From all of my travels and experiences around the world, the natural phenomena that has captivated me most is the Aurora. Ever since my first glimpse of a faint green glow high in the skies of Southern Alberta in Canada, I've found myself longing to see the lights every time day turns to night. For those that have seen the Aurora, there's no denying the sense of mystery and magic that surrounds the experience. Once you have seen your first show, the drive to see another is innate and unavoidable, it's contagious and something that is unique every time. For myself, the challenge to capture these incredible displays has driven me to venture further than I would have imagined and given me a strong sense of purpose along with some cherished memories.
In my early days of Aurora chasing, my inspiration was further fuelled by some incredible local photographers who were showcasing what the night sky had to offer. I quickly educated myself about the area and sought out popular locations to view the aurora to the North. For those traveling through Banff National Park, AB (Canada) it's no secret that there are some easily accessible hot spots to view the lights from. One of the most notorious spots is Lake Minnewanka, right in Banff's backyard. I have spent countless hours at this lake, gazing at the horizon and skies to North waiting longingly for the next show. It's quite special being in an accessible location when the lights start dancing across the sky. In a town with so many transient people all with their own agenda, the Aurora brings everyone together. From the local photographers to the backpacker passing through, everyone stops. Silence turns to cheering and whooping as the congregation look on in awe. I can't think of many things these days that brings people together like a dazzling display. Smartphones and Facebook take a back seat and people re-connect, not just with each other but with nature.
This is one of my more memorable captures from a night spent at Lake Minnewanka.
As my experience with the lights has grown, it's guided me to become more adventurous. It's even changed my outlook on popular locations. I'm always looking due North and visualizing the lights over the landscape in front of me. In contrast to the easily accessible hot spots, there are plenty of more remote locations that lend themselves to a picture perfect lights display. A show that is ingrained deep in my memory is from Bow Summit, overlooking Peyto Lake in Banff National Park.
The approach and hike are straightforward, the conditions and time of year, however provided the challenge! This particular evening shrouded us with ambient temperatures of below -20 degrees Celsius with an intensifying wind chill. The snowpack was relatively unstable giving way every second or third step. The added weight of my camera gear in my pack certainly didn't help but the idea of capturing the Aurora from Bow Summit kept me going. With perseverance, the summit couldn't come soon enough but for those familiar with chasing the Aurora, you'll know the real challenge had just begun. With broken cloud clearing up as predicted, it was simply a waiting game to see if solar conditions would give way to a lights display. Atop the summit we waited. And waited. As 2am approached, the absence of warmth for 6 hours was taking it's toll and the dream was diminishing. Just as my mind turned to packing up, there it was, that familiar faint green glow. All of a sudden a rush of excitement and a new found sense of hope, relief even. What was to follow was an intense and lively show to light up the skies over the snow covered mountains.
Before I became immersed in this nocturnal lifestyle, one of my passions in life is snowboarding. Having taken my passion to the Northern Hemisphere, it was time to get a taste for what the Southern Hemisphere had to offer. I followed winter to Wanaka, New Zealand. New Zealand has become a special place for me and is now a big part of my life so it was only natural for my attention to turn to the night skies but this time due South for the Aurora Australis.
The Aurora Australis, viewed from New Zealand can only be described as the shy alias to it's Northern hemisphere counterpart. Being further from the South Pole than Canada is to the North Pole, the chances of seeing the Aurora are lower and as a result the magnitude of the viewable shows is less. If you expose yourself to coverage via social media you'll find fewer stereotypical green ribbon displays. This became my fuel and motivation to put myself in the best possible situations as often as possible to allow myself a chance to view the Aurora Australis.
On this particular evening, the local aurora enthusiasts had created a buzz that couldn't be ignored. I'd seen stronger solar storm forecasts over the winter but wasn't opposed to another night under the stars, after all, even without an Aurora display the night skies in New Zealand are surreal! Lucky for night photographers, the temperatures in New Zealand throughout winter are a little more accommodating than Canada. Given the forecast I figured it would be best to get outdoors as soon as darkness set in, so as the blue hour passed I was already gaining altitude to give myself a high vantage point to view the Southern horizon. Fortunately, a mountain access road gave me a head start in the car before continuing the journey on foot to gain panoramic views over Macetown and the surrounding peaks of the Southern Alps.
Having found my desired viewpoint, so ensued the familiar waiting game. It's always a lottery with how long you have to wait and more often than not a late night with no lights is a realistic outcome. On this occasion, my early start through the blue hour couldn't have timed better. I found myself in the right place at the right time. The lights flared up and offered one of the more intense displays I've seen in New Zealand. That warming feeling of relief and excitement charged through me as I raced around the mountain top capturing what's become one of my most fulfilling shots to date.
These are just a few of my memories and I'll continue to search for more across new countries and continents, let's just call it my aurora bucket list! The emotional connection that you develop with the lights intensifies with each display and is something I have not been able to find elsewhere. I hope that my images can inspire you to seek out the lights for yourself in the same way that others have inspired me. One thing is for sure, you will never forget an encounter with Lady Aurora.