Aurora Borealis, where are you?

It was Saturday morning when the email came in from the University of Alaska Fairbanks:

Solar event on the west limb of the sun appears to have been large enough to produce significant auroral activity…for viewers in southern Canada and the northern tier of the United States.

Cool! I may finally get to see a real live aurora borealis! You know, that Northern Lights thing. When’s that again? Tonight? Aw, man, the forecast for Seattle tonight is (wait for it…): Cloudy and Rain. OK, we can deal with this. We have the technology. All I need is to spend a quick five minutes on a couple of websites analyzing the aurora forecast, the weather forecast for towns all over eastern Washington (in the rain shadow), terrain maps, Google Street View, the lunar calendar, campsites (scratch that, it’s Memorial Day weekend), motel websites, road maps, example aurora photos…phew! Might take more than five minutes.

But after some digging, I found a spot that was four hours away from Seattle that had what I was looking for:

  • It was north and east from here, and therefore further inside the forecast aurora viewing radius
  • The weather forecast for the area was “Clear” around midnight
  • It had a relatively unobstructed view to the north
  • Relatively, because it did have some low mountains for use as a foreground
  • It had available motel rooms nearby
  • It was almost, but not quite, in Canada

OK, we have a plan. So I’ll be sitting around a lot at night in the dark doing nothing – might be nice to have company, though I doubt anyone would be interested. Well, one quick post to Facebook, and it wasn’t long before my friend Janeen had secured a spot in the passenger seat. Sweet! We’re going on a road-trip!

Schnitzel "Wiener Art" - © 2013 Janeen Nelson

Schnitzel “Wiener Art” – © 2013 Janeen Nelson

So, I quickly topped off camera, phone, and GPS batteries, threw some gear and a change of clothes in the car, picked up my passenger, and off we went over the Cascades. Leavenworth was on the way, so we stopped for a dinner of Schnitzel “Wiener Art” – a pork cutlet about the size of a Frisbee™ served with potato salad. Turns out that with enough extra lemon and salt, it’s actually really good!

As we were driving through the town of Brewster, Janeen screamed! (She does that a lot, actually.) I looked to see what the problem was, and a most gorgeous full moon was rising over a lake to the east of town. By the time I found a spot where I could park and get close enough to the water, the moon had gone behind some clouds, but it was now pretty in a different way.

Full Moon on the Lake, Brewster, Washington

Eventually, we arrived in Omak, and decided to get our rooms before heading out to Lake Omak, my chosen shoot location. I mentioned that there were rooms available in Omak, right? Did I mention that I didn’t actually make a reservation? Yeah, well, I planned to continue to watch the weather forecast, so I did have alternates in mind in case things changed. But no, we didn’t have reservations. So we drove up to what was my first choice, based on price and ratings. Well, let’s just say my passenger was not impressed. It was in an older section of town, and people were hanging around out front, and, well, we just turned around and went back to the main highway. There we found the Omak Inn, where they saved us the trouble of going inside by putting up a “no room at the inn” sign on the door. Then we headed over to the Best Western, where the clerk informed us that, you guessed it (or at least Janeen guessed it), he had just sold the last room. (Wow. How did she know that?) Anyway, it’s back downtown, as we’re starting to evaluate my tiny convertible as potential sleeping quarters for the night.

Janeen in the Road

Janeen in the Road

I stuck my head in the door and asked the guy I saw if any rooms were available. Another guy I couldn’t even see yelled back “Absolutely not!”, so I knew we were good. And this is where the fun really starts. I don’t think I should mention the nicknames we came up with for these fellows, but let’s just say one would be comfortable in Seattle’s favorite counterculture neighborhood and the other might be found at Hempfest. The guy with the colored hair was closing out so the other could start his shift, and he was attempting to count his till. The process was not going well. At all. His till was actually over by $69.10, and he was trying to count the thing again, but with all the excitement of customers (us and a guy needing change for a $20), he just couldn’t get through without losing count. And he’d put his elbows on the counter and plant his face in his hands and whimper. Meanwhile, the guy taking over was trying to get us checked in, but the computer wasn’t having any of it. And then there was the guy with the $20, desperately trying to get a soda and get out of there. He was taking all of this quite well, probably because Janeen and I were laughing so hard it made for a jovial atmosphere, but I felt so bad for the guy I broke the $20 for him myself.

Omak Lake, Okanogan, WashingtonAt some point Janeen found a map of the area and asked the two locals about a lake on the map. No idea what that is. But once we convinced them that this was Lake Omak, they knew all about that lake. First you get to Beer Can Beach on the north end. Then there’s the spot where you can go cliff diving. The lake has no defined bottom and some excellent currents on the south end, so it’s a great place to get rid of bodies. Good to know, we thought. We’re still not sure if he was kidding.

Well, we finally got checked in, verified that our keys worked and the rooms were not already occupied by drug addicts (all good!) and headed to the lake. I found the spot I had picked from Google Street View and we got out of the car. That didn’t last long. Something about mosquitoes. So, back in the car we went, where we enjoyed a nice Barnard Griffin Cab-Merlot in red Solo cups for the next few hours, waiting and hoping to see the aurora borealis. But no such luck. Were those low hills on the other side just a bit too high? Were we too far south after all? Or was there just nothing to see that night?

Cliffs, Banks Lake, WashingtonWell, you win some, you lose some. We were still on the dry side of the mountains while Seattle was getting soaked, so the next day we explored to the east a bit. We saw Chief Joseph Dam, the second largest hydropower producing dam in the United States, and Grand Coulee Dam, the largest electric power-producing facility in the United States and one of the largest concrete structures in the world. We drove back along beautiful Banks Lake with its neon green lichen colored cliffs. And we saw roads. Lots and lots of roads.

Ed on the Road - © 2013 Janeen Nelson

Ed on the Road – © 2013 Janeen Nelson

So would I do it again, even without the aurora borealis? Absolutely! We had a blast, and the scenery, just like everywhere else in the Pacific Northwest, is incredible. But I guess I’ll always wonder if that guy ever found his $69.10.

Thanks to Janeen Nelson for providing photos and inspiration for this post. The title, too, actually.

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4 Responses to “Aurora Borealis, where are you?”

  1. Lorraine says:

    What a great story, Ed! I heard it from Janeen too, and there were so many hilarious parts that she just couldn’t keep the screaming under control in my room at the rehab facility. I was surprised I didn’t get kicked out last night (we were kinda hoping). Fun times. Love the story and the pictures! Thank you.

    • Ed Leckert says:

      Thanks, Lorraine! Yes, I had to cut so much out of the story just to keep it a reasonable length, but it was a hoot from start to finish! And, we’re already planning the next trip. 🙂

  2. Catherine says:

    I really like this photo. Very spontaneous! You need to take more candids of people. Nothing like capturing that special moment on a person’s face forever.

    • Ed Leckert says:

      Thanks, Catherine! I just decided to create a new gallery on my site for just that purpose. I think it will be “People and Pets”. Now if I can just get a model release from Janeen. 😉