It’s 12:44 a.m. It has been an outrageously long day. The dancers are in town for the workshop. There are three more days of classes and dances to be prepared for. Life is outrageously good, but overwhelmingly busy. Then your phone starts beeping. This isn’t my normal alarm clock beep, and not the beep of a call coming in. It’s my work phone. And it is the loudest, most obnoxious sound I can find because this is where I get my text messages from dispatch alerting me to fires and car wrecks and all the other things I have to cover at the drop of a hat. I groan. Make myself get out of bed to get the phone. I keep my phone just out of reach because if I can stay in bed and “accidentally” turn it off, I may not get out of bed at all. But the message isn’t from dispatch, it’s from a friend who works for the Sheriff’s Department. “Northern lights are over big mountain!” … Ok. … Go!
I have never seen the Northern Lights. I remember hearing of them when I was child, seeing videos of the dance across the sky and dreaming that some day I would get the chance to visit Alaska or Norway or wherever, so I could see them for myself. As it happens, Kalispell, Montana at 48 degrees North is north enough to see the Aurora Borealis. Still, I’ve been here three and half years with no sign of them. So when that text came in, suddenly it doesn’t matter that I am sleep deprived, or that the next few days are going to be exhausting. All that matters is I need to be outside, with my camera, RIGHT NOW!
I grabbed my clothes, boots, camera, and keys and was out the door in minutes.
Wow. What a sight. From my back porch (which is near downtown) it was hard to discern the difference between the Northern Lights and the light pollution. Where to go? Answer: call the friend who sent the text. He sent me south of town toward Highway 40. I actually got on JP Road and this was where I got my first clear view and fell instantly in love.
As I said, I had never seen the lights, I had no idea how long they would last. That uncertainty led to some moments of silliness on my part. I was speeding and scrambling and not really thinking about compositions early on. Luckily there is a bridge on JP Road and as I crossed that I suddenly knew exactly what was needed — water. If the sky is gorgeous, find water to reflect the sky and voila! twice as much sky. This is an ancient photography rule. One I know well. It wasn’t until after I crossed the bridge that I figured that one out. But finding that bridge actually set the tone for the night.
After JP Road, I went to Whitefish State Park. I have to admit I felt a little guilty about this one. To get to the beach, at 1:30 in the morning, you have drive through the camp ground. People are sleeping. People are missing the Northern Lights, but I’m not their alarm clock. Maybe they don’t want to be woken up in the middle of the night the noise of my Jeep engine and me stumbling around in the dark looking for the beach. Note to self: even the places I have visited before become uncertain and difficult to navigate in the pitch black dark of night.
As my friend had been able to see the lights from Bigfork (about 50 minutes south) I started wondering if I might be too close. That decision set the tone for the rest of the night. I was out until 4 a.m. basically working my way south to Kalispell and east.
My favorite photo of the night is the next one… Actually, this is one of my favorite moments in my life. And it came at 4 in the morning. The sky began to pulse. I can’t think of a better word for it. It was as if the energy behind the lights was sending out waves or blasts that quietly electrified the sky and caused the Northern Lights to really dance. I have no words for this. I can’t really explain what I saw, or what I felt. It was a moment of a lifetime for me and one I shall never forget. There was, standing beside the retaining wall on the bridge on Highway 35 that crosses the Flathead River. This is NOT a safe place to stand. Especially at 4 a.m. when all is dark and the drunks are out. But this was the view I wanted and this was where the show became it’s most spectacular.
In most cases, photography is inferior to human vision. The eye can discern more than 200 shades of gray. Cameras aren’t that lucky. In slide film there are five f-stops between black and color. On negative film there are nine. Digital I’m told runs between 11 and 13. But there is something a camera can do that the eye can’t. It can collect cumulative light. Long exposures. All of these images were shot with a tripod, something I seldom do. The exposures ran from 30 seconds up to one minute. By letting the light play over longer periods it’s effects are made more visible. The Lights were incredible to see. Nothing like them in my life. The Lights on film are even more dramatic, even if they don’t convey quite the same level of power as the pulsing sky.
It wasn’t the rising moon that put a halt to the show. It was the dawn. This was the first time I can ever remember wishing dawn would hold off, wait… Of course, it didn’t. The sun continued to climb and slowly the white light of new day began to wash out the other worldly green.
I have now seen the Northern Lights. Seen, and instantly loved. Instead of being ready to cross this item off my bucket list, I’ve moved it to the top. I want to see them again. And again. And again. I want to see the sky dance.
And… I want more photographs.