Aurora borealis on the Olympic Peninsula

It finally happened!

I dreamed of colors dancing in the night sky for years, hoping that one day I’d have the opportunity to witness the ‘Northern Lights’, truthfully, ever since I was a tiny child. The more I have learned about the scale of our existence in relation to the rest of the universe, the more I’ve daydreamed about witnessing evidence of these relationships.

The stars have always filled me with an enormous sense of wonder, especially after witnessing the great comet Hale-Bopp, which I have written a little bit about in another entry, I think. The heavens have always had a role in defining who I am as a person – staring out into the lights feels intoxicating to me. I love to contemplate on each of those glinting, seemingly minuscule flashes of light in the enormous, darkened space, knowing that they are incomprehensibly huge, powerful remnants of the event of existence and that all of it is just chock-full of glowing, whirling galaxies tearing across time and space….that this void that isn’t is home to the very nurseries where stars are born and torn apart by the sheer violence of their own increasing and decreasing weight, just to think of a few incredible things.

I stand in the light of our own local star, in awe of its warmth from such a distance, that the plants all around me shift and dance and struggle beneath its power and that we have been brought to life and sustained by the might of its furious fusion engine, something we are still dreaming, attempting to replicate here on terra firma. The Sun is never the same, moment to moment and at times our planet is bombarded by the beautiful and ferocious outbursts that mark its boiling solar surface, allowing us to witness precisely why Earth is our perfect home. Nothing is quite as romantic as the truth!

Once I learned through an adventurous, starry sky watching Facebook friend that there was space weather activity, I charged my camera battery up and switched lenses, curious to see how my new 24mm would handle the scenery. My 60mm always left me wanting more – its field of view is so narrow on my cropped sensor!

As the battery was charging, I went outside as darkness set in and noted a strange, hazy glow lurking from the north. It seemed almost like mist – a shelf of foggy looking clouds – but with a hint of some unusual qualities. I couldn’t be sure, but it seemed that there were fluctuations in this glowing, almost totally grey mass, and an ever so slight tint of green – nearly imperceivable to me until my eyes adjusted to the dark.  I convinced myself that I was imagining it, wishful thinking and desperation and all that. I went back inside after about 10 minutes of perplexed gawking and prepared the tripod, grabbed a flashlight and waited for the battery charger light to go green.

It didn’t take very long, so once I had my gear ready I headed outside again. It was the perfect night!! Warm, summer-like conditions, totally clear skies, a scarcely present moon low on the horizon at a sliver of a phase – waxing crescent at only 11%!

As I set up I kept glancing at the horizon and at some point froze, realizing that some color was truly, clearly visible, as were pillars and streaks that shifted moment by moment. I felt myself lose my breath at the reality of it and studied it more closely, willing my eyes to pick up as much light as possible.

Yes! There was a banner-like effect too, a sinuous, tall ribbon of orange and yellow that was unmistakably the Aurora borealis, as one sees in so many photos and videos from the far North. I was positively delighted, in complete awe, still nearly in disbelief. Was this really happening, to me, now? This dream…coming true?

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The spectral banner unfurls!

My daily routine consists of checking for potential aurora activity, year round – the lights are always on the edge of my mind and I just happen to be living at a high enough latitude where I have some chance of seeing the aurora borealis if the event is storming strongly enough. That is probably most to blame for the flame of this passion I am tending. Any chance, if I am free to stay up a few hours later than usual, I at least look and check to see what I can perceive. So far this garnered nothing substantial, in camera. I have managed to get photos of aurora colors, which I had to pump up a bit in order to make them stand out against the noise in the sky…but had not been able to see the colors or bands of light with my own eyes. That always frustrated me.

May 28th was different. I took my first photo and winced as light flooded my eyes from the LCD screen on the back of my camera. I was stunned at how overexposed it was at settings similar to the ones I used during those less powerful events, which only confirmed that the big glowing cloud really was THE aurora, not just light pollution or the fog catching it. I looked back up at the mass. I was absolutely seeing it bright, almost like dawn, for the very first time with my own two eyes!! I quickly adjusted my settings and was amused by the results, that I didn’t need such a high ISO, and that my lens was rendering the view beautifully and expansively.

The colors were so vibrant and the movements so excruciatingly elegant, the joy I felt in my heart was just enormous, the satisfaction rapidly penetrating deep into my soul. I have only had a few moments of true bliss in my life and this was absolutely one of those moments.

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Shifting currents of activity, beautiful shades of color…

This was the giving Sun, and the living Earth, disturbing one another in real time. I was utterly captivated by this waking dream.

I spent about 3 hours outside, admiring the lights, drinking up the experience and getting bit all over by little black flies and hungry mosquitoes – feeling or caring about anything else, knowing that this sampling of its grandeur would only impel me to seek out more dramatic and powerful displays at higher latitudes. I’ll never stop looking, hoping!

Actually, not only do I want to get imagery and video of more Aurora events and space objects – I’d also like to capture photos of noctilucent clouds and the more exotic forms of lightning. Need a bit more kit to do some of that, but I’ve got time. I want to be the little, old, silver and white-haired lady under the open skies, constantly searching.

Being alive, aware, curious is the most wonderful thing – there is so much left to learn, to see, to experience! I am so grateful for every day I have on this miraculous planet.

Next up – Total solar eclipse in August! It has been far too long.

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