It was a cool November evening in 2004, and we motored north across the Snake River Plain, me and a woman from Ketchum, Idaho. We’d spent the afternoon kayaking on the Snake River near Hagerman, which is as close to a banana belt as Idaho’s got.
Twilight crept across the sky as we eased north into the Wood River Valley, home to Sun Valley Resort, and far to the north above the Boulder and Smoky mountain ranges I thought I began to see the faint traces of spooky lime green light oozing across the evening sky.
“Do you think that’s the Northern Lights?” I asked her. We were both exhausted from a long day on the river, and, citing the interesting light common to that time of day, she was skeptical. Still, I kept my eyes trained on the horizon and decided not to mention it again. The more I looked, though, the more I was certain, and if she didn’t want to see it that was her decision. I was craving a solo adventure anyway.
I dropped her and her kayaking gear at her condominium, then raced home for my camera, a Canon 10D, which was still very new to me, and a tripod. I’d never taken a very successful photograph of anything at night before, but the more I looked toward the waning twilight the more I was certain that the faint coalescing of lime green was more than the remnant of an interesting sunset.
I didn’t know where to go, so I aimed east along a small creek that meanders out of the towering spires of the Pioneer Mountains, and as I did twilight vanished, the light remained, and then it began to transform, first oozing into an unmistakable green, then radiating and pulsing with smears of red, crawling from the north to the east, then across the vault of vivid, sparkling stars. There was no doubt: The Northern Lights were in rare form.
The unfortunate thing was, I didn’t know how to use the camera. The fortunate thing was, that was the night I learned to use the camera. The majority of the photos were blurry, many shot at high ISO settings, and most shot without using Mirror Lockup, a trick I figured out only by the evening’s final few frames, when I had made my way back into Ketchum and climbed the lower flanks of Bald Mountain to shoot back toward the east across the mountain town, after the display’s rarer reds had passed.
I’ve seen some magnificent things in rural Idaho. I’ve watched meteor showers from the comfortable cocoon of a mountain hot spring. I’ve seen sunrises and sunsets that might make a man cry. I’ve watched fog drift and snows settle, mountains move and rivers roar. And on about a half dozen occasions I’ve seen the Northern Lights, and each time they were mysterious and strange and magical and magnificent. That November evening in 2004 was the best night sky I’ve ever seen, and even if I didn’t know fully how to use it at the time I had a trusty camera along for the journey.
Most of these images aren’t refined enough for publication, but hopefully the top one is. I’ve returned to it time and again through the years to attempt editing it into a finer work of art, and each time found myself limited by what I knew about computers and photo editing software. This week I decided to try again. It is composed of 13 separate images shot in two rows and seven and a half columns. Each frame was a 30-second exposure. One of the biggest struggles through the years was the fact that I’d left the white balance on Auto, and the frames including the town’s lights contained grossly different hues from the balance. Only recently have I discovered a piece of software that deals with these amateur inconsistencies.
Hopefully the wait was worth it, though now that I look it’s awfully similar to the version I did over the course of 12 hours by hand six years ago. Hmm.