A Funny Thing Happened
The Bear
As a lighter side of my adventures photographing the aurora, I have five very funny stories to share. The first involved photographing just down the hill in the NW street view below. It was about -25°F and I was wearing my -50°F rGoldhill Road NWated goose down parka. A car had stopped just above me and two people got out to watch the display. As I was heading up the hill ready to greet them, they saw me coming out of the shadows and hurried back into their car and were about ready to speed away. When they saw me more clearly, they stopped and told me that they thought I was a bear ready to charge at them! This couple was from Florida and didn't realize that bears hibernate in the winter and that I really don't resemble a bear (although I'm 6'5" tall). For years after our initial encounter, this nice couple would stop by my office at the University of Alaska Fairbanks during their annual trek to view the lights and show me their aurora photo collection (see right for picture of the Bear).

The second story involved viewing the aurora atop Ester Dome just outside Fairbanks. I was shooting with my number one admirer Shigeko from Japan when a compact car drove by and got stuck in the snowbank just a little past us. Well, in the Interior of Alaska, being stranded in winter can be fatal. Everyone helps if the situation arises without question. When I went over to assist this young gentleman, I found that he couldn't speak English because he was visiting from his home in Tokyo. Fortunately, Shigeko, pictured below on my 50th birthday, served as my translator.  When she told him who I was, he exclaimed in English, "Jan Curtis, famous aurora photographer". I couldn't help but laugh. On top of a dark mountain in the middle of Alaska in the dead of winter, I met a stranger nearly halfway around the world who actually knew of me.


Ester Domeester lights

The third event was kind of weird. After a rather strong display, I post my images on the Internet as soon as possible. This particular aurora storm was also visible in the Lower-48 as far south as Georgia. On the same night, Art Bell, the host of a then very popular nationally broadcasted late night radio talk show that explored the unexplained including UFOs, made a call for anyone who captured the aurora to send him photographs so that he could post them to his show's website. This radio host received what he considered to be the "best and most remarkable" images of the northern lights that had ever been taken. The only problem was that this listener sent him my images and claimed to have taken them. Well, my loyal followers notified me of the fraud and I contacted the radio station to correct their on-line posting of these images. The host immediately pulled my images and I think I got some kind of half-hearted apology.

The next tale could have been a very expensive mishap (in many respects). While photographing one of the most intense displays that I saw while in Alaska, I was in the middle of the dirt (snow packed) road up from my house. I was taking shot after shot, not concerned about any cars on this rarely traveled road. street view

I lived in a community where most people had water delivered to their house where it was stored in underground holding tanks. While the water delivery truck driver was making his rounds unusually late that night, he decided to turn off his headlights while driving up the road with his head looking up outside his window at this amazing display. He was only going about 5 mph but I was right in the middle of the road and didn't hear him approaching. At the last instant, he saw me and turned on his headlights nearly blinding me and ruining my exposure. Fortunately he managed to stop this heavy vehicle within inches of me and my tripod. Even more remarkable, just seconds before this happened, I managed to snap this shot which became one of my most famous photos; one that would eventually appear in the November 2001 issue of National Geographic Magazine:   
Another amusing incident occurred while giving a presentation of my photos at the Public Lands Information Center one cold wintry day. At the end of my lecture, I told the group that I was expecting my photos would be appearing in an article in National Geographic magazine later in the year; well maybe, hopefully.  It turned out that the writer of that article was in the audience and after my talk someone introduced him to me.  I was a little embarrassed to say the least. While he told me that the editors would make the final choice as to which photos would be used, I hoped that he would put in a good word for me.  Well, nine months later, he must have because my photo was published around the world.

Now a Story that Ended Badly

The image below was taken at Quartz Lake State Park near Delta, Alaska on September 6, 1996 about an hour after sunset.  While camping near the lake's shoreline, I was busy setting up for a quiet night's sleep when I looked out of my tent and noticed a rather nice aurora display in progress.  I immediately grabbed my camera and headed for the boat landing where I could set up my camera for some northern lights reflection off the lake.  I was successful in capturing what turned out to be my most requested image of the aurora.  The problem was that the negative was never scanned (digitized) and after countless attempts to make prints from it, the negative was scratched and the colors bleached beyond repair.  If not for a few individuals who scanned their original higher quality print of this scene, there would be no adequate quality image to enjoy.  For other images from my early days, see Michigan Tech University's The Aurora Page.


To Home