June Photo of the Month: Chasing the Aurora

Photos, video and writing by Christopher Teren

Right after college, I had a rough break up. I was breaking up with the Rocky Mountains. I loved them dearly, and they loved me back. But it turned into tough love, as my obsession with the mountains, and skiing on those mountains, virtually destroyed my knees. 

After four reconstructive knee surgeries, and a couple of complete knee replacements on the horizon, I decided it was time to go. Hang it up, throw in the towel. I was breaking up with the mountains. I sold all my ski gear and loaded up my trusty Subaru and headed for the San Juan Islands of Washington state. The ocean would be the moat to keep me off those powder-covered mountains of Utah and Idaho! 

So the ocean became my new love. I embraced living by the sea, and the sea embraced me! I used my ski-gear money to buy SCUBA diving gear, and I began exploring the underwater world of the Salish Sea. It is so beautiful and mysterious and full of life and it captured my soul. So, of course, the photographer in me wanted to capture the soul of the sea. Underwater photography was a whole new challenge for me, and I loved it! I got to explore so many beautiful places in the San Juan Islands, and I loved taking pictures everywhere I went, above and under water! 

About three years after moving to Washington, I got my first glimpse of the Northern Lights. It was about 2 a.m. and my phone rang. When I answered, all I heard was, 'I might be crazy but there are lights in the sky — you should grab your camera!' so I did, and I drove about 5 minutes to a clearing. There she was, Lady Aurora herself dancing across the sky. I saw mostly greens, with a little red tinge. I pulled out the camera, propped it on the roof of the car, and shot a roll of film. Yeah, it was that long ago. The next day, I sent the film in and a week later finally got to see my images — and I was amazed by what I saw! I had played with long exposures and night landscapes, but nothing prepared me for what a long exposure with high ISO film could do to the Northern Lights! So many more colors, and so much more vibrant! I had to see more of these lights!

It turns out that Washington is not the best place in the world to see Northern Lights. (It's not the worst, either.) After that first sighting, I became obsessed with traveling to Alaska to chase the Aurora. 

The year was 2000, and for this first momentous trip I bought my first digital camera. We had one week in Barrow, then one week in Fairbanks. The first six nights of my week in Fairbanks were cloudy and snow storms. At the end of my last night in Alaska, walking out to the cars, we looked up through snow-covered trees and saw green green! I went running for a bigger clearing so I could see more — then I immediately ran back to the car to get my camera. There was an amazing Northern Lights show going on, and it had me jumping up and down and shouting in delight. 

So I was hooked. I was now an Aurora chaser. I bought software to aid in predicting sightings. I met with aurora researchers. I read books, learned about the sun and the Earth's magnetic fields, and everything I could about the Aurora. I even had to learn a bit about optical physics to figure out some weird artifacts I was seeing, caused by a filter on the lens. 

Fast forward a whole lot of years, a whole lot of cameras, and many freezing nights alone in the wilderness — and, finally, this photo happens. This photograph was taken on Mother's Day 2016 on Stuart Island. I didn't have any idea there was going to be a Northern Lights show. I was busy taking photographs of the Milky Way, and from my vantage I had no view to the north. Just as I was packing up my camera, I got a text from my girlfriend. I grabbed a fresh battery and card for the camera and ran for the other side of the island. 

I was treated to one of the best Aurora displays I've ever witnessed anywhere! 

Christopher Teren is a photographer living in Friday Harbor, San Juan Island. You can see more of his work and photos of the Aurora Borealis at his website and follow him on Instagram for more updates.