Chasing the Elusive Northern Lights

KSKA Light Writing

Tonight we’re hunting for auroras. Recently I met up with Todd Salat, a photographer that makes his living shooting the auroras. Tonight he’s chosen a peak in the Eagle River highlands to start his shift.

“I do say I have a 9 to 5 job, but it’s 9 pm to 5 am,” says Salat. He originally moved to Alaska as a geologist, but it didn’t take him long to discover his true calling.

“That very first year was in the peak of the last solar cycle, and the auroras were going crazy. Every night from Anchorage I was chasing them. I started to realize I could photograph them, and I started moonlighting as an aurora hunter,” Salat says.

The name aurora hunter was originally a bit of a joke, but today that’s how many people identify Salat.

Aurora Hunter Todd Salat sitting around the campfire, waiting for the auroras to come out.
Aurora Hunter Todd Salat sitting around the campfire, waiting for the auroras to come out.

“I used to walk around and sing, ‘I’m the aurora hunter,’ and it stuck. It’s now a registered trademark. Someone said, ‘that’s your brand,’ and I said OK.”

Being a professional aurora photographer may sound like the best job ever, but Salat says it can be shaky. It’s kind of like being a commercial fisherman.

“I would say being an aurora photographer is a boom and bust lifestyle. I’ll be up there for a week at a time in clouds, and snow and you’re just kind of waiting and waiting. Then all of a sudden the clouds split and there’s this huge pink aurora, and you shoot like crazy for two nights in a row. And then pick through those and look for what my wife and I call ‘the hero shot.’ The one you want to hang on the wall,” says Salat.

And Salat has taken his share of hero shots. His portfolio, which he sells at the Anchorage downtown market and online, boasts some of the most amazing auroras you will ever see in Alaska. As in, almost unbelievable.

“I get asked that all the time, ‘have these been done up in photoshop or made up on the computer?’ I don’t do any of that; I’m kind of a purist. I don’t do any double exposures. But I will say that the camera can see the auroras a little bit better than the human eye,” Salat says.

Of course it takes top notch equipment to get top notch pictures. Salat begins his camera setup. He says the auroras can strike at any moment, and he needs to be ready.

“Right now it’s looking pretty cloudy, but if it does clear up our chances of seeing some auroras aren’t bad at all,” says Salat. “I did look at the geomagnetic activity right now, and it’s bouncing a little bit, which tells me that solar wind is impacting us. Now it’s’ just a matter of staying up all night and hoping to get lucky,” says Salat.

And if we’re going to be up all night, we’re going to need to build a fire. Salat says this has been an amazing year for auroras, and that’s because the earth is in a peak phase for solar activity.

“It’ll probably run from 2012, when we started getting a lot of solar activity which means more northern lights, and it’ll run up through maybe 2014 or 2015. But right now, we are in the peak phase so this is a great year to keep an eye on the sky,” Salat says.

Salat catching an Alaska Range light show in February, 2013.
Salat catching an Alaska Range light show in February, 2013.

And these peaks don’t occur very often.

“The last peak in the solar cycle was 2001. Here we are in 2013. So it’s been 12 years since the last peak of the cycle,” Salat says.

With the fire now going strong, and the cameras set, all we can do is wait.

“I wrote a book on aurora hunting called ‘Alaska Spectacular Aurora,’ but my working title for it was ‘Waiting . . . and Waiting.’ Because that’s what I felt like I did a lot of, was just waiting around for that peak moment. If you’re lucky, it’s one of those once every 10 years shows where you’re just out all night long and the auroras are turning red and pink and purple and you just can’t believe how lucky you got. Of course you sat there for 10, 20, 30 days before you got lucky. But it’s amazing how you forget all the waiting when the moment hits,” says Salat.

After a few hours Salat shows me some of the more modern resources used in Aurora hunting.

“You come out here, got your iphone, open up your browser, and… today’s space weather…” Salat says.

It’s looking like the solar activity has dropped, and these clouds don’t seem to be going anywhere. But Salat is a veteran. He isn’t going anywhere.

“I’ve gotten some of my best shots on nights were forecast for cloudy skies, and low aurora activity. Then around 3:00am, it gets colder in the middle of the night, so the clouds dissipate. And then bam, an aurora comes shining through,” says Salat.

Being a more traditional 9 to 5er, it’s time for me to leave. But even as I drive away, I can’t stop glancing to the northern horizon, hoping for just a tiny glimpse of those auroras.

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