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January 2, 2014 Auroras

Lake of the Woods

Clearly, this event goes down as the coldest aurora shoot I have done, in addition to the coldest temperatures I have ever experienced, period. For several weeks, I had been monitoring the return of the coronal hole that had provided a nice auroral display on December 8. The coronal hole had grown since then and looked a bit larger now. With the normal sun rotation, it would be expected to affect us again on January 3/4, but for some reason, it had shifted westward a bit, and our expected date of auroras shifted earlier to January 1/2. A couple things were new this evening. First was the new Samyang f1.4 24mm lens I was trying, and which was supposed to reduce coma around the periphery of photographs. For that reason, in addition to its speed at f1.4, it has become very popular for astrophotographers. I wanted to give it a try. I had also brought the snowmobiles along to position myself anywhere on the lake I wanted. I had been thinking about renting an ice-fishing house for shelter, but the ice house rental could only be located in one of the ice fishing villages, so I declined to rent one.

When I arrived at the shore of the lake at Zippel Bay Resort just after 2:00 PM, the car thermometer read -20 deg. F. Apparently, that was all the warmer it would get today. The wind was nearly calm, though, which meant there would be no wind chill, but the disadvantage of that was that the temperature would drop rapidly at sunset. I had brought a portable ice fishing house and a small propane heater, so I had at least some shelter. I paid the $10 for the pass to get on the plowed ice roads and headed out.

The roads only went to where the ice fishing villages were, so I decided to take the snowmobile off-road to where I could get an unobstructed view of the horizon. I opened up the trailer, unbolted the snowmobile, turned the key, and listened in disbelief as the starter cranked away at the engine but couldn't get it going before the battery lost charge. I'd have to jump start the sled.

With the sled jump-started, I loaded the heater, propane tanks, camera gear, food, water, and the portable ice house and started off into the great expanse to the northwest. I had gone about three miles when I looked back and saw that the ice house was no longer behind me. Fortunately, it was only a quarter mile back, and I hooked it up again and went another three miles. The sun was just setting when I started the ride, and now I had to set up the shelter while I could still see enough to do so.

I opened up the shelter to find everything packed in snow. It had gotten in there during the ride behind the snowmobile. No big deal. It was cold and dry snow and easy to dump out and shake out of everything. The frame of the shelter was easy to assemple, but the nylon outer covering had not been used in years, and when I tried to unfold it in the deeply subzero temperature, it would not comply. After several minutes, I stretched it out large enough that it would finally drop over the aluminum frame, but it would not pull down to the plastic base, leaving about a foot tall gap between the nylon cover and the ground, which meant a lot of room for cold air to run freely through the portable ice house. I would have to get the heater going and hopefully soften up the nylon so I could pull it down more. Furthermore, the old plastic windows were cracking and falling out, creating more holes for the cold air to pour in.

Meanwhile, it was getting a lot darker, and I could already see a faint auroral band to my north. What was also interesting was that I could see the lights of Kenora, Ontario about 60 miles to the north. I had not been able to see those the last time I was up here. I guess the atmospheric conditions were better for seeing distance city lights this time, even though the sky was just as clear this evening as it had been the last time.

Nice Auroras
A dim auroral band to the north at 6:19 PM. The lights of Kenora, OT are just to the left of center on the horizon.

I needed to continue with the shelter, but I'd need to start the snowmobile and point the light at me to see what I was doing. I assembled the heater, attached a propane tank, and set it inside the exceptionally drafty shelter. I found some matches to light it, but starting a match with gloves on was too difficult. I removed my gloves and opened the box of matches, which fell to the snow. I picked them up delicately while trying not to lose ALL sensation in my fingers. I would need some sensation to start the match. I started a match and turned the propane valve to start the flow of fuel, but I heard no hissing sound, and the heater did not light. After some time fumbling around, I found the safety button, which would need to be pressed and held down, or else the heater would not ignite. Oh, that button was made of metal, which would flash freeze my fingers, so one glove would have to go back on. It was really tough to get that button to depress in this cold, but I did it and go the heater started. I put it back in the shelter.

I climbed inside and began to assemble items in their order of priority for needing heat. This included my food and water, which I checked to see if anything had frozen, although it hadn't been out in this weather too long. Bottle of water: frozen nearly solid with a small amount of water remaining at the bottom. Carton of milk: I could hear liquid inside, so I thought, "Great!" I opened it up to reveal all the liquid inside was encased in about an inch of frozen milk. I wouldn't be able to drink that. I desperately pulled out the Gatorade, and to my relief, it had only become a Gatorade slushy. I could still drink it if I was willing to endure brain freeze.

The next item was the food. Apple: cold and hard. Orange: frozen. Banana: it is no joke that you could pound a nail with a frozen banana. Peanut butter and honey sandwiches: peanut butter and honey bricks. The beef jerky was still beef jerky. Next, I pulled out the other camera to make sure I had some warm batteries. I wanted to have a second camera going but discovered I had forgotten to bring the other tripod clip.

My phone rang. It was Heidi Pinkerton, who was seeing a green band of auroras to the north. I stepped back outside for another look. Things were brightening up a little bit, but I still had to work on the shelter because the heater was not heating things up fast enough. I got things tied down a little better so that the gap was now an inch or two instead of a foot, but I could not get the front door zipper all the way shut. At least there wasn't any real wind. I decided to turn off the heater for now and run back for my tripod clip. I left the cameras inside the shelter. Nobody would be coming over to steal them if I left things alone for a half hour.

I ran back to base camp, grabbed the tripod clip, and noticed a new band of auroras developing on the northern horizon. The original band had mostly disappeared, but there were still parts of it there. Back to my shelter I raced on the snowmobile. I set up the camera again, set the focus to infinity, and taped it there so I could put some hand warmers around the camera without worrying about messing up the focus. I let it click some long exposures while I worked some more inside, restarting the heater and arranging the food again.

Nice Auroras
The original auroral band dissipates (left and right) while a new one develops closer to the horizon. The new one had been right at the horizon a few minutes earlier but was now coming south.

I checked on the camera a few minutes later and saw that it wasn't shooting. It was dead. Time to change the batteries. I took the ones out of the other camera, which I had next to the heater and restarted the camera outside. Back inside to thaw some food. After some time, I went outside again to check the camera and the aurora. The auroral oval was brightening up a lot. It looked like a substorm was about to start. I uncovered the camera and fumbled the buttons with my numb fingers to find the settings dials. In all this, the socks and handwarmers dropped off the lens. That must have torqued the focus ring enough to shift it rather far past the infinity point. Apparently, painter's tape does not hold very well at -30 degrees F. The rest of my images here would be out of focus.

Nice Auroras
My last in-focus image for this location, taken as the auroral band was brightening up.

The substorm ensued. It was not very far above the horizon, but the lake allowed one to see great distances, so the near-horizon location did not matter much. The auroras danced rapidly around while I set the camera to take exposures as fast as two seconds at ISO 1600, f1.4. During the substorm, my camera died again, and I realized the only way to remedy the situation was to keep the batteries in my pockets so they could absorb some body heat. The heater in the portable ice house was not getting them warm enough.

Nice Auroras
The substorm with bright bands dropping to the horizon.
Nice Auroras
There is a lot of structure here.
Nice Auroras
The auroras spread around a bit and get a little dimmer.

After the first substorm, I returned to the "base camp". My portable ice house was useless for providing any warmth. The heater inside only allowed the food and liquids I set next to it to freeze more slowly than they would otherwise. Instead of the nylon softening, it was getting harder as frost formed on it. It was time to return, and if another substorm appeared imminent, I would go out and shoot without the ice house shelter.

Indeed, there was a smaller one, and I went out and shot some more.

Nice Auroras
A second, smaller substorm around 2:00 AM.

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