Driving Into The Unknown

Sometimes there are just opportunities that you can’t pass up, and for me, that was spontaneously booking a flight to Anchorage, Alaska, to chase the Aurora Borealis — something I never imagined I would do before the age of 30. Just me, an acquaintance from Denver, and three other photographers that I’ve never met. To say that this trip pushed me out of my comfort zone is an understatement. But, I couldn’t say no to this once in a lifetime opportunity. So, I woke up for my 6:30am flight and tried not to look back.

We arrived in Anchorage and picked up the three other photographers in our 31′ Winnebago — where I would be calling home for the next 7 days. After some casual introductions and pleasantries, we realized that all of Alaska would be under cloud cover for the next 4 days. Panic set in. So, what you’re telling me is that I flew 3,000 miles to look at some faintly green clouds? Interesting. We started frantically searching for any pockets of clear skies in Denali, Kenai Fjords, the Arctic Circle… anywhere. Well, that anywhere turned into a 14-hour drive to the Yukon Territory to chase clear skies and a KP 5 rating of the lights. We were driving into the unknown. And, there was a chance that we would drive all that way, and the lights wouldn’t be visible.

*Note* To see the Aurora Borealis, there are 3 key elements that play a factor in its visibility, strength, and color rating: solar wind, density, and BZ levels.

As a freelance photographer, I’ve gotten used to the idea of not knowing a lot of things: my next paycheck, job opportunities, travel schedule, etc. I pride myself on being comfortable with the unknown. But, this… this was a different kind of unknown. This was driving a 31′ Winnebago in the middle of the night with people I didn’t know to search for this mystical element that may or may not appear. To me, it felt like I was searching for the elusive seawolves, or the lochness monster. I may seem a little dramatic, but you have to be incredibly lucky to see a KP 5 or KP 6 rated light storm with perfectly clear skies. And, that’s what we were up against. But, that’s what it takes to get the shot, right? Going above and beyond what most people (in their right minds) would do tied in with a mixture of patience and no sleep. I knew that this would be the trip that would test my limits.

The first night, no luck. We were 10 hours into our drive (2 hours past the US-Canadian border), and it was like there was a lampshade over the Aurora Borealis. It was partly-cloudy with an eerie green tint to them [the clouds]. We kept searching until 6:30am, and decided to give up for the night, or I guess the morning. After getting next to no sleep, we checked the forecast for the next night, and found that there were pockets of clear skies a couple hours away. What else did we have to do? We began the next stretch of our journey into the Yukon.

Photo by Claire Oswald | Yukon Territory, Canada.

We took to the road, and rarely saw another car, or even another human when we stopped for gas. We were out there. And, not only that, but out there in a different country… with no cell service. Everywhere I looked, there was a new mountain range popping out in the distance — it was spectacular. Scary and spectacular. We were driving into, what felt like, the end of the earth. Meanwhile, we kept checking the forecast, which was still looking good for a strong aurora light show. We ended up finding a desolate town on one of the Yukon’s largest lakes. Time to prep gear, scope out possible locations, and make some dinner. It was only 4 hours until nightfall.

Around 9pm we started seeing the greenish hue across the sky. By midnight, they should be strong enough to see. We moved further south towards the shore of the lake. By 12:01am, there they were. And, they were dancing. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen in my life. I kept joking that I wanted to see the lights as if it was a scene out of Balto. And, it was. To the naked eye, they swirled, twirled, and frolicked across the sky — dancing to some secret, electron-packed tune.

Photo by Claire Oswald | Yukon Territory, Canada.

And, in that moment, all of my fears and doubts lifted. I realized that this is what I needed to push me out of my comfort zone. Strangers, isolation, and time to disappear into the Canadian tundra. When I saw the lights, I wasn’t afraid anymore. And, I wasn’t anywhere but in the present. Those couple of all-nighters with minimal sleep disappeared only to be replaced with adrenaline, and running with my camera kit in hand to capture as much as I could. Oooh’s and ahhh’s filled the otherwise silence of the night. I couldn’t contain my laughter and joy jumping around rocks and watching the patterns of the lights.

Was this real? I had to pinch myself to make sure it was. The next couple of nights the same pattern followed with the storm strength. And, we never encountered another photographer… or person for that matter. It was just us, our cameras, and nature performing her dance to the wind’s whisper. Somehow, that was comforting enough to me.

This trip pushed me to my limits — reversing my sleep schedule (if there was any sleep), surrounding myself with people I didn’t know, driving hours into the unknown, searching for something that could quite possibly not occur (and freezing my ass off doing so). But that’s life, right? Driving into the unknown. I told myself that this trip would change my career, but really, it changed my life. I realized, that I was letting doubts and fears consume my mind rather than taking in the experience… until I saw the aurora borealis. There was no sense in thinking of what-if’s, and worrying about what would happen when I got back to Colorado. Time stood still in the lands of forever 4pm, and the only moment of happiness stood in the present with me laughing and dancing to the rhythm of the lights. And, that will be forever stamped in my mind.

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