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Chasing the aurora in Vermont

There is something about the Aurora Borealis that fascinates me. The thought that light can shoot up in the air in the dark, dance across the sky and change colors is simply amazing. But I have yet to see it in full action. During my trips to Iceland I’ve been teased several times but I haven’t been there during the right conditions for a full show.

The northern lights are caused by solar flares, when there is a lot of sun spot activity the aurora goes nuts. Solar activity is cyclical, there is a 11 year cycle of high to low activity and right now we are in a prolonged trough and activity is low. There are several websites and mobile apps that can accurately predict the aurora a couple of weeks in advance. When I am in Iceland I constantly monitor the apps and see when and where I might be able to photograph the lights.

There is a scale from 1-9 that shows how active the aurora will be. It is usually at 1 or 2 and I’ve never heard of it hitting 8 or 9. Friday I got a message from friend Brian Horton that last night would be extremely active, a 6 for three hours and then falling back to 5. The bad part was the 6 rating was from 4:00 – 7:00 p.m. while the sun was still shining bright. You want pure darkness to see the aurora, so that 6 rating was going to be wasted. But I had only seen a 4 before and it was amazing so I knew I had to check out this night of 5.

I had spent the week in Vermont and went back to New Jersey on Thursday for a workshop that night and a mentoring session on Friday. After thinking about it for a while I decided to make the over five hour drive back to my Vermont house and take my chances. I hoped my wife Robin, who was still in Vermont, would join me out in the dark, but she is finishing another book proposal and decided to wrap that up. 

Late yesterday I drove north almost two hours to Cabot, VT, where there is a cool old covered bridge that years ago was moved to the middle of a field high on a hill. There is nothing around it and no towns north so I knew it would be a great place to photograph the aurora. Back in Woodstock we got about five inches of snow Friday morning but Cabot got over 15 inches and it is piled high. To get out in the field near the bridge required wading through the snow, which was drifting in the blowing snow. Up on the that hill the wind gets pretty strong, it was blowing hard and the temperature was 15 degrees. 

Getting out to the bridge required plowing through thigh deep snow for about 100 yards, which wasn’t a whole lot of fun in the cold and dark. I have snowshoes but I didn’t think of taking them with me, they would have saved me a lot of effort. 

Once I got set up, the aurora was glowing on the horizon. The green light was shining pretty wide but it wasn’t flaring too high. It definitely wasn’t what I was hoping for. I had visions of the light dancing high overhead but it stayed low and wide. I took a couple of flashlights with me to illuminate the bridge so I didn’t have only a silhouette. It only takes a little light to make the bridge have some detail but it makes a big difference.

After about an hour I went back up to my truck, the moon was rising and the bright light shining off it would kill the green glow. I didn’t get what I wanted but I had fun

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