Aurora Road Trip.

In early July 2011, I was contacted by a fellow photographer Olivier Du Tre.  Apparently he had been following my aurora work for sometime.   A few emails went back and forth, he seemed like a nice enough guy.  He also introduced me to Voxer.  It’s an app that turns your phone into a walkie talkie.  Well, we began to image the aurora borealis from different locations on the planet  (as it turned out he was only 300km south of me) at the same time while communicating in real time with this app.   It worked great.  A live person to talk with and none of the commitments/responsibilities of having somebody with you in person.  Which by the way, usually adds another level of intricacy to the already challenging art of shooting in the dark.  I’m not saying its a bad thing, I’m just saying.  When you are by yourself, if you want to go left, you go left.  You don’t have to consider anything except the consequences of your own actions.  Anyway, between the very expressive language, I will refrain from using here,  Oli and I imaged the aurora boralis from our own locations using Voxer and became distant digital friends.

We then began to analyze the solar data together, trading web addresses, etc.  Real nerdy stuff!  We had more than a few discussions around what the data was doing and forming our own predictions of what might happen in the sky.  I could see that this guy was very detail oriented, passionate about his photography and was getting hopelessly hooked on taking pictures in the dark!  One night while we were out shooting I decided to throw out an offer to Oli,  “Would you be interested in driving north on an  Aurora expedition sometime?”  That was the inception of a plan.  Jump forward to last weekend, when both of us were available to take a few days out of our busy schedules and commit to a road trip.

So, this strange voice on the other end of the Voxer was on his way to my house, where my Xterra was prepped and ready to go.  Good to his word, Oli showed up at 11:00am ready to hit the road.  After a brief  intorduction, off we went. Two strangers on an adventure with no fixed destination, on a quest to take pictures.  If that’s not the fundamental  definition of a road trip, I don’t know what is.

It was a very interesting experience to have someone you have talked to a lot, but never met,  all of sudden be sitting next to you inside your vehicle on a journey to somewhere…  After  15-20 minutes of chatting, it was like all the months of Voxer, a black+white image turned into a color scene.  You know when a movie does that.  It kind of takes your brain a few seconds to adapt and then it seems normal?  The real live voice of Oli in 3D Technicolor sitting right next to me!

The first group decision… we were approaching a fork in the road.  Right, we go north to Slave Lake.  Straight, we head towards Hinton.  In diplomatic forum, Oli pulled out a Loonie and flipped a coin.  We headed west.  Our conversation revolving around our common interests of photography, racing, cars, etc.  As it turned out there were quite a few.

While refueling in Hinton, I had mentioned a remote location that I wanted to check out that was not too far away. Oli responded with a “Let’s go for it”.  35km into the William A.Switzer Provincial Park.  Well the snow covered gravel road turned into a cross country ski trail.  Strike one!  While on this road I got the clear impression that Oli had never really been in a 4X4 vehicle on this type of surface before.  Comments like, “Are you going to be able to get up that hill when we come back?” and “It looks slippery there!”.  No worries, I replied.  That excursion was a bust.

Back to the highway, NORTH!  That lasted about a half hour before the we ran into a wall of cloud.  We re-evaluated after looking at some satellite imagery and decided to backtrack south and try to get up to the Cardinal Divide.  Driving though this beautiful part of the country, Oli and I conversed like two old friends, as the miles rolled by.  Did I mention the speed metal Oli brought on his IPOD?  We listened to quite a bit of that.  We drove south of Hinton through the bustling town of Cadomin.  This is where the road began going up and was lost under the snow.  I had to switch into 4×4 to bounce over/through a snow drift, then continued up this road which eventually turned into a quad track.    Did I mention the cliff that was just off to my left on this slippery road?  Backing down a snow covered road with a good sized drop next to you is a lot of fun.  Time to focus!  I got to hand it to Oli, he just took it all in stride.  “Take as much time as you need…” was all I heard from Oli.  Complete trust in his driver.  It’s not like he had a choice though, given our location.  Remember the snow drift?  Experience has taught me that backing though things like that = vehicle damage.  “So I guess I will just half to turn around on this narrow, snow covered road”.  Oli’s eyes opened up a bit!  I hopped out to check the condition of the edge of the road.  It was no big deal.  It just looked scary!  The front of my Xterra pointing off the end of a cliff, sideways on this road.  A five or six point turn later, we were turned around.  The cliff was on Oli’s side now 🙂  After we bounced though/over that snow drift again we made it back down to the forestry trunk road back to Cadomin.   Strike two!

We pulled into this old mining weigh station to re-evaluate again.  Lets go this way Oli suggested, as he traced the road on the map.  We were on the move again.  Headed northeast up the trunk road to Robb, we made a left onto a lease  road that did not show a whole lot of use and headed for a Fire Lookout.  10 minutes down this road the forest opened up into a area that had being stripped of all vegetation.  Nothing but the remnant of tree roots, dirt and four D9 Caterpillar bulldozers parked in nice straight line next to the road.  We continued past this location on to the Fire Lookout.  There was a gas lease at the end of this road that had one of those orange weather socks on a poll.  That indicates that there is a potential for Hydrogen Sulfide gas to be in the air.  H2S is a odorless/tasteless/invisible gas which is very deadly by the way.  The wind sock is there to give you a visual of which way the wind is blowing so you can approach the lease from an upwind direction or to indicate which way to run if you have to get to safety.  There was no wind and the Fire Lookout turned out to be another kilometer up from this lease in un-tracked snow.  Strike three!

I think we were both feeling a bit discouraging and frustrated by this point.  We turned around and headed back to the main road.  Remember the wiped out forest I mentioned  As we were driving by it again, I pointed out my window and I said “I want to go up there!”.  Oli  mumbled something like “Ya, sure!”  I figured we needed a little exciting distraction so I hit the brakes and put the Xterra in 4×4 LO.  Then I made a left turn UP the muddy trail.  Oli just kept saying “Just don’t get stuck!”  UP we went, 4LO clawing away at the mud and muck.  Bits of it flying past the windows… I was having fun now!  Oli exclaimed, “WOW, I’m impressed with this vehicle.”   We headed to the highest point of the landscape.  We had to cross this little dip in the trail that gave the suspension a good workout, if you know what I mean.  We made it to the top.  That was fun!  OK, lets get out of here and get back to business.  We lumbard our way back down to the road and headed for Hinton with the pedal down, yet again.

The sun was now beginning to set and we had to make a call on a location to shoot the night sky from.  We topped off the fuel tank again and headed for Grande Cache.  It was dark by this point.  Oli was checking on the solar data and scouting locations on my DASHPAD.  I was playing with the new 220watt light bar I had just installed on my Xterra.  I like LOTS of light when I drive around in the dark.  We decided to stop in at Pierre Grey’s Lakes and see what kind of access to the frozen water was provided.  We stopped at the end of the road, I could see the lake about 60 meters from the front of the truck.  So we finally got our outdoor gear on and pulled out a few cameras.  It was very dark and the stars were magnificent.  Oli and I headed down the path to the lake.  We setup or gear to take a few shots to evaluate what was going on with the sky.

I setup a quick timelapse and decided to lay down in the snow.  So I just fell backwards into the snow and reclined for a while.  Oli was looking and laughing as this crazy Canadian relaxing in the snow.  He must have seen how comfortable I was because he ended up doing the same thing.  Except he took it a bit further.  He made himself a snow pillow!

Here is what was going on. You can see a little bit of aurora activity in the bottom right of this frame.

We made the call to keep going north after about an hour.  So we packed up and hit the road again, which turned out to be a big mistake!  Shortly after we went though Grande Cache on route to Grande Prairie, the aurora lit up the northern sky.  Oli and I were in scramble mode now.  Looking for a place to stop with a good view of the northern horizon.  No luck on this stretch of road.  We just had to get past this one stretch of mountains before we would be able to get to a good spot.  We drove on though the darkness.

Finally we found a break in the mountains with a good road to drive off the highway.  Then a nice break in the trees.  Oli and I shot out of the Xterra and scrambled to get setup.  Within a few minutes we had four cameras taking photos.  We still had a few more cameras with us by the way.

I was feeling pretty toasted by now and decided to recline the seat and catch a few winks while my cameras were clicking away on autopilot.  Apparently I was snoring, a lot!  I confess, I actually did wake myself up once.  Oli, politely let me snore away with only a few expressive words under his breath.  I managed to get a few hours of sleep, then hopped out to check on my gear.  I managed to fill two 32GB cards and finsh two batteries.  We packed up, put the batteries on the chargers and headed north again.

Dawn was now upon us as we drove into Grande Prairie.  Ahhhhh look, a Tim Horton’s!  Warm coffee was what we needed.  After a good break inside the Tim’s we headed further north.  The sun began to peek up above the horizon with the color and energy of a typical but beautiful prairie morning.  As we continued north I couldn’t help but notice the low lying fog that surrounded us.  I could see that Oli was beginning to purk up and begin to really pay attention to the landscape.  It was clear to me that we where entering his specialty of photography.  He kept pointing out these beautiful minimalistic landscapes as we drove on.  “Do you want me to stop?”  I asked.  “Ya, go there!”  I turned off the highway.  Oli got very excited, “Slow down, rrrrrrrrrright there!”  Oli jumped out of the Xterra and frantically started setting up his film camera.  Yes, I said film camera.  From one of his camera bags comes this beautifl piece of history.  A Mamiya RB67 Pro SD.   He jumps down into the ditch and begins the process of acquiring a photograph with this setup.  I took a few photos of the landscape with my 5DII while I kept looking back at Oli to monitor his progress.  He was clearly in his element.  The odd thing was that it has been so long since I have done any daytime landscape photography I almost felt out of place.  It was actually quite refreshing to see more than 50 ft like I do at night.  I could totally identify with Oli’s intensity as he setup his camera, metered the scene, tweeked his tripod and then  finally took a few shots.  It was a process!  It was almost like I was looking at a facsimile of myself going though the motions that I would normally be doing in the dark when I image the Aurora.  Then before I knew it he picked everthing up and ran across the road to take another shot.

Nice toque huh, he stole it from his girlfriend!

Now I don’t claim to be any form of a minimalistic landscape photographer, that’s Oli’s world, but this it what we stopped for.

I then found a bit of frost to shoot.

Well the fog burned off in a matter of minutes so we packed up and continued on our journey.  We were now in Peace River country.  I couldn’t believe the number of old barns and beautiful farm fields in this area.  It really was spectacular.  From the highway I spotted this one abandoned barn.  Google maps showed a nice dead end road next to this barn, so we headed down the snow covered road in 4×4.  I stopped at the small turnaround at the end of this road.  There was no clear way into this barn from where we were parked.  I made the call to skirt the treeline and approach the barn from the south so that we would not track up the foreground with our foot prints.  It was the perfect spot to potentially shoot the aurora later that night.

Staying with the B+W theme, here are a few shots from this location.


So after scoping out this area I marked a waypoint on the GPS and headed for Peace River to get some fuel and lunch.  With full stomachs we headed back the barn location.  I figured I would catch a few Zzzz,s in preparation for the potential aurora shoot later in the evening.  The sky was crystal clear and it was around +10C in the sun, so I laid down in the snow with my goose down jacket on and fell asleep.  I woke up to the sound of Oli getting out of my Xterra, where he discovered he was not meant to sleep in the seats.  As I opened my eyes, all I could see was clouds.  “Where did these come from?” I thought.  As I got up off the ground I realized that I had been asleep for 2.5 hours!  So yes, I fell asleep in the snow!  Oli was just shaking his head in disbelief!  “I can’t believe you fell asleep in the snow.” he kept saying.

Oli and I looked over the solar data and concluded that earth was not being effected by even the slightest form of  energy that might create auroras later that night.  The reality of nothing happening in the sky began to set in.  Hey, it happens.  So we decided to head back to Edmonton via Slave Lake.  Oli wanted to see the devastation of last year’s fire.

So that was it!  The  inaugural aurora trip was being called on account of no activity. Yes, we did get some aurora, but nothing special.  I did have a fantastic time though.  I made a new friend with many common interests and I got to see a new part of the province that I have lived in my entire life.  Oh ya, I got my Xterra all muddy too!:)

This journey really was a leap of faith so to speak.  I drove into the middle of nowhere, with no fixed destination, with an individual I had never met in person before.  I really was an adventure by all accounts!  I am certain the Oli and I will image the night skys together in the future, and I look forward to it!

I guess this turned out to be a bit long for a blog entry, but hey if you got this far I hope you enjoyed the story, I did!



Sherry VS - More “spectacularity” – and now you have an Aurora buddy! What fun!

Zoltan - Thanks Sharon!

Sharon Jones - Awesome Zoltan, your blog is so descriptive!! It sounds like you had tons of fun on your adventure and I LOVE the B & W pics, they’re gorgeous!

Your email is never published or shared.