Aurora over Sukakpak Mountain
Aurora over Sukakpak Mountain, Brooks Range, near Wiseman, Alaska
The Dalton Highway, the haul road for Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay oil fields, has been called “the loneliest road on Earth.” Between Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay, 495 miles to the north, there are only two hamlets: Coldfoot, population 10; and Wiseman, population 14. The Dalton Highway is certainly forbidding, but the section just north of Wiseman is also one of the best places in North America to see the aurora.
Auroras are most commonly seen within the auroral zones, doughnut-shaped regions of the Earth roughly centered on the magnetic poles. According to Neil Davis, a geophysicist who spent much of his career studying the aurora, the odds of seeing the northern lights on a clear, dark night if you are standing in the center of an auroral zone are 100 percent. Fairbanks is the most accessible U.S. destination that is within the northern auroral zone, but it’s far enough south of the centerline that the odds of seeing the aurora are about 80 percent. Just north of Wiseman, the odds are closer to 100 percent, and you can photograph the aurora cascading down over the jagged peaks of the Brooks Range.
In March 2016 a client and I flew to Fairbanks, rented a truck, and drove 270 miles north to Wiseman. Winter still held the interior of Alaska in a firm grip, and temperatures when we were shooting the aurora were often 15 below zero or colder. Intermittent clouds blocked our view of the aurora for several nights. We were running out of time when the weather cleared and geomagnetic activity grew intense. The auroras during our last night were spectacular. I captured this aurora with a Canon 5D Mark III and 16-35mm f/2.8L II lens set to 16mm, exposing for 15 seconds at f/2.8, ISO 3200, as the swirling ribbons, rays, and streamers filled the sky, dwarfing Sukakpak Mountain below.