At 12:46 AM on August 4, 2010 I was out standing in a field not far from Scappoose, Oregon facing north, hoping against reason that the 45% chance that the aurora borealis would be visible would break in my favor. The air was cool, the breeze still, and the air scented with fleeting notions of hay and soil. Just beyond the nearby wall of tall grass that bordered a drainage ditch, the sound of coyotes sniffing and moving about in the night could clearly be heard.
“Would it really happen?” I kept asking myself. “Will I know it if I see it?” They said it would not be particularly dramatic if it happens – our latitude is too low; it would only be a glow on the horizon so those in the city were advised to go into the countryside if they wanted to have any chance of seeing it. If they did, they didn’t come to the part of the countryside where I live. I had not seen a soul since I left Scappoose.
Then the horizon began to acquire a faint glow – somewhat pink and orange; not the blue and green I had expected. Was this really it or was it a bank of clouds moving in from the coast reflecting the few lights from the small towns further to the north of Scappoose? Such a reflection should have been more yellow. But then there are forest fires in both Oregon and Washington; fires that add soft pink glows to the horizon at sunset.
I would figure out the answers to all these questions later. The important thing was to photograph it. I stretched out the legs of my Induro tripod that drawfed the little Panasonic LX3 mounted upon it, adjusted the camera’s ISO to 400 and set it to shutter prioritywith an exposure time to 8 seconds. The glow was too faint to see on the viewing screen so I would correct my view after the first shot. I depressed the shutter and waited.
My “dead reckoning” composition of the shot had been perfect; there was no need to correct. I depressed the shutter again. While waiting for the exposure to finish, the sounds of the coyotes was heard again – much closer this time. I reached into my pocket for the little Leatherman flashlight I always carry, flicked it on, and shined it its beam across the grass behind me. Nothing visible. Another exposure. More sniffing sounds heard in the darkness. Time! On went the light. Scan the field. Nothing. Off goes the light. Another exposure. More sniffing… This would go on for thirteen more cycles.
Did the images capture the real aurora or was it just the atmospheric coincidences of clouds, reflected light, and smoke? I still don’t know, but I like the resulting images nonetheless – and I would do it again in a heartbeat, coyotes and all.