Post 7: Clouds and Snow out of Nowhere

NOTE: This post is a revised and updated version of the original Post 7 which was written with extreme time pressure under the influence of a potent cold medicine.

Duke and I arrived at Vee Lake at about 11 pm last night (Thurs 14 Mar 2013). Skies were crystal clear, and the aurora was quiet – only some soft greenish glows behind the tall and slender black spruce trees that are so plentiful here in the sub-arctic. These are the trees you see silhouetted in so many of the images we’ve posted.

We dozed in the car for a bit while Duke debated whether to go ahead to set up one of the cameras with a fish-eye lens in an alcove of trees the team had worked in before.  The “fish-eye alcove” was well protected from contamination by the headlights of occasional vehicles making their way onto the frozen lake…cars that contained ice fishermen, a fellow photographer, or sometimes aurora tour operators (although the tours did not usually venture that far in).

On a previous night, the same automated fish-eye set up had netted the time sequence of all sky images in the album above.  Enjoy flipping through the slide show to get a sense of the time evolution of the auroral structure overhead. Each image collects light for 15 seconds, and there is about a second in between images. So you’re stepping forward about 16 seconds in time with each image.


How Fast Do the Aurora Change?

I perceived the aurora to evolve at differing speeds, from lightning fast, to imperceptibly slow.  I liken the slow evolution to the way a line between shadow and light moves on a canyon wall in response to the changing time of day.  You can watch it intently and not perceive any motion, but after awhile notice that the line has shifted its position relative to the features of the rock.   Aurora watching can be like that…where you don’t perceive any movement, but then note that the auroral structure has changed after a time.   But when the Earth’s magnetic field experiences so called substorms in response to changes in the solar wind, the lights can change dramatically fast, with streamers, spirals, and waves racing across the sky.

After about 30 minutes of fitful dozing, we observed that the gentle glow we first observed seemed to be slowly growing, and that was enough of a sign to persuade Duke to go ahead with the fish eye installation. He jumped out and went to to the trunk to prepare the equipment.
I buttoned up and by the time I stepped out less than a minute later, there was an intensifying S-curve of light that had formed horizon to horizon! _MG_5588 Duke hadn’t yet seen the dramatic S-curve because his head had been in the trunk choosing the appropriate camera and affixing the fish-eye lens.  When I called his attention to the new auroral feature,  he exclaimed, “Oh Wow!” and didn’t even take time to put on his balaclava before moving out at remarkable speed across the snow and ice into the “fish-eye alcove” with the needed equipment.  The fast S-curve was just the beginning of a storm of lights that would morph and change more slowly all over the sky.


How Fast the Weather Changed!

After installing the automated camera with the fish eye lens to make a new set of all-sky images, we drove farther down the ice road of Vee Lake to our very favorite site to make some more panoramas….almost no cars venture that far in.  We could tell that the northern lights were still dancing and evolving overhead as we drove to the panorama site.   My soul ached to stop the car and just gaze up at the aurora, but we both felt that the existing activity was just the start of a long night of beautiful lights, and so reasoned that it was worth it to sacrifice this first outburst of the evening to get set up in the new position.

Duke donned his balaclava to protect his stinging cheeks, and charged out across the 1/4 mile of rutted snow and ice to set up for the envisioned panoramic shots.  I couldn’t keep up with him, and my unfolding cold symptoms were slowing me down as well.   Duke got a camera set up, but by the time I arrived at the position he’d chosen, we were both looking up into a sky full of clouds with the dim glow of aurora behind them.  Snow flurries pinged the tiny areas of exposed skin around our bewildered eyes.

The clouding out happened so quickly!  I told Duke that it reminded me of a time (Fall 1982) I was atop a 14,000-ft Hawaiian volcano (Maunakea) as a grad student doing astronomical observations. The air temperature wavered above and below the dew point so that in one instant the air was clear and you could see the lights of the island below, and the next instant the air would fuzz white before your very eyes…and then a minute later the white-out dissolved to clear again.

So we thought perhaps the clouds might go as fast as they’d come.  But after 20-30 minutes of standing in the cold, we gave up.  Soooo disappointing.  We hoped that at least the automated camera at the fish-eye alcove had captured the unfolding of the lights we’d missed during our drive to the panorama alcove.  We’ll see.


Cat and Mouse Games with the Aurora

We got back to the Bayside B&B parking, and should have gone up to bed, but instead a new formation of lights between the clouds lured us into trying to make some images in town with the Snow King Castle in the foreground (see Post 4 for daytime pictures of this remarkable structure devoted to the arts).

I scouted out a nifty perspective, appropriately shielded from town lights, and with the aurora in the sky behind the castle.  But by the time we set up a camera, the auroral lights were gone.

_MG_6920 _MG_6925We took the opportunity to give me some longed-for experience with a high-end camera.  My photos of the expedition were being made with the remarkably capable camera on my Galaxy S3 cell phone, and this was great for filling in our story for the blog, but I really wanted to get a feel for the Canon 6D and 5D-Mark II cameras Duke and Will had been using.

So, Duke showed me how to read and adjust f-stop, exposure time, and ISO as we made a few nighttime images of the castle and the Snow King sculpture.

Meanwhile, the heavy smoke and particles from the heating of the houseboats by the frozen Great Slave lake was becoming unbearably thick, and this hastened our retreat.

Our Thursday evening had proved to be a frustrating cat and mouse game with the northern lights, and we, being the frustrated cats, slogged back to the Bayside with our proverbial tails between our legs.


Malfunction of My “Arctic-naut” Diapers

Depends diaperAlso between my legs was a fresh load of pee leaking through my soggy Depends. [Okay, they didn’t have a more sophisticated  “astronaut” diaper at the Walgreens, and baring my female bum to arctic air was NOT an option!]  If we had called it a night before our futile attempt at “over the castle” photos of the aurora, I would have happily tinkled in the toilet shared by us and the several young Japanese and Korean guests staying at the Bayside.

Instead, and for the record, these “adult diapers” tend to work far better when one is sitting down.  I had to hand wash four layers of bottoms before going to bed in order that they might be dry for tonight’s excursion. Fortunately, my outermost layer of the orange down suit that had been so generously loaned to me was unaffected by the mal-function.  No worries, Pam!


Intrepid Explorers

Much of our nap time this afternoon (Friday 15 Mar 2013) was taken up by the need to move from the Bayside to a room at the Explorer Hotel, one of the few places in town with space available AND an elevator.  Duke had the added burden of running around to arrange for the repairs and return of our little blue rental car the next morning, while I tried to rest and tame my cold.  The smoke-filled night air in town last night exacerbated my cold symptoms, and by any sensible standard of physical well-being I have no business spending another night in the arctic cold, particularly on the eve of 20+ hours of traveling to get back to Atlanta.

But there is a perseverance that, by grace, arises in the heart and soul of a person dedicated to a meaningful mission.  Perhaps it is akin to the way an ineffable strength and endurance arises in parents caring for a new child, and it occurred to me that Duke’s impressive stamina may have been benefitting some from recent experience with his baby boy.

So we are about to head out for our last night in Yellowknife (Friday 15 March 2013).  And we are humbly appealing to the goddess of the aurora to grant us a great last night out.


NOTE: As I am writing this update of Blog Post #7 on Sunday evening (17 March 2013), I am back in Atlanta, having arrived on a red-eye flight at 6:15 am this morning. Sukhino - IMG956946My kitty Sukhino just came in from outdoors, and I gently picked her up to give her a snuggle, inadvertently causing the unseen live mouse between her teeth to fall out, jump across my arm, and scurry across the floor into hiding.  Aaaah….and so the cat and mouse games continue in a more concrete way, and fortunately I did not need an adult diaper to manage my response.

I will be continuing to add some posts to document our exhilarating last night out, the unfolding of our outreach efforts, the results of our Kickstarter campaign (ending on 4 April), and assorted other reflections.  Please stay tuned.

12 thoughts on “Post 7: Clouds and Snow out of Nowhere

  1. Amazing! Simply amazing…experiencing this event through distant “lenses.” I was wondering what the “flow” actually looked like. Any chance of a short video?

    • Greetings brother Jeff! We discussed the possibility of videography, but it’s very tricky because of low lighting conditions combined with fast changes. Most auroral “video” you see is comprised of images with longer time integration (like we’ve posted here) strung together in a time-lapse fashion. While this is pretty neat and informative, it is not what the eye actually sees.

      The images posted here are 16 seconds apart, and so toggling through them is not the same as your eye would perceive things in real time. There are lots of enhanced, time-lapse “videos” on YouTube, and they are kind of neat, but they are not honest representations of what it is like to stand beneath the lights.

      However, there is one video I found with a quick search that shows ground-breaking, real-time video of the aurora made by a world-class photographer named Alister Chapman in 2012. He managed to record real-time video during a magnetic storm, and this is the best way I can currently find to giving you an idea of the sorts of displays we witnessed with our naked eyes while in Yellowknife. Check out the video at com /watch?v=3nnK96MY3i4 (Remove the spaces on either side of the “com”).

  2. Awesome! Your pics have been great. I have truly enjoyed this and would love to go with you next time…maybe way too cold for NC boy.

  3. Thanks so much for following our adventure, Jim. Well it is cold for sure, but if it’s not too cold for the two people on our team (including myself) who reside in Georgia, it’s not too cold for a North Carolina boy! We encourage you to get up there and see the lights for yourself!

  4. I have so loved reading your posts and have wondered at the beauty of the photos; the photo of the lights, Jupiter and meteorite is fabulous and I keep going back to look at it! Cracked me up to hear how Sukhino welcomed you home, providing you an unappreciated but high protein snack for you upon arrival… I hope this trip was all you had hoped for, and can truly understand why you wanted to go~ Love you so much!

    • Dear Jan…to feel you following this adventure means the world to me, as you do you, dear mother of those I call my god children.

      Yes, the image of Jupiter and the meteor fall with the lights marked a very special bonding moment for the team…one that helped to carry us through more arduous times.

      Yes, kitty Sukhino brought in a second live mouse later in the evening…chuckle. Perhaps she was just happy to see me and wanted to bring me these “gifts”. So funny how I was using the metaphor of cat-and-mouse with the aurora and she played right into it! All purrrrrr-fect, you know…;-)

      The trip was realizing a personal life dream that is being profoundly enhanced in the sharing of it through exchanges like this, and through expressed interest from schools and planetarium colleagues. Somehow I would like to make this sort of thing MORE of what I do professionally.

      Thanks again for tuning in!

  5. Oh, and the video you posted above in the response to Jeff’s question was mesmerizing-

    • Yes! So glad you checked that out. It’s the most honest video of the aurora I’ve seen out there.

  6. Amazing and awesome, Cherilynn. Thank you for taking me and all of this on your journey. Just love the fish eye slide show, like a great cosmic flower blooming!
    Welcome back to Georgia where you can warm up!

    • So happy to see your comment, dear Julie. Yes, the fish eye show has a very feminine feel to me…I LOVE your metaphor of a great cosmic flower blooming. WONDERFUL!

      It’s interesting how I am thawing out…I’m very attracted to being warm. When I passed through Phoenix and saw my cousins there at an outdoor restaurant, I was drawn to huddle by the fireplace, even though the air temperature was so much higher than it had been in the Arctic.

  7. Thank you for taking me along on this journey, Cherilynn. Just extraordinary! It has always been a dream to see the northern lights. After your adventures I feel as though they are closer and more accessible than ever before. Thank you and your teammates!

    • You are so welcome. I know you will see them one day, dear Henry….and there are much easier ways to do it that what we needed to endure to record these photos…

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