I had NEVER planned a trip to the great outdoors to view the Northern Lights (or the Southern Lights, for that matter). I had seen the Northern Lights/Aurora Borealis just once, a couple of years ago, north of Scottsbluff, NE. I got some nice images of the dim lights on the northern horizon after I glimpsed something strange in that direction. Where was that light coming from?! Anyway, on that occasion the tour group was just out to shoot the sky and Milky Way on a mostly clear night. June 22, 2015 would be my first “planned” aurora-viewing trip. A 6-mile excursion.
The sun had gone a bit nuts in the previous day or two, so the aurora-viewing prospects were looking pretty good on this Monday, June 22. The tour group (Tempest Tours) had seen tornadoes in northwest South Dakota on the previous day, and on this day no storms were expected on the Plains — except way to the east in Iowa and Illinois. We were not going for those, so I elected to stay far to the north and dedicate the day to relaxing and going out in the late evening to check out the aurora with the group. We drove from Mobridge to Lemmon, SD, had a great steak dinner to celebrate our tornado catches 24 hours earlier. We met at the vans at 10:45 p.m.
Some mid-level clouds were moving in from the west as we motored out of Lemmon, and this really irritated me. It had been mostly clear all day with a nice northwest wind. Now, it was nearly calm, the mosquitoes were out and were ferocious, and clouds might ruin the display. DRAT! Also, the quarter moon was still up for another hour, and that might dim the display. We drove east of Lemmon just six miles and stopped. I could see a strange light to the north and northeast on the short drive — it was quite high in the sky and was very strange. Was that the aurora or just some daylight left? It was the summer solstice and we were at the ND/SD border, so I just wasn’t sure if it was totally dark yet! And, my eyes had not yet adjusted to the dark. But, when we stepped out of the vans in the dark area well east of the town lights, it was indeed a fabulous aurora display in progress!! This was not really even a dream come true, as I had not ever thought about making a special trip to view it. I didn’t care that much, I suppose! But this was just insanely awesome. After a few minutes, after my camera was set up and my eyes were adjusted to the dark, I could see faint aurora filaments overhead. I could see massive green curtains from the northwest to the northeast. I shot shot after shot on the Canon, with the 15mm Zeiss set at 2.8 and ISO 2000. Most exposures were 4 to 8 seconds. Immediately, I was stunned by how great the images were looking!
It was hard not to keep shooting, but on occasion I just had to stop and look up and around for a little bit. The “waves” of light would pulse up through the sky at speeds you can not imagine. The filaments of light would come and go quickly, and would jump from place to place. After about just 10 or 15 minutes, an absolutely INSANE bright pillar of aurora materialized to the northwest. My lens captured it and the lights of Lemmon, plus the altocumulus clouds in the vicinity that were lit up by the setting moon. What a scene! The bright pillar kind of expanded and, I don’t know, it just got more amazing and more amazing!
So, these are some of the images from those precious few minutes when the aurora really went out of its way to blow us all away. We went back to the motel after just an hour, as the aurora seemed to simmer down some. Geez — how lucky to have such a great aurora display on my first try! More images later.