Thursday, October 3, 2013

Fall in the Tombstones

Last month I spent a little over a week backpacking in the wilderness of the Ogilvie Mountains, Yukon Territory. After a couple of days in Dawson City exploring some spots up the Dempster Highway, we took a helicopter into the range to spend the next 7 days. The visit coincided with the peak of fall colors and a booming aurora season. I have seen many fall color areas, but have never seen the tundra change color to such a beautiful carpet of fall color everywhere you look. We timed the peak perfectly, and for the first three days of the trip it was a photographer's paradise. The combination of fall color, streams, and the unique jagged peaks of the Tombstone Mountains was incredible. The joy was short-lived, as a big rainstorm on the fourth day caused us to become cooped up in our tents for 36 hours waiting for the storm to subside. It was worth it, though; the night after the storm cleared, I saw the most spectacular display of Northern Lights I have ever seen. Well, I had never really seen the aurora before, but we did have a couple of brief displays before this. Near the 69th parallel, the location was prime as a clear night is almost a guarantee of an aurora display, granted the magnetic poles are aligned properly. No photo could ever do justice to the aurora, it is simply a most spectacular display of Mother Nature. No wonder few have ever witnessed it- a location like this takes quite the journey to get to, with sleepless nights in the frigid cold. Taking a short nap at around 10 pm (sunset was around 9:30pm), we awoke at midnight and waited... and waited. The temperature was a cold but tolerable 15 degrees F. But once the lights appear, it is amazing the adrenaline kicks in, and the cold is no longer an issue. I found myself gazing in wonder more than taking photos. Just after midnight, the sky would give a green glow, and once every hour or so a solar storm would cause the aurora to dance across the sky, producing various hues of green and magenta. It was very dynamic, and that is why I say a still photo could never capture the energy of its movement. Photographing the aurora is very difficult. The first night we saw it, I fumbled with my camera more than anything. With no visible moon, the landscape is pitch black. The movement is so quick, a shutter speed of less than 5 seconds is necessary. So I typically shot at ISO 6400 f/2.8. At the peak of a solar flare, even a one second exposure would cause all the highlights to blow, so I found it beneficial to set my camera on bulb mode, and vary the shutter speed according to the ambient light. Because shooting at f/2.8 produces such a narrow depth of field, I captured the aurora while focused at infinity, but then had to shoot several frames to achieve the required depth of field to keep all the foreground and midground elements in focus. This required about 5 extra shots (90 seconds at ISO 6400 each), which I typically shot when the activity had dissipated. Here are some of my favorite photos from the trip. I hope you enjoy. See more on my website.

"Mountain Paradise"
Beautiful sunset light and colorful tundra looking toward Tombstone Mountain.

"Blaze of Beauty"
A dazzling aurora blankets the night sky reflected in a lake below.

"Autumn Ablaze"
Dramatic sunrise light over colorful tundra at the peak of Autumn.

A small tributary of the Yukon River leading to epic sunset light in the foothills of the Tombstone Range, Yukon Territory.

"Yukon Gold"
Colorful fall palatte in late afternoon light along the foothills of the Tombstone Range, Yukon Territory.

"Autumn Paradise"
The sun beams through a misty display of fall foliage.


Dave Miller said...

Chris. Beautiful captures and a great story to go with it. Fall colors AND the Aurora. Looks like you hit the jackpot on your trip!

Exploring Light said...

Thanks Dave!

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