In search of the dancing light

Camas photographer Lois Settlemeyer traveled to see the Northern Lights of Alaska

A trip to Fairbanks, Alaska, 25 years in the making, turned into the experience of a lifetime for a Camas woman.

Seeing the Northern Lights, and capturing them on film had been on photographer Lois Settlemeyer’s “bucket list” for more than two decades when she finally pulled the trigger and scheduled the trip in the spring.

“Family and friends thought I was crazy,” she said. “Go to Alaska in the wintertime? Stay two weeks in frozen Fairbanks?”

Questions and concerns aside, Settlemeyer, 72, made the trek in March, during the Vernal Equinox. It is a time, she said, when the winter cold is beginning to lose its icy grip in Fairbanks.

“In mid-March, the sun becomes more active,” she said. “Flares containing fine particles are drawn to the earth’s magnetic poles to generate the Northern and Southern lights. A two-week window would increase the probability of seeing nature’s unpredictable aurora displays.”

During her first week in Fairbanks, Settlemeyer traveled with a different Aurora Borealis viewing tour company each night. This provided the opportunity to see different locations, talk with other photographers and learn the challenges presented by cold night photography.

In an essay, she describes what she saw as a “winter wonderland.”

“A fresh snowfall added to the first morning’s beauty and the anticipation of the night ahead,” Settlemeyer wrote. “The glistening white blanket covered all the previous tracks. Tiny birds flitting about in the early morning sun looked for seeds for their breakfast. Each caused little showers of snow as they landed on branches.

“The bright sunlight added sparkles to each snowflake, a white brilliance with a rainbow attached to the crystals; a product of the cold, crisp air, the low angle sun, and the fresh fallen snow.”

The second half of the trip, she ventured out on her own. A rented four-wheel drive truck allowed her to travel back to some favored locations, and scout out new ones.

“I wanted to stand under that magical array of dancing light and changing colors,” she said, adding that she was able to see the aurora 12 of the 14 nights.

The most memorable viewing came during a road trip led by fellow photographers Ronn and Marketa Murray. The group traveled 200 miles from Fairbanks to the Arctic Circle in temperatures that dipped to 35 degrees below zero, in conditions that featured howling wind and fiercely blowing snow.

Having yet to view any lights that evening, on the way back the travelers pulled over to the side of the road to stretch their legs about five miles south of the Yukon River Bridge.

In that moment, Settlemeyer recalled, the clouds began to open. The stage was set to view the “ballet of light.” Colors twisted, turned, pulsed and sang.

“We set up our photo equipment quickly and wrapped on an extra scarf and gloves as the overhead show began,” she said. “Greens, yellows, magentas and reds spread across the deep blue night sky, lighting the surreal scene. Evergreens bowed low under the accumulated weight of ice, snow and hoar frost. [It was] a scene that would not appear real even in a whimsical children’s book. But it was real. I was standing beneath the moving, singing, magical Northern Lights.”

It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, captured on camera.

“Just 35 minutes later, the cloud of curtains closed, leaving the beautiful animated color show backstage,” Settlemeyer said. “With shouts of joy and laughter coming from my fellow travelers, it was obvious that this magical night was one that none of us would ever forget.”