Spring Aurora in the Brooks Range

March 28, 2021

For years, longtime Wiseman resident Jack Reakoff has been telling me that the spring equinox is the absolute best time to see the aurora borealis (northern lights) in his part of the state. I decided this year to finally follow up on his observation and take a trip there to chase the lights.

That the aurora borealis is most active around the fall and spring equinoxes has been long established. I have captured many amazing images around those periods down in the Southcentral region of Alaska, but have never made a trip to the part of Alaska that is directly under the auroral oval.

While it is possible to make the drive between Anchorage and Wiseman in one day (I have made the 12-hour drive before), Michelle and I generally like to stop in Fairbanks on the way up and the way down. After a night in the Golden Heart City, we headed out, stopping along the way at a few points on the Dalton Highway, like Finger Mountain, the Arctic Circle sign, and the last stand of snowy trees left this late in the season.

We typically stay at one of the cabins at Boreal Lodging in Wiseman, even though we have also stayed at the Arctic Getaway Bed and Breakfast. We always bring our own food with us because the nearest place to purchase a meal is the gas station diner at Coldfoot, with very typical truck stop fare.

After settling in to our cabin, we spent the first evening relaxing in Wiseman. I decided to not chase the northern lights that night, knowing that I would have three additional nights to chase the aurora and that the conditions would be improving.

During the day, we explored further north along the Dalton Highway. Wiseman is located at the end of a three-mile road that starts at milepost 188.6. We journeyed as far north as Galbraith Lake (mile 359), getting out occasionally to explore some areas on foot, and to allow me to photograph the landscape and the wildlife. And we had some wonderful wildlife surprises! When we got up to the Chandalar Shelf (mile 237), we saw countless tracks in the snow going in every direction. We soon found the source of the tracks: members of the Central Arctic Caribou Herd. According to Jack, they had been hanging around in the area of the Shelf since November. We also found a flock of hundreds of Willow ptarmigan, but I could not get close enough to them to capture any photos.

There were plenty of stunning views of massive mountains with no name, with the Trans Alaska Pipeline moving its way through the landscape. Alaska has many stunning mountain ranges, but the Brooks Range, which lies entirely above the Arctic, is my favorite. The geology is unique, and the mountains are right up against the road. In some ways, it reminds me of the Canadian Rockies in the Banff area, where the mountains are not distant visions, but standing right next to you.

It was at night that Michelle and I separated during the visit. She's not much of a night owl, and is not as enthralled by the northern lights as I am. The first night was a pretty good show, but fairly typical for what you might see on an average night in the Brooks Range.

It was the second night, on March 19, that ended up being the best show of the season, and I was right there in the middle of it. I knew to be out early, so I planned to be on location by 10:00 p.m. As I was driving, I saw a bright arc coming straight out of the west and traveling overhead across the sky. At the first pullout where I had planned to stop, there were already three vehicles parked. I stopped, but realized that the angle of the aurora would place the lights south of the view of Mt. Sukakpak. I wanted the lights directly over the mountain, so I continued north to another pullout Michelle and I had checked out earlier in the day. I saw the lights streaking up from behind Sukakpak at that angle, and took my first photo. What I saw shocked me and excited me - a vibrant red sitting on a yellow band.

It is important to note that colors like this are not typically visible to the naked eye, hence my surprise when I saw the colors in the photo on the back of my Nikon D850. From there, the rest of the night only got better.

After a while, the aurora seemed to run out of energy, calming down to a dull glow directly overhead. Knowing that the aurora will come and go throughout the night, I decided to head back to Wiseman. I had always wanted to photograph the northern lights over some of the historic buildings in the community. I wanted to be in position in case the aurora came to life again. At around 1:00 a.m., it did.

The aurora started a bit later the next night, and certainly was not as active or colorful. But, it was still a good night, and I worked on finding some new compositions. I even found a long haul truck resting at a material site that created a unique photo opportunity.

In the end, it was yet another fantastic trip to the Brooks Range. There is a reason why I do a landscape and aurora photo workshop here every autumn. It is a land that never disappoints. If you are ever lucky enough to, I highly recommend a trip to the area.

The Dalton Highway winds its way through a grove of snowy trees near the Yukon River.

The Dalton Highway winds its way through a grove of snowy trees near the Yukon River.