It is sometimes difficult to concentrate when you are experiencing a natural phenomenon for the first time, when it is absolutely breathtaking, and of course when it is 30 degrees below zero, but even more so, when it catches you completely by surprise.
I was leading a photographic safari in Canada recently; the main focus of which was to see and photograph polar bears. I did have secret hopes though, of popping out at night, and trying my luck with the Northern Lights, a fantastic visual display that only occurs at a very high latitude (the Southern Lights only occur at a very low latitude, but are much the same thing). The first evening we arrived was completely overcast with very low set clouds that didn’t look like they were going anywhere, so that was that.
The second night was clear and I was in with a shout. I checked the Internet for the forecast on the lights (they can apparently do this), and it gave us a low probability, basically, a one out of five chance. Not great, but being the eternal optimist, I set the camera up outside the lodge anyway, hoping for the best, and went off to dinner.
With a good steak in the belly, I went outside to check on proceedings. Nothing. All I had managed to achieve was a really cold camera. I picked it up to head back inside, and something unusual caught my eye, a big green cloud slowly moving through the night sky. It was the lights! I, like a champion, had been looking the wrong way. In a mad panic, I took a photo with the first foreground I could find – the back of the local general goods store in town. Not bad I thought, but now for the magic. It was a split second after that that I realized I had no other plans.
I had seen a potential foreground when we arrived, and enquired hurriedly as to its exact location. This set me off on a run to the other side of town. To be fair, it only took me 15 minutes, not because of my incredible (lack of) fitness, but because the town is actually that small. Finding what I was looking for, an Inukshuk (a contraption used by the Inuit people to navigate across water in misty conditions), I set up as quickly as possible, and started shooting. The lights can stop at any second, so I was moving things along quickly to try get as many shots as possible. Once the camera was going it occurred to me that I was standing on the bay with the highest concentration of polar bears anywhere, at night, alone… Not great. I moved to a nearby building, leaving the camera on the bay to do the hard yards.
It must be said at this point, that I was wearing two layers of thermal underwear, a full ski-suit with a jersey underneath, a balaclava, a face mask, two beanies, two pairs of thermal socks with my trusty Sorrell boots and three pairs of gloves (it was minus thirty to be fair), and I had run the length of town. The sweat that had been expressed during the run was now starting to freeze. This nullified all the clothing I had on, and it was time to head back. I braved the polar bear infested shoreline, picked up my camera/icicle and started the slow jog back to the lodge. Midway along the main road in town, I looked up and saw a couple of locals (in jeans and a single jacket) having a drink on the balcony of the bar, (you read it right, not a bar, the bar), and they stopped mid conversation to take in the tourist dressed for an arctic blizzard with camera-on-tripod-over-the-shoulder jogging up the main road near midnight. I laughed at what I must have looked like, but took comfort in the fact that between the balaclava and the face mask, they would not be able to name and shame me in the morning.