Monday, June 18, 2012

A Night of Northern Lights

Last Thursday June 14 my iPhone chirped with the sounds of an incoming email. As I normally do I looked down and saw a message from Space Weather about an incoming CME, the kind of blast from the sun that create an aurora. It not only talked about a CME but said there were 2 CMEs heading toward earth due to arrive Saturday June 16. As luck would have it I was planning to make a trip back up to the Grand’s, Portage and Marais, this weekend and it looked like I was going to have my first Northern Lights show from the North Shore.

Anticipation was riding high as I made my way north on Friday afternoon. I travel north quite often although this was just the 4th time so far this year. Over the last year or so aurora activity has been particularly high but I've missed the big one that can extend overhead. I've lucked out and made some aurora images but the aurora was typically hugging the northern horizon.  Hopefully this would change this weekend.


10:46pm - McFarland Lake

I got up to by friends in Grand Portage Friday night and we began talking of the following night and plans for aurora shooting. And then he mentioned the weather forecast. In my excitement I had not checked the forecast assuming clear skies. Well the forecast for Saturday and Saturday night was cloudy with 70% rain. Oh great, I’m finally up north, have an excellent prediction of auroral activity and it’s going to be cloudy. In Minnesota one doesn’t totally give up on things because of the weather because weather predictions are frequently wrong.

12:12am - First view of Aurora off the Arrowhead Trail

Saturday came and we had really nice weather during the day. Blue sky, sun and nice clouds with very comfortable temperatures was in stark contrast to a day filled with rain, so maybe the forecast for tonight would be wrong as well. I lazed around the trailer in Grand Marias much of the day before traveling back up to Grand Portage. Not long after I arrived the sky started clouding up and, well, it was looking like the storm was finally making its way toward us. The radar weather map was looking really bad with a long line of thunderstorms bearing down on us. The only good thing was the storms were moving quickly and the hope was they would come and go before sunset.

12:19am - Doesn't take long for the clouds to move in

Optimistically, we headed out around 7:00 to our sunset location at Esther Lake. Expecting to get hit by some huge storm on the way out it just barely sprinkled, although enough to clear off the windshield a couple of times. Once at the lake it began raining. First a little then a lot, lightning, thunder and rain beat down on the windshield as we sat patiently hoping the storm would pass so we could get a nice sunset. As 9:00pm approached it was obvious the skies were not going to part and since sunset was a 9:00pm as well we decided to head over to our aurora site at Lake McFarland. Again it was raining, although not so heavy, and we found ourselves sitting, waiting. It’s a good thing Travis and I are real patient, we were certainly spending a lot more time sitting and waiting in the car than shooting.

2:00am - Cascade River from The Grade

A couple hours passed and the sky lightened a bit enough for some definition in the clouds so we got out to shoot the clouds. Then on the horizon a bright peek of light began showing thru. It slowly grew and spread and we thought we were in luck. But wouldn’t you know it another bank of clouds were moving in to take ownership of the sky. Crap!! It had stopped raining but the clouds remained. They were thin clouds, you could catch stars thru then, but not thin enough to see the aurora.

2:08am - Cascade River from The Grade

I was staying in my trailer in Grand Marais about 20 mile south and west of where we were. Thinking the clouds might have already cleared down there we headed to "town". But first we stopped at a north facing overlook on the Arrowhead Trail. Travis got out to check. The sky was relatively clear towards the north and sure enough the aurora was shining bright in the sky. You’ve never seen guys move so fast getting camera and tripods out and starting to shoot. It was glorious watching the ebb and flow of the clouds of solar wind. It’s didn’t take long before those darn clouds made a reappearance and the prospect was not looking good. Having seen some beautiful lights we took off toward Grand Marais. Travis knew of a good place on The Grade with water in the foreground.

2:40am - Turn around and the Milky Way beacons attention

 It’s about 1:00am by now and we are high tailing it down Hwy 61 toward Grand Marais getting there as fast as we could. There weren’t many cars on the road just a few. We passed one car and Travis immediately slowed down to the speed limit, we were using the speed limit as merely a suggestion up to this point. I glanced in my rear view mirror and saw a pair of headlight doing a U-turn and slowly gaining on us. Whoa-boy looks like we’re going to meet the local sheriff. He pulls up behind me and it didn’t take long for his red light to start flashing behind me so I immediately pulled over to the side of the road and sat there watching Travis drive off, lucky guy. The sheriff was nice and to make a long story short ticketed me for not having my proof of insurance but gave me a warning for going 67 in a 55 mile zone. Whew. I’m a wounded vet from the View Nam era and have Combat Wounded Vet license plates on my vehicles. Wonder if that had anything to do with him giving me a warning or not.

2:41am - Aurora meets the Milky Way right overhead

I found Travis waiting for me at the gas station. I told him briefly about my experience before heading up to The Grade. The drive is mostly thru a corridor of trees and it’s very hard to see the horizon so it was a big question for me if we were in luck. Finally Travis slowed down at the river crossing and lo and behold the sky was clear of clouds and the aurora filled half the sky. For the next two hours we shot the aurora on one side of the road and the milky way on the other side of the road.

3:09am - Dawn is approaching, lighting up the horizon

As the hour hand moved past 3:00am the morning light started illuminating the sky. Within a few minutes most of the aurora had disappeared and we decided to call it a night. It was 4:00am when I got back to the trailer. What a thrilling night, one I will remember forever. I knew my camera had some exciting images inside that I was looking forward to seeing when I got home. Back at the trailer I set my alarm for 6:00am so I could get up and head down to Duluth to shoot some Herons in the morning light.