Following a morning of ritual waving of fly rods at oblivious coho salmon, we park the car on the edge of the Glacier Hwy. and start north down a narrow trail. We dip quickly into woods that soon give way to marshy muskeg. A few scattered, puffy clouds accent a crystal blue sky over a landscape that averages 222 days of measurable rain a year, and we feel lucky. Southeast Alaska is mostly rain forest. Looking west over the swamp, clumps of rushes, scattered grass, and gnarly coastal pines grow out of heavy, wet sphagnum and peat. Beyond the muskeg, unnamed peaks—numbers 4897 and 5894—form a venerable white crown atop it all.
We are, indeed, lucky to have this perfect weather, but we also did our homework, studied forecasts and schedules. Along with clear weather and backcountry cabin availability, a third factor had to align: high solar flare activity. We are headed for the Cowee Meadow cabin—chosen for its situation in an open meadow, and the short walk from there to the shore of Berners Bay—perfect places for viewing the object of our quest: the Aurora Borealis.
Out of the muskeg, the trail follows the marge of a wet meadow. Where water cuts through the forest, boardwalks keep us dry as chestnut-backed chickadees and kinglets chip in the canopy, and raven’s boisterous knocks bounce here and there. Scattered horses graze the meadow.
An hour in, the cabin comes into view, tucked into a pocket at the northwest corner of the meadow. Narrow walkboards over water-logged moss that connect forest to cabin have a thin covering of ice, and we appreciate the extra stability our trekking poles lend to our calf-high rubber boots.
We doff our packs in the simple little cabin and waste no time in unpacking the gallon jugs of kerosene we have lugged a little over two miles—weight we thankfully will not have to carry back out. There are other backpacks, gear, and several more jugs of fuel about the cabin and we hope there will be no confrontation. We have a reservation but anybody can open a door without locks.
With two or three hours remaining before dark, we take advantage of the day and walk a quarter mile to the shore. The muskeg trail is on walkboards the whole way, and slippery. We advance slowly and cautiously, agreeing that we should bring our trekking poles next time.
Near the shore, a small porcupine, oblivious to our presence, waddles between clumps of grass. When approached,the odd little critter buries its head in a thick clump like a young child who thinks by covering her eyes she cannot be seen. Unlike the vulnerable child, though, this youngster has a heavily-speared backside protecting it, and we keep our distance.
A hundred yards off, close to the water’s edge, three people lounge in the sun on a large boulder and we wonder if these are the people belonging to the gear in our cabin. Giving them space, we wander in the other direction—exploring the receding tide on the edge of the bay. Sculpin dart from our shadows in tide pools rife with anemones, chitons, limpets, and hermit crabs.
Looking up from a pool, we see the three sun bathers coming our way and move towards the trail to greet them. They are, indeed, the folks from the cabin, and we are pleased to find them very friendly and happy to evacuate.
As they walk back to get their gear, we walk around the shore where harlequin ducks mingle with mallards, scoters, and gulls. A far-off flock of shorebirds rallies to a boulder covered in blue mussels and barnacles.
We get back to the cabin as three bodies emerge, packs on their backs, into the waning light. They are nice enough to give us tips on starting the kerosene heater and warn us that our two gallons might not be enough for two nights. “We used two gallons each night,” one of them said. “You might gather some firewood for the supplemental heater.” We note their advice and set about emptying one gallon of fuel into the stove tank, filtering water, then cooking some supper.
Darkness is full by the time we clean up from eating, and I am eager to get outside and take some test shots. I set up my tripod in a flat spot in front of the cabin and scan the horizon. The big dipper sits low on the horizon over the cabin. I trace a line from its front edge up and to the right to find the north star—always a comforting and grounding sight.
By the red lens of my headlamp, I carefully check all my settings against the notes in my pocket—f/2.8, 10 seconds, ISO 800, long exposure noise reduction on, auto focus off, focus set to infinity…
To the right of the dipper a faint white light glows on the horizon through the trees. I hope that rising moon doesn’t wash out the aurora…
I level the camera, zoom out to capture Ursas major and minor in the view, and depress the shutter. There is a click, ten quiet seconds, a second click, ten more seconds for noise reduction, a third click, and an image appears on the screen.
“Laurie, Come look at this!”
My companion emerges from the cabin and huddles around the back of the camera with me.
“Wow! I don’t see it.”
“There is a glow on the horizon over there, to the east.”
I point through a nearby stand of sitka spruce.
“But it looks white…”
“I know. I thought it was moonlight.”
We stare at the little image on the back of my camera, back at the sky, and back to the camera again. The faint white light on the horizon appears in the lower right corner of the camera screen as a green glow—the aurora borealis.
I reposition the camera farther east, and snap another. This time the green is a little brighter, fading higher. Above the green, as if being poured from the big dipper, is a red splash.
Farther east, the white glow is now turning green to the naked eye and I turn my camera toward the pleiades where the camera reveals vertical bars of green light, a green glow across the the horizon, and more red above it all.
I am giddy. I can’t shoot fast enough. I point my camera to every corner of the sky. The greens are becoming brighter and brighter, streaking up into the stars and back down again. The reds are appearing in blotches here and there. In the southwest sky, Orion lays on his sword in the dark. I photograph it all.
After an hour or so, the show has settled, but there remains a glow to the north, so we put our tripods over our shoulders and head for the shoreline. Halfway out the trail, we are stopped by a new light in the east and step out into the muskeg to shoot. With water halfway up our boots, we shoot bright green streaks rising high into the sky.
At the shore, Lion’s Head Mountain is silhouetted in a green light that reflects on the bay in an eerie display. We shoot and shoot and shoot until, from somewhere along the shore, we hear a snort.
“What was that?”
“I don’t know.”
Senses heightened, we stand still and listen. There is another snort. I feel an uneasiness in my stomach. We are in bear country, and it is dark.
“Can you tell how far away it is?”
“I’ll take a picture.”
I train my camera in the direction of the snort and open the shutter. Twenty-five long seconds later, the image appears on my screen.
“It’s too dark.”
I increase the ISO and click again.
This time the photo is bright but grainy. I zoom in on the tiny screen until I can just make out the fuzzy shape of a horse standing in the tide flat. Relieved, we go back to shooting.
A little while later, we hear a loud neigh followed by a fading gallop. Uneasiness returns to my stomach. We never find out what spooked the horse.
For unmeasured time, we photograph an ever-changing show. It is well past midnight when we return to the cabin where we set an alarm for an hour nap, then head back out, once again, first shooting the meadow, then heading to the bay.
It is two o’clock in the morning and ice is forming on the boards. Halfway to the bay, in the same area where we stopped to shoot earlier, I slip on a loose walkboard and find myself twisting, fighting to keep camera above the water as I splash down, soaking my right side. Fortunately, sphagnum makes for a soft landing. Unfortunately, the water is cold! Most importantly, the camera is fine. Undaunted, we continue on. Shortly after my slip, Laurie has a similar fall, but lands on the board, avoiding the soaking I got.
Between two and four that morning, we capture the most spectacular scenes of the night. Lion’s Head is awash in an emerald glow rivaling Oz. No camera is needed to appreciate the grandeur of it. It is four-thirty when we return to the cabin for some sleep.
I am still floating when we crawl out of our bags a few hours later. I take down my pants from where they hang over the stove. They are dry, but the stove is out and the cabin is cooling. Outside, frost covers the meadow. I rustled some wood from the porch and build a small fire. We are impressed at how quickly the cabin warms back up.
We spend the day walking, photographing birds—belted kingfisher, song sparrow, bald eagles, ducks and gulls. The highlight of it all is stalking and photographing a flock of mixed shorebirds—black turnstones, surfbirds, and rock sandpipers. We eat lunch on a boulder by the bay.
Our second night has a few more clouds, plenty of sky, but little aurora. We spend most of our time sleeping, alternating every hour to get up and check for light that never comes.
By morning, it is overcast and we decide on a side hike up a steep trail along echoing creek to cedar lake, foraging blueberries along the way. Cedar Lake is a beautiful pond offering stunning reflections, and a perfect lunch spot. From there, we hike back down, load up our packs and head back to the car.
Along the trail, we watch pacific wrens hunting spiders, play peek-a-boo with a raven, and unsuccessfully attempt an overgrown, unused trail through the muskeg to a beaver pond, but quickly find ourselves headed into water too deep for our boots, and retrace back to the main trail.
We pause, again, for a view of 4897 and 5894, but find them mostly obscured by clouds. It has drizzled the whole way out, yet I am not ready for the trail to end. I find some solace, however, in the knowledge that I have ten more days in Alaska.
On the way home, we stop at the Eagle Creek bridge, where bald eagles dot the spruce trees. I train my lens on a close one and snap three shots before it flies, then one more in flight before it quickly comes too close for shooting, and passes overhead—a throwaway shot, I think. When I import my photos later, I find that luck was on my side again.
That night we consult calendar, weather and aurora forecasts, and scout lodging possibilities for Yukon. We are just getting started! Stay tuned…