Two nights on the Tors trail

Posted by lwpetersen | March 28, 2015 | aurora borealis, hiking, outdoors, photo-blog
Aurora borealis from the Granite Tors Trail.

I’m awakened in the night by a shiver. I had somehow found my way deep in my sleeping bag, sticking my nose toward the tiny cinched opening above me for fresh air. I shift to roll on my side and the condensation soaked liner smears against my face.

“How long have I been asleep?
It’s not morning yet, is it?”

I grab the drawstring and push the sleeping bag open. Good God the air is cold. The draft crawls down my body all the way to my toes.

“What was I doing again?
The time . . .”

Reaching into the mesh pocket on the side of the tent I grab my GPS. I left my watch at home, In the freezer . . . another story. Tapping the tent wall with my hand dislodges the frost built up on the tent sides. The tiny ice particles slowly rain down on my face.

Powering on the GPS; it’s almost 3:30. The night is almost over. I reach for the tent zipper, more frost trickles down onto my neck. Now the vestibule. I stick my head out of the tent and look up. A bright band of green stretches across the sky in a long arc from the northern horizon to the southeast.

The aurora is out. It’s time to get up. This is what I’m here for. Get up!

This auroral corona seemed to last for a really long time. Usually only erupting for a few seconds, I think I had about a minute of shooting this one. In the center you might be able to make out the big dipper, but the stars were pretty dim compared to the northern lights that night!


That was my Tuesday morning. The day before began nearly the same way, only a little earlier. I made an attempt to hike out to the Granite Tors starting Sunday afternoon pulling camera gear, camping gear, and food in a sled. The first mile is a section of a well traveled 2 or 3 mile loop trail so went pretty fast. I ran into a couple of women coming back the other way. They said they had to turn back because the snow was too deep toward the top. That information didn’t instill a lot of confidence in me when I looked at the 80 pounds of gear I was hauling behind me. But, I was dropped off here and don’t have cell service, so it would be a bummer not to try.

The uphill section is fairly gradual on the eastern side of the 15 mile loop. The further I hiked, the less traveled the trail was and I started punching through the snowpack, even in snowshoes. Once I was above the treeline, the trail was no longer packed or visible at all. I just followed the ridge the best I could, slowly climbing about 1500 feet. I thought for sure all the spring-breakers the week before would have worn down a nice trail for me, but it looked like no one had been out there all winter.

Above the trees on the eastern Granite Tors trail. There was a good crust on portions of the trail, other places I'd punch through deep hoar layers. It was . . . interesting hiking.

Above the trees on the eastern Granite Tors trail. There was a good crust on portions of the trail, other places I’d punch through deep hoar layers. It was . . . interesting hiking.

I don’t mind postholing too much. I’ve actually become quite accustomed to it on the strange Alaska interior snowpack. I don’t like to ‘surprise’ post hole. Three to five steps on the surface, then surprise! I’m in up to my waist. And then the sled slides into my back. Then I’m left to untangle a mess and get my snowshoe out from under the sled. This was the pattern for a couple of miles. I realized that there was no chance of making it to the top of the ridge before nightfall, or possibly at all without more time, so I began marking possible aurora-viewing locations on my GPS. By the time I was five miles in the snow was very soft and deep, and I was heading downhill into the trees. I turned back to my last marked spot.

My little campsite. I shoveled and stomped out a nice platform for the tent in my snowshoes. Waited a while for it to firm up. It didn't, so I stomped it out some more. Waited another 15 minutes. Set up the tent and took of my snowshoes.

My little campsite. I shoveled and stomped out a nice platform for the tent in my snowshoes. Waited a while for it to firm up. It didn’t, so I stomped it out some more. Waited another 15 minutes. Set up the tent and took of my snowshoes.

Watching the sunset from one of my campsites on the Granite Tors trail.

Watching the sunset from my first campsite on the Granite Tors trail.

Not long after midnight I was awake and found some aurora in the sky.

Looking northeast from my tent. It was a pretty tame night as far as aurora, but still beautiful!

Looking northeast from my tent. It was a pretty tame night as far as aurora, but still beautiful!

Northern Lights and Fairbanks Lights. Fairbanks is about 40 miles away.

Northern Lights and Fairbanks Lights. Fairbanks is about 40 miles away.

Panorama overlooking the Chena River Valley from the Granite Tors trail

Panorama overlooking the Chena River Valley

Feeling pretty tired and cold, I retreated back into my tent after about 40 minutes. Nothing seemed to be changing with the northern lights and it’s not like I could check data online or anything, so I figured I’d get some rest for the next day.

I slept in, which is rare for me. It wasn’t until about 11 am that I had eaten, struck camp, loaded the sled and got back on the trail.

I was still a little over a mile away.

A tor on the hill from about a mile away

Travel was frustrating. There was no longer an obvious trail, I just had to follow the rolling ridge as best I could. This took me into some thick brush on a couple of occasions. The snow softened the further up I walked. As I started the last climb up to the tors I realized that I simply needed more time. Every step was up to my waist in snow. I abandoned the sled to blaze a path a few times. At 3 in the afternoon I made the decision to turn back. If I could have stayed an extra day or two, I would have spent the night there and tried to push my way to the top in the morning when the snow was firm. Since I didn’t have enough time (or food and fuel) I decided to turn back to one of the other spots I had marked with a good view of the valley.

My second campsite along the Tors trail. This one was at about 1300 feet, nearly 1000 ft. lower in elevation than the previous night.

My second cozy campsite

The sun just drops below the horizon at my second campsite along the Granite Tors trail.

The sun just drops below the horizon.

Despite being 1000 feet in elevation lower than where I was the previous night, it got cold. It’s not often that I’m uncomfortably cold, and I’ve done plenty of camping at -30° F, but I felt pretty miserable on this night. It took all my willpower to pry myself out of my sleeping bag to go outside at 3:30 am, but I did, and it was very worth it.

When I first awoke, it was about the same as the night before. Usually, these late morning aurora turns into a dim, diffuse, pulsating display. There was still a good, strong band though, so I was hopeful.

Not much happened in the first 10 minutes. Then some microstructure started to appear in the band. It was like waves traveling down the main band from the northwest to the southeast.

Suddenly some structure started forming in the otherwise diffuse band. These microstructures seemed to just sail by like waves (only not really rolling I guess). To off over the horizon. Then I turned around. Look at the next photo!

Suddenly some structure started forming in the otherwise diffuse band. These microstructures seemed to just sail by like waves (only not really rolling I guess).

Then northern sky just erupted behind those smaller structures in the band. This was the best early morning aurora I've ever seen!

Then northern sky just erupted behind those smaller structures in the band. This was the best morning aurora I’ve ever seen!

Stunning Electric Corona

Stunning electric corona lasted overhead for over a minute!

Looking south from my campsite after the corona event.

Looking south from my campsite after the corona event.

Ten minutes after the band exploded across the sky, the aurora was still going strong, especially in the northwest.

Ten minutes after the band exploded across the sky, the aurora was still going strong, especially in the northwest.

Around 4 am the display started to settle a bit, becoming diffuse, and drifting back to the north.

Around 4 am the display started to settle a bit, becoming diffuse, and drifting back to the north.

I slept in again. My wife and I arranged for her to pick me up around 5 pm, and I only had about 3 miles remaining for the hike out. I took my time cooking and packing, hung up my sleeping bag and tent to dry in the sun, and spent some time sprinting back and forth on the trail to stay warm. I left a little after 1 for the trailhead.

Nearing the river valley I descend through birch and aspen forests.

Nearing the river valley I descend through birch and aspen forests.

Birch and aspen forest

It turned out to be a gorgeous spring day. By the time I reached the river valley I was in a t-shirt and the temps were in the low 40's.  Perfect!

It turned out to be a gorgeous spring day. By the time I reached the river valley I was in a t-shirt and the temps were in the low 40’s. Perfect!

Unfortunately, while driving home we stopped to help some visitors from CA who had gone off the road (Chena Hot Springs Road is typically a sheet of ice this time of year). Despite having pulled off to the side of the road, with our lights and hazards flashing, on a day with perfect visibility in both directions, and almost no traffic, our car was rear-ended at nearly 50 mph by other tourists. We were out of the car, but our dog was in the backseat. After waiting hours for emergency personnel we finally got a ride back home from a friend. Moose, our dog is a little stiff and sore n his front legs, but ok. He just got checked out at the vet yesterday and is in great shape. We got a few anti-inflammatory pain meds for him and he’s back to his old self. We’re definitely feeling pretty lucky, that could have been so much worse!

Blog Comments

Those r Fab pics…I live in India and always dreamed tht I get to see the Aurora’s at least once before I die…r there specific time of the year when these happen regularly and do they occur in specific location??

Thank you! The best place to see them is in the far northern or southern hemispheres. Great places are Alaska, northern Canada, Greenland, Iceland or Scandanavia. The best time is typically around the fall or spring equinox. Winter can be good too, if you can stand the cold!

I would say that reading this made me feel like I was actually there, but I’m sure that it was MUCH colder than I’m imagining! Beautiful pictures as always. What a great experience.

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