norway in January)

Question: When did you last see the Northern Lights?

First-ever video from inside the Northern Lights

Taking you into the weekend, here's a sweet video from GoPro. For the first time, they've produced photos and video from inside the Northern Lights. To do this, GoPro launched cameras on helium weather balloons, capturing images from 100,000 feet above Alaska. It was filmed earlier this month on April 11 and 12. Learn more about the project HERE.

Photographer specializes in chasing northern lights

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.

Aurora offers best night of year for night skiing in Methow

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.

Be on lookout for northern lights 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!

Solar storms will turn on northern lights

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.

Looking up, staying up provided ‘highlight’ to Montana visit

SKYWATCHING — Let's say this photo illustrates a highlight of my recent visit to the C.M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge north of my hometown — Lewistown, Mont:  

After hunting and wildlife viewing, I sat in the grass until after midnight one night last week snapping photos of the Northern Lights over one of the largest intact grassland prairies on earth.

Do you see the Big Dipper?

Northern lights a no-show in Spokane…

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.