Three Generations of Awe

The scene: Our cabin. A modest 3-season cottage on North Star Lake, 25 miles north of Grand Rapids MN. In the heart of the Chippewa National Forest. At night.

The time: Labor Day Weekend. Affectionately known as Same Time Next Year for our annual tradition of spending summer’s final hurrah with family and friends. For 27 successive years.

The circumstances: A display of Northern Lights.

Northern Lights over Smith LakeThe set-up: Arriving a day ahead of time, well before the onslaught of kids, grandkids and long-term friends, Rich and I were at the cabin in time to see an amazing display of Northern Lights. Not only did we watch them from the dock even before the sunset was complete, but soon afterwards brilliant yellow-green arcs of light shot over the cabin, from east to west. It was clearly an exceptional display, and Rich was soon off in search of more scenic landscapes to photograph. While we have an excellent view from our dock, the foreground is not interesting enough for Rich’s photographic eye.

Day 2: Another good forecast for the Northern Lights. Pondering the lack of interest off our dock, Rich lures me to be his model. In exchange for a good back rub, I am to sit motionless in a kayak in the glow of the Northern Lights should they reappear. I admit, I am a cheap hire.

 3 Generations view the Northern LightsOur kids and grandkids are all expected to arrive some time that evening. Just as the final car pulls into the driveway, the Aurora also makes its appearance. No time for hellos, hugs or hauling stuff into the cabin. All are urgently summoned to the dock. There we all assemble and murmur our appreciation and marvel at once. It is the first time for many. Our son-in-law has his first view at the same time as his three kids. The evening is mild, the bugs are gone for the season, and it is a magical moment.

Kayaker in the Northern LightsEver the photographer, Rich captures the multi-generational assembly. Then calls in his favors. I am launched in the kayak and given strict instructions to paddle here and hold still. Shift over there and stop. Don’t breathe. It takes numerous shots to get a single good one, but we all agree it’s stunning.

I look forward to the back rub. But even more I treasure that moment on the dock. From 14 months to 61 years of age, we all shared the same awe.

(Photos courtesy of Rich Hoeg,

Not all Auroras are Equal

We are fortunate to live in northern Minnesota where we can see the Northern Lights when the conditions are right. Over the years, I’ve seen my share of Auroras. The very best was up at our cabin. Late at night, sitting around the campfire, someone looked up and noticed the green glow. We all trooped down to the dock where we had a view of the whole sky. There were rays shooting up from all directions, reaching the apex and waving.  Lying on our backs to watch the performance was awesome.

More commonly, the lights have been a green glow in the North. Sometimes they create spikes that stretch up into the sky.  Others form curtains that hang above the landscape like the display I saw in the Boundary Waters with my son Carl. Each is mesmerizing and special.

With that as my frame of reference, I was unprepared for the Northern Lights in Norway. Sure, I’d seen photographs and tourism posters, but those are unabashedly sensationalized.  I knew the chance of seeing the lights was better there. Pure geography means even weaker displays are visible.  I just hadn’t realized how different they would be.

Our first night we got really lucky.  In the vernacular of the serious Aurora Hunters, there was a “G2 storm” – which means an extraordinary amount of solar magnetic activity.  That translates to a high likelihood of seeing the Northern Lights.

Not only did the lights blanket the sky, but they were exceptionally brilliant and intense.  We didn’t have to look for a green glow.  The whole sky was glowing.  Against that backdrop bright rays shot across the sky, arcing over our heads and extending from horizon to horizon.  It was as if we were witnessing huge electric currents, pulsating and giving off waves of color.  Everything was perfectly aligned to bring us this fine display – location, clear skies, no moon and solar power in the atmosphere.  And boy, was that obvious.Mountain Pass AuroraThe following night, we knew that the solar activity was weaker, so we adjusted our expectations accordingly.  I think we were still harboring a Minnesota frame of reference, because once again we were amazed at what we saw.  This time the lights may not have been as intense, but the sharp streaks were replaced by patterns and movement and the performance lasted much longer.  For about an hour and a half we watched as the lights danced overhead.  They were constantly in motion, creating shapes then morphing into something else.  First active on one side of the ski, then picking up momentum on the other.  My favorite was the circular curtain of lights, waving its folds and draping its colors as it curved.  It was hard to know which way to look, because to view in one direction meant missing something behind me.Mountain Fjord Aurora 1Mountain Fjord Aurora 2Mountain Fjord Aurora 3I have Rich to thank for the photographs of these displays, as that is his specialty.  Often times I feel that the camera overstates what I was able to see with my own eyes.  But on this occasion, I think that the opposite is true.  His photos are quite true to what we saw, yet cannot do justice to the whole experience.  Not even his wide angle lens could capture the full image of what was happening up in the sky.  You had to be there to see it.  I can now fully appreciate the vast beauty of just what the Northern Lights can do.  And it is abundantly clear that not all Auroras are equal.  I’m convinced that we saw some of the best.

Arctic Aurora Brilliance

When chasing the Northern Lights, there are no guarantees. Conditions can change in an instant. A promising forecast can evaporate. The atmosphere can refuse to cooperate. And even when there is a fantastic display, clouds can completely scuttle the view. How well we know this.

After four nights on our cruise along the coast of Norway dedicated to this pursuit, we have seen only a faint glow. While the trip's daytime scenery has been stunning, the unspoken disappointment over the lack of a nighttime performance is a minor undercurrent. But we still have three more nights on shore in Tromso to score an Aurora.

When I enter the visitor center, it is packed with people all anxious to see the Northern Lights. The number of tour operators promising to mine their expertise, drive to different locations all night long, and deliver a memorable experience is astounding. These visitors are prepared to fork over a small fortune, and they anxiously deliberate the selection of a tour operator and the night they will take their chance. I, on the other hand, am here merely to purchase a parking pass. My tour guide is en route with a rental car, already armed with weather forecasts, Aurora apps, alerts, Kp index and solar activity ratings. Rich may be as qualified as any expert out there.

With Tromso still socked in with clouds, we layer ourselves in warm clothes, collect cameras and tripods and begin our chase after dinner. Rich is buoyed by the recent reports, revealing that “the numbers” are suddenly escalating. The key will be to find open skies. Rich's research convinces him we should drive away from the coast, and he has selected an area 73 kilometers to the southeast for this target. Distance is of little concern in this pursuit.

Traveling down the fjord, I keep my eyes trained on the sky. It's hard to see with the reflections of the dash and outdoor lights on the windows. Peering into the darkness, I suddenly find stars. First just in one spot, soon all over the sky! We are still too near the lights of civilization, but we are on target. Constantly searching, I detect faint green rays in the sky over the water. Surely I am not just willing them into existence. They are there from every angle I try. Wispy and ephemeral they fade, but I'm certain I saw them.

30k short of our destination, the stars disappear. Rich chooses to turn around, hoping to return to the earlier opening. We are amazed at the constant lights along the road – who knew there were so many people living this far north?

Still panning the sky, I spy an unmistakable brilliant green pattern right above us! This time it is the real thing. It moves and changes shape before my very eyes. We have ourselves an Aurora.

We are on the top of a mountain pass between two fjords, and amazingly a pull-out appears next to the road. We park and are out of the car in a flash. Despite the lights in the house across the road and the glare of the passing automobiles, the display is so bright that nothing seems to dim its radiance.

Ribbons of green cross the sky. Stretching from one side to the other, we can't even tell which way is North. They twist and twirl overhead. They form and reform then subside. New shapes appear, like curtains with folds that wave in the breeze. Moving and dancing with varying hues of intensity, sometimes with a tinge of gold. The sky is aglow. Its green illuminates the big grins on our faces.

Rich is in his element, repositioning his camera every few minutes. So much is happening overhead and in every direction, there are endless opportunities to photograph the show. I abandoned all thoughts of trying my hand at photography the moment I exited the car. Riveted by the action in the sky, I prefer to see it all live than to risk frustration trying to capture it. My neck hurts from continually looking straight up – a sweet pain I happily endure. Even Rich shoots fewer pictures than usual as the display is so enthralling.

As quickly as it began, the performance fades. The striking shapes ebb into vagueness then dim into obscurity. The clouds have caught up with us.

In all, the glory lasted 45 minutes. But we continue to glow in its wake for the duration of the drive back to Tromso. It is a night for the memory books. My personal Aurora Hunter nailed it. He found a sliver of open sky during one of the brightest of Auroras. Both Rich and the Aurora performed brillliantly.


Cruising frigid waters

Going on a mid-winter cruise.  Those words conjure up images of palm trees, turquoise waters begging for a snorkel, and brilliant warm sunshine.  It conveys a feeling of escape from all that is cold, frosty and covered in ice and snow.  Such would be the case for any ordinary travelers.  But few have ventured to call us typical.

Our packing list includes heavy down jackets, Steger mukluks (the warmest of boots), mittens, hats and scarves.  We’re also bringing our cross-country skis, boots and poles for when we disembark from the ship.  Clearly, this is no tropical cruise.

We already live in the far north, only 90 miles from Canada.  But this cruise starts well above that and travels North.  Our vessel is classified as an “ice class 1X ship” suited for expedition voyages.  It will ply the waters along a rugged coast and deposit us above the Arctic Circle.  Now doesn’t that sound like great winter fun?

Well, if you are an avid outdoor enthusiast, with a passion for the Northern Lights and night time photography, it is a perfect fit.  This voyage of the MS Midnatsol along the coast of Norway is titled “In Search of the Northern Lights,” and is Rich’s pick for his 60th birthday present.  By virtue of marriage, I get to go along.

Midnatsol outside TromsoThis ship is in perfect keeping with our unconventional travel theme.  It is part of the Hurtigruten fleet and is a working vessel, which provides the ferry service for cars and passengers up and down the coast.  It also delivers cargo and mail to coastal villages.  And it takes some cruising passengers.  With a capacity of 500 people, we won’t be among the cast of thousands that typify large cruise ships.  In place of glitzy shows, we might learn to fillet halibut out on deck.  While many cruises boast an everlasting feast, we will partake of typical Norwegian fare.  Dinner is what they serve, no menu choices.  Fish are frequently featured.  There is no casino on board, instead we will cash in on the gorgeous scenery passing by.  It sounds perfect to me.

Midnatsol map 2Daylight hours will be about what we experience at Christmas time in Duluth – sunrise about 8:00am, sunset at 4:00pm. That still leaves plenty of illuminated hours in which to take in the fjords and ports along the way.  But it’s actually the darkness that attracted Rich to this voyage.  He took great care to book this trip during a new moon, to ensure the darkest skies possible. Scoring clear skies and solar activity to activate the Northern Lights is out of his control, but just being that far north will enhance our likelihood of witnessing a display.

Sleep will not be a priority on this adventure – if there is any chance of an aurora, Rich will be out on deck.  And I will be there right beside him.  After all, that’s the whole point of the trip, to see and photograph the Northern Lights.  As we cruise the frigid waters.

An Aurora Hunter’s Wife

I’ve gotten used to living with an Aurora Hunter.  The constant monitoring of atmospheric indicators.  The blips and beeps that go off night and day from apps informing him of favorable conditions.  Flinging around mysterious terms like Kp index, solar wind speed, Bz and coronal mass ejection.  And the nocturnal trips out into the dark and cold.  All in search of Northern Lights.

It’s a lot like going to estate sales.  The ads sound really good, and you’re sure you’re going to find some real treasures.  But the reality is many of the sales are duds with nothing of interest.  Then just when you think you can’t stand to walk through one more crowded house crammed with odd stuff, you hit a gem – a true winner.  And all those fruitless trips were worth it just for this one.

I’ve gotten good at sleeping through most of this.  So good that two nights ago I had no idea that Rich’s alerts went off around 2:00am, pulling him out of bed and out into the night.  It wasn’t until shortly after my alarm went off at 6:00am that I heard him – returning.  And this time he was victorious.  “Oh Wow” were the first words out of his mouth.  The rays were dancing around the sky and he could even see the reds with his own eyes.  Pretty impressive, and I admit to feeling a twinge of envy.  To be fair, he did text me with a description and lot of exclamation points, but I slept through that bleep as well.

With promises of another night of auroral activity, I suited up in all my long underwear and winter gear to go along this time.  The word was to get out early, and it was good advice.  After driving an hour to a remote lake with a good view away from any city glow, we could already see faint green spires shooting into the sky even in the fading light of the sunset.  The darker the sky got, the more aurora lights we could see.  By 9:30 the lights were emanating from a full semi-circle around us, spreading well up into the sky.  The best part was when the most brilliant lights started on the right and unfurled above the horizon.  It was easy to see them advance across the sky above the lake, twisting and growing as they illuminated the night.

Rich Northern-Lights-1

Photo by Rich Hoeg

Naturally Rich was out with his camera, his passion being to capture the magic.  Thinking I had plenty of time for that later, I merely watched.  It was liberating to just take in the lights, to be able to look all around the sky at the various components of the light show and the interplay between the columns of light.  Later when it became clear that it was the peak of the display, I wished I had been prepared to photograph it.  But then again, I would have missed much of the drama.

Northern LightsBy the time I did set up my tripod and camera, the lights were dimming.  No longer did we have the deep green hues and movement.  But it was still beautiful.  Shortly after I took a few test shots, the color began to fade.  Surprisingly, the resulting photos had some merit.  It helps that the camera captures more color than I can see.

We lingered for about another hour, but the lights dwindled to a dull white glow.  Although the indicators were still quite positive, the reality was that the show had ended.  It never did reach the pinnacle that it did the previous night, but that’s the nature of the Northern Lights.  Nothing is ever guaranteed.

I know enough now that I will probably miss some of those spectacular displays. I just don’t have the persistence to act on every alert.  But Rich does, and if I get lucky in choosing when to accompany him I will likely see some pretty good Northern Lights, like last night.  Such is the life of an Aurora Hunter’s wife.

In the Dark

There are certain hazards being married to someone who is fascinated with seeing and photographing the Northern Lights.  Being kept outside in the dark in the wee hours of the morning is one of them.  Granted, I don’t have to go along on those nocturnal excursions, and if the odds of seeing anything are poor I tend to exercise more restraint and stay home.  But being a neophyte photographer myself, and enamored with the elusive night time glow, I do accompany him on many of these outings.

Recently he discovered he had company. A lot of it.  The Great Lakes Aurora Hunters is a group of photographers from across the Midwest dedicated to finding and capturing images of the Northern Lights.  And last weekend they convened in Two Harbors to network, share techniques and hopefully see the elusive Aurora Borealis.  We joined them for a photo shoot on Saturday night.

The timing and location were carefully selected.  It was a full moon, so there would be no competition from that bright orb.  And our destination was deep in the countryside, far away from the light pollution of any city.  We headed inland and drove for miles on a long dirt road.  The further we went, the narrower and more rutted it became.  But still we inched on.  Although we had been strongly encouraged to carpool in order to reduce the number of cars, our caravan still stretched 20 cars or so.  We thought it must have been a strange sight for locals who may not see that many vehicles in a week.

Arriving at our photo spot, we had to agree it was excellent.  We had a long accessible stretch of shoreline facing north, which could easily accommodate the large numbers of photographers and tripods.  The darkness was absolute, and it was an eerie feeling to be out among so many people, camped behind their tripods in spots we could barely see.  We could hear voices and cheerful chitchat among members of the group, but there were few other clues to tell us where they were.  Carving out a spot for ourselves on the shore of the lake, we set up our cameras.

The weather was perfect – no wind, clear skies, calm water for beautiful reflections, and a modest chill in the 27 degree air.  The night had everything – except the Northern Lights.  That was no real surprise, however, as all of the forecasts showed a distinct lack of activity.  But that didn’t deter the group.  The stars were glorious, and nicely reflected in the lake.  The path of the Milky Way shone clearly across the sky.  And the Big Dipper was in strong evidence.  Occasionally we’d see a shooting star, and a cry would go out “Did anyone get that?”  We took photos over the lake, then turned our cameras to frame the stars over the trees on the other side.  We tested different settings and angles.  We chatted with others in the group. But eventually our interest waned.  Our fingers cold and our brains weary, we were ready to be done.  We could see that this was a hard core group, likely to be out there for hours yet, and we just didn’t have it in us.  The only trick was extricating our car without making enemies of the rest of the group by ruining their photos.  Slowly we threaded our way back through the photographers by the the faint glow of our parking lights, catching brief glimpses of more people and tripods than we knew were there.  They seemed docile enough, so we can only assume we exited the scene gracefully.

As it turns out, my photographs weren’t very good.  They looked a whole lot better on the camera LCD than they did on my computer screen.  But I chalk it up to a learning experience.  And going out with the group proved to be inspiring as well as educational.  Rich fared better, especially after he did a bit of post-processing on his shots…

Stars 1 Stars 2






Hopefully by the next time we actually see the Northern Lights, I’ll be better at my photography techniques.  Heaven knows, I’ve had enough practice out in the dark.