night photography

More Light Pillars!

Thirty-two years on this planet and I’ve only seen this phenomenon three times, and all three times were since moving to the Upper Valley. Light pillars are formed when city lights, or any bright lights I suppose, shine through tiny ice crystals called “diamond dust.” These ice crystals need very cold temperatures, below zero, and require still nights with calm or no wind so they remain suspended in the air. If there’s wind, the crystals get blown around, disrupting the light pillars. They also need enough moisture to form ice crystals, so there needs to be a sufficient source of humidity. All three times we’ve witnessed the light pillars, it has been on relatively early winter nights when the rivers running through town aren’t yet frozen over, so there’s steam rising up from the open, flowing water. We also live near a small ski hill, and it would appear that overnight snow-making contributes to the formation of light pillars nearby.

Usually if I’m awake before sunrise on a weekend, it’s because I’m traveling up to a trailhead somewhere for a day in the mountains. This morning, it was for a very cold (-18F) walk around Lebanon, New Hampshire. While looking at model data and forecast temperatures Friday evening, Ted mentioned it might be a “light pillar night.” We had friends coming to visit and plans to do the ice skating trail on Lake Morey in Vermont, which meant for once we weren’t going to be heading out early to hike, making this the perfect morning to set a 4am alarm and wander the streets until dawn.

Our alarm went off, current conditions indicated cold temperatures and calm wind, so we suited up and started the car. First we scouted lights along the Connecticut River, but didn’t have any luck. Part of the problem too is the lack of good open spaces for views, even in town, since buildings, hills, and trees become barriers to good compositions. Ted continued driving, while I watched out all windows for signs of those elusive beams of light. Finally, through the trees, I got a glimpse of one, so we headed in that direction, hoping for a more open view and to get closer to the action.

After a few shots along the Mascoma River, we decided to see if we could find a better vantage. We drove through some fog and took note of where it was congregating, and started heading out of town. Eventually, we ended up getting a few nice shots from the fields by the high school, just before they started fading out with the approaching sunrise. We stopped for coffee on the way home, and kept the momentum up by processing up these photos, getting laundry done, ice skating several miles and stopping by Storrs Hill for the evening, followed by a late night of catching up with our visiting friends. No wonder I’m so tired.

Light Pillars

You know it's cold outside when you see this amazing phenomenon. 

The morning of December 17, 2017, Ted and I loaded up the car for a day of ice climbing and hit the road well before daylight. As we drove around the green at the center of town, I noticed beams of light reaching toward the sky, rising from each of the streetlights. After pointing this out, we stared out the car windows in awe at this peculiar sight. They were EVERYWHERE, and SO BRIGHT! Ted snapped this low quality photo with his phone as we approached the interstate, and that was it. They were gone. We hoped to see them as we drove over the bridge in West Lebanon, since it overlooked more lights, but sadly, they seemed to only be in one small isolated area further east. 

The first half of our drive to the mountains involved me asking questions and trying to understand what we just saw. They were light pillars, which form on REALLY cold, calm nights, when there's enough humidity for the creation of "diamond dust," or tiny ice crystals suspended in the air. It's pretty cool, since it's like having precipitation that forms near the ground on a clear night, rather than falling from clouds. The light pillars are seen when light refracts off the tiny ice crystals, creating a beautiful display. Needless to say, I was pretty intrigued and welcomed the cold air heading our way. 

Usually I'm not happy about waking up in the middle of the night if it's not to go hiking, but yesterday morning around 3am, I woke up to see the elusive pillars yet again. Ted mentioned the night before that conditions were optimal for them, having fresh snow on the ground, light wind, and nighttime temperatures below zero. That knowledge is what prompted me to look out the window in the first place. I probably scared the crap out of Ted when I screamed "BEAMS!" out of excitement, and then dragged him out of bed and into the -14 degree night with my camera. At first it looked like they faded away, but we drove around a bit, keeping an eye out for pillars and an open enough view in their direction. We ended up at the Howard Logan Field in Lebanon, NH, and trudged through the new foot of snow for a less obstructed view. Ted set up the tripod while I worked on camera settings with my numb hands, and we were blown away by what we captured. Often, photos don't do things justice, but this time, I feel like it was just as pretty in real life as the photos depict. The pillars were more transient than we expected them to be. They were really good for only a short period of time, and seemed to fade in and out, but mostly out after the first few minutes in the baseball field. But just like undercasts and auroras, it was alluring enough to keep me up again last night, hoping for their return. 

20 Hours of Adventure

Most people I know usually spend their long weekends, vacations, and time off relaxing, catching up around the house, or lounging around a boat, beach or campsite. For us, our down time is the long car ride to whatever adventure we've planned, which often consists of cramming as many things into our time there as possible. For Memorial Day weekend, we decided to do some exploring in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire, and I got super lucky to find a campground with an available campsite at the last minute. I was hired as a Contributor on Assignment for Outdoor Project this summer as part of their effort to expand to the east coast, and several of the hikes they were interested in publishing happened to be both in the Lakes Region and already on our to-do list. 

Ted's been talking about wanting to climb Chocorua for a long time, and the Appalachian Mountain Club was leading a hike to it on Saturday, so we tried to sign up for that first. The trip filled up quickly so we were wait-listed, but decided to still do it anyway on our own. Saturday morning, we drove up early to ensure a parking space at the trailhead, and headed up the Liberty Trail. Mosquitos were an issue at the trailhead, but as we got moving they seemed to lessen. I was happy to have my gaiters as the lower section of the trail was pretty wet with lots of rock hopping. Higher up, the trail became steeper and ledgy, requiring us to use our hands a little bit here and there to maintain balance. The views got increasingly better, until we had an open 360-degree view from the open, rocky summit. Looking down from the summit, we could see hikers traversing a long section of open rock below, and we wanted to check it out. After consulting the map, we decided to descend that direction for more time above the trees, and then return via the "bad weather" route to make a small loop around the top. 

Ted got a new pair of binoculars as a PhD graduation gift recently, so he's been enjoying stopping at wildlife viewing areas to look for birds on our drives. While heading to Moultonborough, I commented about how the surrounding landscape looked like moose country just before we passed a brown binoculars sign. Ted hit the brakes, and pulled over at the Thompson Sanctuary, and we quietly made our way along the boardwalk to view the wetland. Expecting to see nothing more than the usual red-winged blackbird, to our surprise, there was a moose feeding in the water, and in the other direction, a bull watching from the tree line! 

At the campsite an hour later, we pitched the tent and wondered what to do now. It was too early for dinner, and we aren't good at sitting around when we're not completely exhausted or hanging out with friends. So, back to the map we went, and off to nearby Red Hill to check out the view from the fire tower! On the drive over, a large black bear darted across the road in front of us, which was a treat! We found an array of different wildflowers, including patches of red columbine along the trail. We saw lots of blue columbine living in Colorado, but this was the first time I'd seen any on the east coast. Red Hill doesn't have much of a view from its wooded summit, but head up a few flights of stairs, and the tower reveals endless beauty in every direction. Looking out around and beyond Squam Lake and Lake Winnipesaukee, we could see the familiar peaks of Mount Cardigan, Mount Major, Mount Moosilauke, and the Kinsmans. We could even see Mount Chocorua, where we stood a few hours earlier. 

Back at the campground, Ted jumped into the unheated pool to cool off before we took showers and made dinner. We watched as a thin crescent moon moved behind the trees and the sun set, finally feeling like we might be tired enough to lay down. Before heading into the tent, Ted took his phone off airplane mode just long enough to do his usual geomagnetic storm checks, and next thing I know he's driving into the darkness while I look for possible north-facing views on the map.

The northern lights aren't often noticed in the northeast, since they're typically so faint they're impossible to see with any light pollution. Photographers capture their color using long exposures and being in the right place at the right time. We've  caught the aurora in photos only 3 times before, and once was by accident while taking star shots in the Badlands. But this night was a rare treat, as the green glow was visible to the naked eye, with the curtains shining like beams of light moving across the sky. If the clouds didn't move in, we could have stayed there all night, but we'd been up for 20 hours and if we wanted to hike again tomorrow, we had to sleep sometime. 

Sunday morning, we returned to the Thompson Sanctuary again to see if any other wildlife might be out feeding in the early hours. Sure enough, a beaver was swimming back to its hut and a deer was barely visible over some tall grass. We sipped coffee in the fog, listening to frogs and woodpeckers, and a heron flew over our heads. Then we drove over to Squam Lake and wandered up to the viewpoint on West Rattlesnake Mountain, before facing the crowds on Mount Major. As if that wasn't enough, we hiked the waterfall loop to Falls of Song in the Castle in the Clouds Conservation Area before returning to the campsite for the night. We didn't plan much for Monday other than driving back since the forecast called for rain, but since the rain held off until midday, we stopped to explore Sculptured Rocks on the way. Hot showers and a comfy couch were welcomed luxuries at this point, so the afternoon was spent relaxing and uploading photos. For anyone interested in checking out any of the places we visited, stay tuned for descriptions of each adventure on Outdoor Project in the near future!