Cold Days, Geomagnetic Nights

It's time for one last European adventure!

We had to cancel our three week trek through Thailand to support our ongoing move back to the United States, which is why you haven't heard much from me lately. I've been breaking apart my studio and getting the rest of our house in order - my car gets loaded onto a boat next week and our first load of movers is just days away.

But we couldn't leave Europe without sneaking away for one last adventure. So we called the Aurora Zone and asked about being slotted last second into one of their trips into the Arctic. This is a popular time to head north, as it's peak Aurora viewing season, but we managed to snag a week in Finnish Lapland.

There will be lots of photos to come, but I'll start with the highlight, which is the Aurora. We have been very lucky this week to witness several spectacular showings of the Aurora Borealis. The northern lights are the result of solar gases hitting the atmosphere (ok, that's the overly simplified science) and aurora activity can be forecasted several days in advance by monitoring solar winds.

For the layman, scientists use the KP scale to describe the intensity, with 1 being weakest and KP9 being the best. Before this week I had only ever seen KP2/3 displays, which are most common and still pretty spectacular. But this week we had two nights of high intensity activity registering KP5! At KP5, it's considered a minor geomagnetic storm.

In the photos it's hard to tell the difference, but it's very obvious to us as spectators. An Aurora at KP2/3 is nice and green, but not as fast moving, big, or dramatic. At KP5, almost the entire sky is covered, and I have to keep moving my head and camera to where the action is most intense. 

On a slow night, the green bands don't move very fast, but on a fast night, it's like watching a ribbon waving in the sky, and the movement is very easy to see with the naked eye. Our local Finnish guides - the ones who live here and see the Aurora most often - have even been animated and excited by the spectacular displays we've had the past two nights.

Normally, I use exposures of 10+ seconds with KP2/3 storms to get enough color and intensity to make a nice photograph..... however, I have been shooting this week at 4 seconds! 

This is also the first time I've used the Leica SL for photographing the Aurora, and so far, so good! I chose the 21mm Super Elmar Lens for the task, and it's been a great choice. 

Quick Shot: Moonrise

In northern Sweden, especially in January, the sunrise and sunset blur into one long "day." The soft light and sunrise/sunset colors can last all day, creating a photographer's dream.

I had been taking photos with the beautiful afternoon light as it tints the pure white snow into a beautiful shade of light blue. My face was almost fully covered in heavy clothes and several hats to protect against the extreme (-30C / -25F) temperatures, so I almost didn't notice the moon that appeared above the tent. After spotting the perfectly clear moon, I immediately knew the composition I needed to capture.

Positioning so that the moon appears almost directly over the tent, I used the Leica SL (Type 601) with the Leica 24-90mm lens to take a series of shots at apertures around f/11. I knew it would be some trial and error to get the moon in perfect focus with the tent, but after a series of experiments, I got the shot I wanted.

I am elated with the resulting image, and I hope you share my excitement with this photograph.

Video: Adventures in Sunlight

You already know that our primary goal when we travelled to Menesjarvi, Finland, was to see the Aurora Borealis, and we certainly saw it (check this video if you missed that!).

But how did we spend our daylight hours (besides waiting for the sun to set)? We kept very busy on snowmobiles, ice fishing, dog sledding, reindeer herding, snowshoeing, and having fun in the snow! This short video highlights our adventures when the sun was up.... check it out. And if something like this appeals to your adventurous spirit, then check out TheAuroraZone.com - they arranged all of the travel and activities.

Video: Chasing the Dream

I have dreamed of the day when I would see the Aurora for as long as I can recall; the idea that, in some parts of the world, the sky can turn neon green and purple was something I longed to discover for myself. I wanted to be humbled by the power of our planet.

In February 2015, my friend and I set out on an adventure to try and make that dream of seeing the northern lights a reality. We travelled into the deep northern wilderness of Finnish Lapland to a small lodge at Lake Menesjarvi. The lodge’s name literally translates to “Wilderness Mansion” and was the perfect place to seek out the Aurora due to it’s remote location away from any light pollution. 

We spent the limited daylight hours exploring life in the arctic. We joined a Sami reindeer herder on a snowmobile ride to tend to his herds. We also explored deep into the picturesque Lapland forests on a 16km dogsled ride and tried our hand at ice fishing. All of these activities left us exhausted come nightfall, but the prospect of seeing an aurora display kept us going.

This time of year, the sun sets early in the evening, so the aurora viewing opportunities start around 6pm. At that point, the aurora is visible only as a thin green line along the horizon, but the rotation of the earth causes the aurora to soon appear overhead.

Finnish folklore suggests that the aurora is caused by an arctic fox swinging his tail and causing snow to fly into the sky. Modern science tells us that the aurora is actually caused by solar energy hitting the atmosphere. The different colors come from the different gases, with green being the most visible, followed by purple and red. Viewing the aurora is best done close to the north or south pole; in the darkness of the night, the gasses hitting the atmosphere create a storm of colorful lights only seen at these extreme latitudes. Aurora forecasting lets scientists predict, with reasonable accuracy, how active the sky will be in the hour preceding the activity. 

Viewing the aurora requires some warm weather equipment and patience. Our location in Menesjarvi meant that the best viewing was done from the lake that had frozen over for the winter. We spent hours sitting exposed on the lake staring up at the northern sky watching and waiting for the peak aurora activities. In temperatures that reached -20*C (below 0*F), it was imperative to be well dressed!

The aurora rewards patience and commitment. After sitting in the cold, the sky would suddenly and unexpectedly light up in a colorful display of lights that danced and swirled like I could never have dreamed. At times the aurora was limited to a small section of the sky, but often it would fill huge sections with this bright green glow.

Seeing the aurora with my own eyes has been one of the most humbling experiences of my life; there are some things you need to see to believe and the aurora is certainly one of those experiences. 

Although my dream to see the aurora has been satisfied, I thirst for more. Each night brought us a unique and different display to feast our eyes upon. I am now addicted to the nighttime glow in the sky......

PS - if a trip like this interests you, check out www.theaurorazone.com. They were top notch!

Quick Shot: Reindeer Herder

When booking our travel to Finland, seeing the Aurora was priority #1. After that, we wanted to get a flavor of life in the arctic north - ice fishing, snowmobiling, snow shoeing, and to experience the culture of the Sami people who reside in this area. The Sami people depend largely on reindeer to survive - a family can sustain annually on only a few of these magnificent animals while profiting from selling the meat to other families.

We had a chance to meet Petri Mattus, a Sami reindeer herder who has lived inside the arctic circle for his entire life. Petri's family has been herding reindeer for generations, so this isn't just a side gig - you're born into this lifestyle! A few years ago, Petri realized he could make a little extra money by educating visitors in Lapland to reindeer farming.

I'll admit, before heading out to see the reindeer, I thought this trip would be a bit of a petting zoo. I expected we'd see a few reindeer and pet their noses before waving goodbye. I couldn't have been more wrong!

We started at Petri's house - he invited us inside to see how they live in temperatures that often reach -40 degrees celsius. Their house was very modern and cozy - if it wasn't for the snowmobiles, triple pane windows and reindeer in the back yard, you could have mistaken it for any metropolitan home. 

Petri then took us out into his property - there are up to 5,500 reindeer in the area he works and he goes out every day to check the herds and ensure no predators are harming his livelihood. He also has several feeding stations that he sets up during the winter and moves around - these stations provide extra food during the harsh winter to make sure his reindeer stay nice and fat. Petri took us by snowmobile sled out to one of these feeding areas, which was about 7km from his home. Once there, he started to make some calls that attracted hundreds of reindeer to the feeding ground. 

The reindeer were absolutely magnificent - I saw them as cute and cuddly animals, but Petri was always quick to remind us that these aren't pets - they are food. Petri also believes in shooting only those reindeer that he needs to eat and sell rather then sending them to the slaughter house. A reindeer in his herd could live for a few years in the wild and being shot in the wild - it's about as humane as you can farm! 

Petri made us a fire and some fresh coffee while we relaxed on reindeer hides. It was completely surreal - I never thought I'd find myself sitting on a reindeer hide by the fire in the middle of nowhere Finland enjoying listening to a Sami farmer talk about herding reindeer!

Of course, the camera was busy during this trip - here's a few shots of the adventure.

PS - if a trip like this interests you, check out www.theaurorazone.com. They were top notch!

Quick Shot: The REAL Aurora

I was wise to call the first aurora sighting of our trip a teaser..... tonight was the real show.

Since traveling to Finland, I've suddenly become a weather freak. I am constantly clicking refresh on all of the solar wind charts, real time satellite feeds, and weather radars in the hope that my attention will help alert me to possible aurora activity. I was watching the solar wind forecast and around 5:30pm, things started to suddenly change. The solar winds (which is what causes the aurora) were suddenly stronger than they had been all week, so I told my friend it was time to suit up and head out..... I was feeling lucky.

As soon as we got out onto the lake, we could see a small clump of green lights above the northern horizon. It wasn't very bright, but the camera confirmed it was really green, so we grabbed the kick sleds and setup shop. We didn't have to wait long.... within 20 mins the sky was turning green and several new clusters of light had arrived. In an aurora workshop earlier this week, we'd been told that seeing two distinct bands of light across the sky meant it was going to be a good aurora.... we had three and four bands!

Suddenly, mother nature went to work in a big way. We could watch as green streaks would fall from the sky like rain, sometimes twisting back up into a spiral before being over taken by another falling streak. All thoughts of dinner were gone and were replaced with a flood of emotions. It's been a long time since I felt like a kid opening presents at Christmas.... but this was it! I wanted to cry, dance, yell, sing, and proclaim genuine glee at the top of my lungs! An hour and a half went by before I realized we were running low on memory card space and we needed to bundle up before we jumped onto the snowmobiles and went searching for more lights.

I really didn't think things could improve - the lights that had been tricky to see with the naked eye the first night were so vibrant and beautiful. The lights stretched out to cover a full 360* of the sky while we boarded our snowmobiles and headed out for some additional adventures.

Obviously, there was no need to travel far on the snowmobiles. Just enough to get away from the lights of the lodge and a new scene. The lights seemed to know we were up to something, because they waited until we were in position with the cameras setup before exploding.

The colors of the aurora are caused by different gases coming in contact with the atmosphere. Green is the most common color, followed by purple and occasionally red. The purple and red are normally very difficult to detect with the human eye and the camera tells you they are present.

This show was completely different- a huge stream of lights came from these sky and danced back and forth. Up to this point, the movement was slow and subtle - you could see it but it wasn't a roaring and fast movement. Now the lights changed and started a quick back and forth dance in the sky, with the purple being very prominent. I was in total awe. There is nothing I can hit on this keyboard to describe the incredible power of this display. Our guide told us afterwards that this was an above average showing of the aurora, so we were quite lucky. 

Seeing the aurora has been a lifelong dream of mine - it was #1 on my bucket list of things to see. While I was content with the first day's small aurora sighting, this totally blew me away. Now I can say I've seen the REAL aurora!

I have more photos to edit than I could possibly look at tonight, so here's a quick time lapse teaser. This was shot from the GoPro Hero 4 Silver that we just shoved in the snow.... the video will replay twice. This should get you excited for more pictures!

PS - if a trip like this interests you, check out www.theaurorazone.com. They were top notch!