Arctic Light

The focus of this arctic trip was so thoroughly planted on seeing polar bears that the arctic light in Churchill was almost an afterthought, until we got there.

Churchill sits 58 degrees above the equator, exactly twice the distance as our home on the 29th parallel. So the low lazy winter sun rises in the far southeast, jumps a short invisible hurdle, and sets in the southwest. With less than eight hours of sunlight, the sun set everyday around 3:40 in the afternoon.

We had a good mix of different light and weather conditions to shoot within. The first few days were overcast with diffused light. While this might seem disappointing at first, it really is pretty nice for getting even balanced light without blown highlights and dark deep shadows.

On the third day, the sky was clear in the morning and our sun was ready for a dramatic entrance, stage left. Striking gold orange light streaked across the tundra and illuminated the frigid land. With an opposite and equal power, the sunlight drew out the cold blue purple colors lurking in the shadows and the contrast was stunning.

To add to all the chromatic excitement, the wind whipped minute particles of ice crystals high into the air. Beaming sunlight pierced the floating prisms and formed a phenomenon called sun dogs. Think of a halo around the sun with level highlights to the left and right of the sun.

Driving along in the Polar Rover, we passed several outcroppings of boreal spruce trees, which in and of themselves are amazing feats of nature, growing in this most extreme environment. I couldn’t take it anymore.

Stop!

I had to get this image. The frozen blowing ground, the silhouetted trees, and the northern arching edge of a sun dog as the backdrop. Look at the early morning ice-laced arctic light! Wow!

Later we wandered out to a pennisula sticking into the Hudson Bay to see the latest ice formations backlit in the sun and blowing snow. It felt like we were on a different planet.

___________________

It was never promised, slightly hinted as a possibility, but clearly a long shot. It was and still is on my bucket list. I think somethings just need to be on that list multiple times.

The first night out in the isolated tundra lodge, I stood on one of the outside decks staring at the stars in the recently cleared sky. To the east there was a very faint thin cloud, nothing of any significance, but still I was curious. Returning to my bunk, I got my camera and tripod and went back to the deck. Essentially setting up for a relatively faster dark night long exposure, ISO 2500, f/5.6, 20 seconds. I fired the shutter with my cable release and waited.

Hm?

Was that what I was hoping it was, or was I just being overly optimistic?

IT WAS!

The image popped up on my LCD and sure enough, the camera saw the faint gray cloud as a glowing green ameba. It was the aurora borealis! At 10p.m. and the northern lights were just getting started. They began very faint and dim to our eye, but by midnight, they were clearly visible glowing green blobs filling the sky.

Imagine being an ant on the ground looking up at the edge of a table cloth draped over a table. Except the table cloth moves slowly and mysteriously brightening and dimming at will. Scientists can label and identify various elements of the northern lights, but they can’t nail down the why part. Why does it exist? 

As far as I’m concerned, I don’t want to know why. They are just magical and were worth ever second of standing in the freezing cold to witness firsthand.

We had two nights in a row of clearly visible aurora. During the first night the Northern Lights stretched directly overhead from west to east. The second night they were much further north. I created the time lapse below on the second night. This is a series of over 80 images shot as 25 second exposures taken automatically using the camera’s internal intervalometer. Watch how the stars rotate and indicate the north star is just off screen to the upper left and then wait as the thick blanket of clouds brings the show to a close, as it glides across the Hudson Bay.

iPhone, iPad, and non-flash users, view here

The arctic light is limiting in many aspects, but extraordinary in so many other ways.