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One of the Few Remaining Magical Things – Aurora Borealis over Glacier National Park

Katarina summed it up best, “There are very few magical things left in this world”. The Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, are phenomena that fall into the magical category. The result of high energy particles emitted by the sun, absorbed by the Earth’s magnetic field, and bouncing electrons around the ionosphere exciting gases and emitting visible light waves they are only visible at night and only visible when conditions are right. For the last decade the conditions have not been right with the Sun’s particle machine guns, sunspots, facing away from the earth. Beginning this year and for the next 11 or so years the Earth will be in perfect alignment to get nailed by the energy emitted by the Sun.

A few weeks ago the first of the major Sun spots poked its head around the edge of the Sun. In its first example of power the spot ejected high energy particles that narrowly missed the earth. This last week the Sun’s aim was much better with three coronal mass ejections directed straight at the earth. The first two occurred earlier this week and Katarina was immediately notified through her constant monitoring of various space and enthusiast related websites. Her elation was hilarious with her dancing around the house while making Mark promise to take her out each night during the window when the energy was forecast to arrive. Shortly after this promise a third, and significantly more powerful eruption occurred on the Sun, hurtling high energy particles at a “mass” greater than had been experienced since the 50’s. Magic was in the making.

For the two of us the last three days have been a testament to persistence in search of this magic. Katarina has been obsessed with the prospect of one day seeing the Aurora Borealis going as far as making Mark promise years ago to take her to Alaska in the winter to see them up close and personal. Fortunately our timing was perfect with our current home at Glacier National Park at the northwestern edge of Montana near the Canadian Border. If the energy hurtling our way was strong enough then the lights would be easily visible.

Wednesday night we loaded up our gear and drove into Glacier National Park to sit along the shore of Lake McDonald near Apgar Village. The view from this location is one of the more photographed spots in the park with amazing vistas of the towering peaks and glaciers framed by the glacially fed lake and facing, almost perfectly for our viewing, northeast. Sunset came and went with dusk turning to night and the stars taking over the sky. Glacier National Park sits in a “dark” region of our country with very little light pollution to cloud the sky and, as our luck would have it, this week the moon was just ending a phase and was setting at 10:30pm leaving the night sky lit only by stars.

The problem with our plan became immediately obvious. The Earth sits some 92.5 Million miles from the Sun and the speed of the coronal mass ejection (CME) is a guess at best meaning the math can be a bit fuzzy. Change that denominator by just a bit and the timing can be off by hours. As the future would eventually inform us the first 2 CME were weaker and traveling relatively slow while the third CME was incredibly powerful and fast moving. We stayed at Apgar till 2:30am with only a few wisps of distant light to suggest maybe a show was taking place.

The drive home was very quiet with Katarina seriously disappointed. One of her enthusiast websites called Wed/ Thurs evening as the “peak” period and our show so far stunk. Waking up later in the day Thursday we performed some more research learning that timing was a big guess but they were pretty sure Thurs/ Fri would be a winner. With this knowledge in hand we decided to seek out a higher elevation viewing point.

Mark found out that not 5 miles from our RV was a mountain peak named Desert Mountain. At 6500ft the peak stands 3000 feet above the valley floor and provides expansive views of Glacier National Park and surrounding areas. Managed by the forest service the peak is home to some communication towers and therefore has a reasonably well maintained dirt road climbing to its peak. After speaking with local rangers to ensure our 4×2 would make the climb we packed our stuff again and headed to the top of the mountain just before sunset.

The road has just wider than the truck as it snaked through lush forests of pine and ferns. At the base of the mountain the dirt road pitched skyward and climbed for what seemed like forever. Etched into the mountain side the road progressively deteriorated and narrowed as we gained altitude. At any point one side or the other of the truck was looking down a steep cliff. For the last 500 feet of the climb Katarina enjoyed a near shear vertical drop on her side as the truck scrambled up the grade.

The top of the mountain did not disappoint with amazing views of the surroundings. Looking west we watched the last traces of the Sun setting on the horizon but our view was blocked by trees when we looked north. Remembering a spur trail just short of the peak we back tracked down the road and debated taking the spur. Just wide enough for the truck the spur shot downward at a steep angle away from the road. Mark, smartly, grabbed a flashlight and walked a stretch of the road to make sure traction was sufficient to allow us to back out if needed. Satisfied we would not get stuck we started down the spur. It descended steeply for 1000 yards until our headlights lighted a large mud puddle and the road rapidly ascending the opposite side.

Again Mark was out of the truck scouting the path. After the mud puddle, which was passable with some speed, the road climbed steeply to a lookout point 500 yards away. The climb was “a bit tight” and had a “slight drop off” on the edge, both according to Mark. Had Katarina known what he meant she would have elected to walk. The road offered no wiggle room side to side, was banked towards the edge at about 5 degrees, and ended at said edge with an abrupt 500 foot drop off the side. After some anxious moments we reached the lookout, a pad 100 feet round punctuated by shear drops on three sides, and parked with unbelievable views of Glacier National Park.

Unfortunately, again, our luck was not to be. A lightening fire had struck a blaze a few dozen miles away filling the night sky with heavy carpets of smoke. Katarina, bound and determined to see the frickin’ lights, made us stick it out until 4 am. She did spot a few flashes off in the distance but again the forecasters were wrong. The CME were a bit behind the original predictions. Waking Mark from his sleep she acquiesced and said lets go back home. The drive down was less frightening than the climb up, most likely because with the pitch blackness we could not see the drops along the road. Arriving back at home we hit the sack at about 5AM and slept until 1pm.

Waking Friday afternoon the research began again and the news was very frustrating. The first CME had struck the earth around 6am local time meaning the lights would not be visible in the Western Hemisphere; Europe was enjoying the show though. Also the third CME had caught the second and the combined wave had just struck the earth at noon local time (6 hours after the first wave). The energy of the combined waves had lit the Aurora to a level not measured in decades. A K-8 on a scale of 0-9 the lights would have been visible across the majority of the United States. As it was the peak light would diminish throughout the day and in to the evening. Katarina was not happy.

As evening approached she had signs of optimism as the energy of the 2nd and 3rd CME was still echoing through the ionosphere. Nearing sunset the Aurora was at a K-6 and not diminishing quickly. With new hope at hand we gobbled down dinner and loaded back into the truck again. For some odd reason Katarina did not want to drive up Desert Mountain again electing instead to head back to Apgar and Lake McDonald.

Entering Glacier National Park it occurred to us that Logan Pass was open for the evening, road construction was closing the road from 9pm-7am during the week, and so off we went to the top of the Going to the Sun Road. With the Sun having set we climbed to Logan Pass under the glowing rays of the setting sun… or so we thought. Arriving at Logan Pass to an empty parking lot and a star filled night we took our time setting up, what with the suns rays still off to the north. But wait doesn’t the sun set to the west?!

Quickly Mark setup the tri-pod, programmed the camera, and snapped the first picture. To our dismay the camera was acting up and adding in a whole bunch of purple and green light into the shot. About that time it hit us. The glowing night sky was the Northern Lights! For about two hours we sat, snapped photos, and enjoyed the magic of this first time experience. To the naked untrained eye the lights present an ambient glow in the sky but after time you are able to see the rays dancing in the sky ebbing and flowing with streaks here and there. The camera on a slow shutter speed is able to distinguish the various hues of color making for tremendous night-time viewing.

Descending back down Logan Pass we stopped a few times on the empty road to re-setup the tri-pod and take additional pictures of the landscape and sky. Having finally witnessed the Aurora Borealis we found ourselves enamored with the glow. Rather than head straight home we stopped over at our first evening vantage point along the shores of Lake McDonald. Setting up the tri-pod we took a series of incredible photos and watched for another hour as the light danced in the midnight sky.

Here it is now Saturday mid-afternoon. Typing up this report after having spent the entire morning and mid-day asleep we can say that all the late night efforts were well worth it to see the Northern Lights. With the one nights viewing we are hooked and will continue to seek out opportunities to view the magic of the Aurora Borealis. Enjoy the pictures they are incredible.


One Response to “One of the Few Remaining Magical Things – Aurora Borealis over Glacier National Park”

  1. Kathy Schrichten says:

    Awesome pictures!! You are very blessed to experience God’s wonders !