Guest Blog: Dave Williams – Travel Photographer and Aurora Addict
Being here on a Wednesday is a change of scenery for me. I’m Dave Williams, and I usually write the #TravelTuesday column here on ScottKelby.com, but today I’m joining you all on a Wednesday for a guest blog post, and I’m pretty excited about it.
I’ve updated my Northern Lights book for the season, which begins now. It’s available right now, but I wanted to give some insight into my relationship with lady Aurora, so here goes.
It begins during a strange part of my life. It was a kind of ‘in-between’ time when I wasn’t sure what my path was. I knew I was progressing with my photography, but I was mindful of it becoming an income generator because it was a passion – it was my ‘happy place’ and I didn’t want that to become labour. What I’ve managed to do is find a ‘happy place’ within my ‘happy place’ – that being the northern lights.
It all started more or less the same time I began to travel. I was in a strange place in my life, and with my photography passion, I had always been interested in unfamiliar landscapes. I began to try and explore them and started with Iceland, with which I immediately felt great affection.
I was in Iceland some years ago, in January, and I woke up early in the morning to drive a few hours from Reykjavik to Solheimasandur. On a pristine, wild black sand beach, there’s a wreckage of a Douglas DC-3 Dakota belonging to the United States Navy. I travelled in darkness to reach it both by car and on foot, trekking several kilometres through slushy black sand, and arrived just in time for sunrise – my first light in Iceland. I was pleased with my achievement and had an excellent time shooting that plane, which set me up for a great day ahead.
The thing is, it was an Icelandic winters day, so it was a concise one. I had just a few hours of daylight to explore and spent much of it exploring as much of the south coast as I was able to before I ran out of time. By the evening, I had reached Thingvellir. I was on the Thingvallavegur, the main road through the park, and began to turn my search skywards for the elusive northern lights.
I was standing in a flowing, pristinely snow-covered landscape with my head turned toward the stars, straining my eyes and wondering whether I was seeing things or whether it was my imagination as I listened to the howling gale or the polar wind. Snowflakes drifted just above the ground at break-neck speeds, and the light of a new moon played tricks on my eyes, showing me reasons why Icelanders may believe in elvenfolk, or elves.
Above me, in the star flooded sky, I was watching what I thought were clouds forming. The dull greyness moved slowly, pulsating in the air, though I struggled to see it through focused, squinted eyes. The clouds seemed to move in a way I’d never noticed clouds move before. They almost swirled and danced slowly, pulsing and changing in opacity as I looked up confused.
I was beside my idling rental car which was toasty-warm, and the stereo happened to be playing Pray by Take That (my musical taste is impeccable) which contains the line, “I’m so cold and all alone.” The feeling, the atmosphere, and the lyrics connected perfectly to me at that moment in time and that moment in my life.
That pulsing light, it turned out, was the aurora. My first glimpse at this fascinating phenomenon was merely a tinge in the sky, but it enveloped me, and I was hooked. The rest of that night I went backwards and forwards along that road trying to catch a better view, but it turned out the best I would get was a slight green glow above a distant mountain to the north.
I wasn’t at all perturbed by this menial sighting and continued my search the following day. The sky was cloudy that night, but there were some clear sections where I saw the rippling band of green light stretching from one side of the clearing to the other.
The next opportunity I had to see the northern lights was the following winter. This time I’d gotten some serous travelling under my belt and had headed much farther north. I was in Longyearbyen on the Norwegian Arctic archipelago of Svalbard at an incredible 78 degrees north. It’s a land of wonder coated in winter with a beautiful carpet of snow—a land where polar bears, reindeer and arctic foxes roam, far outnumbering the human population.
I’d spent my first full day exploring on water, taking a RIB (Rigid Inflatable Boat) to a nearby abandoned Russian settlement and hopping on an ATV to explore the mountains. The clouds moved in, and the weather changed very rapidly, as is common in such extreme locations.
I’d had the aurora on my mind all day, but lost hope of anything happening. When I returned to the old coal miners cabin I was staying in, I grabbed my laptop and cards and went to the nearest bar to sit in comfort while I went through my photos from the day. I was retouching a shot of a mountain at the end of a valley named Adventdalen when somebody burst in to tell his friends something, excitedly.
I don’t speak Norwegian, but I recognised one word – Nordlys. He was telling them about the northern lights and pointing to the door, and it didn’t take anything more than that for me to pack up my things and run to grab my tripod and camera and head to the edge of town as far as I dared. I had to be far enough that the light wouldn’t affect my photos, but close enough that I could run or at least be heard if a rogue polar bear were to appear (which they do!)
I stood in the darkness for some time, straining to see anything in the clear night sky other than the vast number of stars. I thought maybe I’d misunderstood. But I held out hope and jumped on the spot to keep warm, while periodically checking the aurora forecast to see what the space weather was doing.
It was then that the most amazing thing I’d ever experienced began to happen. Between two mountains, a thin band of green light shone bright, dancing and twisting through the sky as it extended towards me. To my left another, and to my right one more, and suddenly the entire sky exploded with colour and energy. The green and purple appeared to be falling on my head despite being hundreds of miles above me, and nature danced with a breath-taking display.
The mountain to my right had a cloak of colour draped behind it, stretching its entire length. It seemed to shimmer as the columns of light pulsated and glowed so bright.
Back in front of me, the entire sky changed, and the corona above me ripped itself apart and formed vibrant streaks. But eventually, in this awe-inspiring display, something happened that made me double-take. I had my camera set to drive shot after shot, capturing the ever-changing dynamic of the sky and fortunately, I caught it – the aurora showed me it’s heart.
That’s the moment I knew for sure I was hooked. Ever since, I’ve made it my challenge and my goal to seek out the elusive aurora as often as I possibly can. I’ve had successes and failures, and I’ve learned a lot about it on the way. The science behind it is incredible, and the stories and folklore are captivating.
I’ve detailed what I’ve learned in my book, The Complete Aurora Guide for Travellers and Photographers, and edition two is available now. I wish I knew more at the start about how to find the northern lights, and if you want to go looking or simply have an interest I’ve put it all in one place for your ease and pleasure. The aurora is on so many people’s bucket list, and I’d love for everyone to see and experience it.
And that, friends, is how I became addicted to the aurora.
You can order Dave’s book The Complete Aurora Guide for Travellers and Photographers on Amazon. Be sure to check out more of his work at iDaveWilliams.com, and keep up with him on Instagram.