One of the most incredible experiences of my life was viewing the aurora borealis in my backyard on Haida Gwaii. I've always been drawn to the stars, starting when I was young with visits to the local library to rent the 1980 series Cosmos. The author of the series, Carl Sagan, is my biggest hero. He instilled such an appreciation for the wonders of the universe in me that I've continued to study astronomy throughout my life, voraciously reading anything I can get my hands on to do with the stars, from encyclopedias and almanacs to sci-fi novels. Once I got my first DSLR, I started trying to capture the stars. I always found it fascinating (and somewhat humbling) that you could look at the sky and see thousands of stars, but then point your camera at the same spot and see many times that amount, with colours and galaxies and nebulas appearing that the naked eye just can't pick up.
The night that these pictures were from started off like any other summer night. I planned to stay up late to take pictures of the stars as it was a new moon and there wouldn't be any interference. Summers on Haida Gwaii boast some of the longest days and shortest nights, so it was well after 1AM by the time the sky was completely dark and I was ready to start shooting. I pointed my camera at the stars and started taking set-up shots to find the right focus (it's hard to focus on the stars because you can't see them through your viewfinder, it's a guessing game of fine-tuning to get there) and although I couldn't see anything with my eyes, the camera kept picking up light coming from behind the trees in my yard.
At first I thought that it was perhaps from a rising moon, but then I remembered that there was no moon that night. After a few more shots and seeing the sky get progressively lighter and more coloured in my pictures, it clicked - I was seeing the start of the northern lights.
Over the next few hours, they got brighter and brighter until I could see the greens rippling across the sky, starting along the edge of the horizon and eventually filling the entire sky overhead. The wind was blowing and it felt like the gusts that I was feeling were from the lights themselves. I had no idea that they move so quickly; I had always thought that the videos you see were sped up. The lights were blowing overhead as if they were being driven by the same wind I was feeling down on the ground. The air was alive with electricity and I swear I could hear them crackling.
I stayed out all night long, laying in the grass in my yard and just feeling so incredible charged. Our cats were all fired up too, chasing each other through the grass and occasionally coming up to say hi. This was my view looking straight up:
I even managed to catch a few shooting stars as it was during the Perseids meteor shower in mid-August.
I knew that if the lights were that strong they would likely be visible again the following night, so I ventured down to the beach the next night to get a few more shots from a different perspective (such as the panorama at the beginning of this post).
Apparently they were so strong that night that you could actually see them from Nanaimo. I sent my pictures to my astronomy professor at Vancouver Island University, Greg Arkos, and he sent me a shot of the lights as seen from his deck in the city.
If you're interested in seeing the northern lights, the best thing you can do is regularly check SpaceWeather.com. They have alerts whenever there's a chance of aurora, and by keeping an eye on the sunspots on the sun and the map of the current aural oval you can get a pretty good idea of the chances of seeing the lights in your area. That being said, sometimes the best nights are the ones that are completely unexpected. I will never forget that night.