Torchlight Aurora

 
 The wind blows sparks from my torch as I watch the aurora borealis from the ridge of Donnelly Dome, south of Delta Junction.

The wind blows sparks from my torch as I watch the aurora borealis from the ridge of Donnelly Dome, south of Delta Junction.

Over the past four seasons, I've attempted to photogragh the aurora borealis from several natural settings away from Alaska's road system. I wouldn't refer to them all as "backcountry", but each location took significant effort to reach whether the aurora showed up or not. This fall I hoped to catch a good aurora show while camped near the base of Denali, but the overnight weather simply never cooperated. I spent a cold night winter camping with friends next to Black Rapids Glacier in mid-March but the great aurora show I was expecting showed up early and flared out by the time the sky darkened that night. Another attempted aurora photography adventure was thwarted in late March when I got my car stuck in the snow in my driveway.

With aurora photography season quickly coming to a close in Interior Alaska, I took advantage of a clear, moonless night in April with a good aurora forecast and set out to climb Donnelly Dome. Since there would be no moon to light up the landscape, I brought along supplies to make a rudimentary torch: a long wooden stick, an old t-shirt soaked in vegetable oil, some matches, and the toilet paper I always keep in my pack for kindling. The warm glow from a fire nicely complements the aurora on dark nights and adds a bit of life to an aurora image, and with the torch I would have the freedom to move around and create more adventurous shots.      

 Aurora borealis dancing during twilight above the lights of Fort Greely.

Aurora borealis dancing during twilight above the lights of Fort Greely.

I arrived at the base of Donnelly Dome after 10 p.m. with the orange glow of nautical twilight still on the horizon. The aurora was already stirring so I paused for a few shots as I snowshoed up the trail toward the steep slope on the north side of the dome. After an hour or so I reached the summit ridge and found a steep rocky portion where I began waiting for the aurora to brighten again. The breeze was cold enough that I felt the need to put on my parka, and I threw on my polar bear pajama bottoms as a joke for anyone looking closely at my photographs. 

 View of Fort Greely and the Missile Defense Complex from Donnelly Dome prior to lighting the torch. Light pollution is noticeably reflecting off the snow over 10 miles away in this long exposure. 

View of Fort Greely and the Missile Defense Complex from Donnelly Dome prior to lighting the torch. Light pollution is noticeably reflecting off the snow over 10 miles away in this long exposure. 

I prepared my camera gear and took a few test shots without the torch so I'd be ready when the aurora sparked up. The foreground appeared very dim and blended in too much with the flats below. Posing silhouetted on the ridge made the image more interesting, but it still didn't really pop. I waited for over an hour until the aurora finally showed signs of life, at which point I quickly lit the torch and began photographing.

 Posing with the torch on the ridge of Donnelly Dome overlooking Fort Greely.

Posing with the torch on the ridge of Donnelly Dome overlooking Fort Greely.

The torch burned brightly, completely outclassing my headlamp and making it difficult to prevent overexposing the foreground as I executed my shot looking towards Fort Greely. I used my camera's timer to capture images of me posing with the torch while trying to stay completely still in the breeze. It doesn't seem like a t-shirt and a little vegetable oil would burn very long but the torch lasted over 20 minutes, which allowed me to try several different compositions as the aurora shifted in the sky. For about 30 seconds the aurora went wild over the summit of Donnelly Dome in the opposite direction, but I didn't have enough time to reposition the tripod, change the timer settings and find a good spot to pose with the torch to capture the display. Oh well, it was still a cool sight. 

After the torch burned out, so did the aurora. I made my way down in the dark and got back to town sometime after 4 a.m. These aurora images turned out to be my last of the season and I won't be taking any more until at least August. Hopefully, solar minimum will have passed by then and we'll see more frequent stunning aurora displays next winter!  

For tips on creating aurora images like these, read my free Aurora Photography Guide.
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Onemile Creek Frozen Waterfall

 
 Looking up from an opening behind a frozen waterfall along Onemile Creek in the Alaska Range, near Black Rapids. 

Looking up from an opening behind a frozen waterfall along Onemile Creek in the Alaska Range, near Black Rapids. 

I've stumbled across several waterfalls in the backcountry of the Alaska Range, but I usually only spy them from a distance because they are either too far out of my way to visit or else located in inaccessible cliffs. Last winter, I found a couple photogenic frozen waterfalls while skiing up an unnamed creek just north of Black Rapids along the Richardson Highway. That creek is actually mislabeled "One Mile Creek" by a highway sign, while the real Onemile Creek lies to the south, flowing down through a narrow cut in the mountains. I spotted a large waterfall glinting in the afternoon sun along Onemile Creek from the highway a few years ago but it wasn't until I found the waterfalls along the faux "One Mile Creek" that I finally decided to pay the real Onemile Creek a visit.    

 Frozen waterfall along the "faux" One Mile Creek.

Frozen waterfall along the "faux" One Mile Creek.

 The blue ice behind the Onemile Creek waterfall. Bring a wide angle, squat down and look up!

The blue ice behind the Onemile Creek waterfall. Bring a wide angle, squat down and look up!

While "One Mile Creek" featured a few steep pitches and some other hazards that would make it an inappropriate adventure for the inexperienced, the route to the base of the Onemile Creek waterfall makes for a rugged but relatively easy snowshoe. That being said, if you aren't planning on ice climbing, you will have to do some steep scrambling to get over the lower two falls to reach the more impressive upper fall.

I made an initial scouting trip to the waterfall with a friend on a mostly cloudy afternoon in late March. We slogged through deep snow up the hillside above the waterfall where we had a great view overlooking the Delta River valley. When we descended to the base of the upper fall, there appeared to be an opening behind the ice on either side about halfway up. The opening on the left was guarded by rocky cliffs, and while it looked possible to scramble up the cliffs without a rope, I decided it would be too risky with the loose snow covering the rock. I walked up the steep snow slope to the opening on the right and was pleased to find a tall curtain of translucent blue ice when I stuck my head inside. There wasn't much space to maneuver, but there were still plenty of interesting angles to explore. Before leaving, I noted the time and the position of the sun in the sky and estimated that I could catch the sun fully illuminating the waterfall if I returned on a clear day around 6-7 p.m. 

I returned to the waterfall a couple weeks later on a beautiful spring day with another group of friends. We could see the ice of the waterfall gleaming in the late afternoon sun when we parked along the highway, and we passed several moose on the way to it. The snow on the cliffs to the left of the upper fall had melted away, so I psyched myself up for a dangerous scramble and made like a Dall sheep up the cliffs to the opening I had yet to explore. Once inside, I found it was a little deeper than the other opening but not as tall. The shapes in the ice itself were not quite as striking, but the glow was still captivating and the view peering out from the opening was more interesting.

 Late afternoon/early evening sun shining on the OnemIle Creek waterfall. There are small openings behind the waterfall on either side.

Late afternoon/early evening sun shining on the OnemIle Creek waterfall. There are small openings behind the waterfall on either side.

 Closeup of a plant clinging to the cliffs behind the ice of the Onemile Creek waterfall.

Closeup of a plant clinging to the cliffs behind the ice of the Onemile Creek waterfall.

The "floor" inside the opening consisted of thin, murky ice with water underneath. The ice wasn't going to hold my weight so I did my best to position my tripod on it and compose my shots while crouched on the adjacent rocks. After shooting the blue ice for a while, I turned around and realized the sun was shining directly inside the opening. The view was rather unique and I knew it wouldn't last very long, so I attempted to capture it by pointing the camera in my direction and ducking while the camera took the picture. It took several tries to get the focus and composition right, but I didn't realize until later that my backpack was silhouetted at the bottom of the frame in all the shots. Luckily, I was able to save one or two images by cropping a little tighter than I normally prefer. 

 The early evening sun shines behind the frozen Onemile Creek waterfall.

The early evening sun shines behind the frozen Onemile Creek waterfall.

In May I might try to catch this waterfall as it "opens up". There's certainly plenty of water flowing beneath the surface of the waterfall already, but in a matter of weeks that water should be flowing over the top while the ice to the sides continues to slowly melt. Looking forward to a summer stroll to the waterfall as well! (Update: I did see water flowing over the ice in May as I passed by on the highway, but when I returned a couple days later with my camera the water had disappeared under the ice. Maybe next year...)