Andrew Terrill

The outdoor diary of a writer, photographer, and wilderness wanderer

Is this real life? Is this fantasy?

camp auroa borealis colorado may 10 2024

ON THURSDAY LAST week I saw mention on social media that a powerful solar storm was about to begin. Potentially, it would be so powerful that a consequence of it – the aurora borealis – would be observable at far lower latitudes than usual.

But I quickly discounted it. The chances of seeing the northern lights where I live in Colorado at the latitude of thirty-nine degrees seemed slighter than slight. Past events seemed to prove it. On several previous occasions I’d let the landslide-hype of social media get the better of me… only to run slap-bang into reality: night skies devoid of aurorae.

Plus, the weather forecast called for clouds, fog, rain, and mountain snow. Hardly ideal.

clearing clouds front range colorado - 10 may 2024
Conditions at the trailhead on Friday evening, May 10th – hardly conducive for seeing the northern lights.

But then late on Friday afternoon photos shared by friends around the world confirmed that a spectacular aurora borealis event was taking place. Even friends in southern England (my original home) were capturing images of the lights in startling Technicolour. Was it really possible? I’d waited decades to experience the northern lights again. Could I really experience them now, without flying thousands of miles north and leaving behind a massive carbon footprint? Quickly, I checked the weather forecast. Promisingly, it now predicted that the clouds ‘might’ break enough to reveal snatches of clear sky. Sixty-per cent cloud cover by midnight, the forecast said.

So I thought: why not at least try? It wasn’t as though heading into the mountains was a chore! And, as I’d written in a recent blog: if you don’t go, you don’t get lucky. And the more you go, the luckier you get.

Time to test the theory!

Within half an hour my rucksack was packed. Tent, food, stove, gloves, camera, tripod. I’d head west, leave the Front Range metro area, camp high, hopefully above the light pollution. I’d stare north to the horizon… but I wouldn’t let myself grow too excited. At best, all I imagined being able to see was the faintest of faint green glows. If I was lucky.

After delaying an hour (to cook dinner for my wife and teenagers), away from home I hustled. A forty-five minute drive delivered me to the edge of my other home. When you’ve spent long enough in nature, your home becomes HUGE!

at home in arctic norway - september 1998
Arctic Norway, September 1998. After 6,500-miles of walking ‘the wild’ had become home. Twenty-six years, tens of thousands of miles, and hundreds upon hundreds of wilderness nights later, that sense of being home in nature has grown even stronger.

The trailhead was wreathed in fog, but it was shifting, showing signs it might break. I set out, and as I climbed along a hard-packed snow trail into the forest I marvelled at how much time had passed since I’d last seen the northern lights: almost twenty-six years. Far too long! The last time had been October 1998, up in Arctic Norway, from the stern of the Hurtigruten coastal steamer as I returned south from the North Cape. There they’d been in shifting bands over icy fjord and snowy fjell, luminously green, tinged with red and violet: the northern lights. I’d stared at them in awe, still as mesmerised as I’d been when first seeing them six weeks earlier from a wilderness camp. In truth, nothing else encountered in nature during my 7,000-mile walk had been more captivating, more beautiful, or more magical. I’d seen them several times during the final weeks of that life-changing trek, and they’d became the nature highlight (literally!) of the entire journey, a phenomena tied inextricably to the emotional high of the journey’s end. When I gazed upon them that final time from the Hurtigruten I soared with them, carried away emotionally into a ‘fantasy’ realm. It hadn’t crossed my mind that I might never see them again.

And now, here I was was, half a lifetime later, presented with an unexpected chance. Well, a half chance. Or an eighth chance. Or a who-knew-what-but-probably-barely-any chance. But we’d see…

above the clouds front range colorado - 10 may 2024
View north from camp.

After walking a mile and half I reached my destination at the forest’s edge: the location for camp. It was a spot I’d camped at before, located at treeline on the steep north-facing flank of the mountain. Snow still lay several feet deep, but it was well consolidated, and it only took fifteen minutes to create a level platform. A feeling of déjà vu overcame me as I pitched my shelter. Here I was again, making my home exactly where I’d made it before, in exactly the same conditions: in deep snow, in shifting fog, at the tail end of a snowstorm, with clouds clearing and fog falling away…

above the clouds - 10 may 2024
The fog falls away.

Once again, my timing was good. The first time I’d camped here a fading storm had left me standing in sunlight above the clouds. At the time, I’d imagined it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I’d felt fortunate and awed beyond words. I’d felt the same way the second time the situation occurred, then the third. And I felt it now, on the ‘I-can’t-even-count-how-many-times-I’ve-experienced-this’ time. Perhaps this peak needed a new name? One for my own use; a name to celebrate how frequently it provided extraordinary experiences. I didn’t need to mull it over for long. Once In A Lifetime Peak. The irony made me smile.

(A previous camp in the same location.)

above the clouds forest snow - 10 may 2024
A ‘once in a lifetime’ view from a peak that keeps on giving!
above the clouds plane and mountains - 10 may 2024
Distant mountains seen through the clouds. And a tiny plane!

With camp established, I relaxed. I sat within the tent entrance and stared north from my ‘perch above the clouds’. It wouldn’t matter if I failed to see the northern lights. To want more than this would be greedy. It was already real life turned into something more akin to fantasy.

camp above the clouds - 10 may 2024
Camp above the clouds.

Darkness fell, slowly. A bright glow from the departing day lingered on the western horizon beyond the undulating spine of the Divide. As the fog dispersed colourful lights from mountain homes soon shone below like miniature earth-bound stars. A crescent moon shone brightly as it descended into the west. I stared north, examining the sky, but saw nothing remotely aurora-ish. Time passed. The day continued to fade. Nine p.m. arrived: nothing. Nine-thirty: nothing. Ten? Still nothing.

camping above the clouds forest snow - 10 may 2024
The departing day lingering brightly on the horizon.

 

moon evening sky - 10 may 2024
Crescent moon.

By ten-thirty, I’d accepted that I wasn’t going to see the aurora. I felt mild disappointment, but told myself it was the outcome I’d expected. Possibly, I’d have seen a glimmer of the aurora if the northern horizon had been clear, but a thick haze filled the sky in that direction, blocking the view. It looked like a bank of high grey cloud, and it stayed where it was, never shifting. The cloud bank was less than the sixty per cent cloud cover that had been forecast. But it was still too many clouds.

waiting for the aurora - may 10 2024
Grey haze to the north, blocking out any chance of seeing the aurora.

Yawning, I thought I might as well shoot the standard ‘glowing tent’ photo before turning in for the night. I set up the tripod, chose a long exposure, and pressed the shutter release. The exposure lasted twenty seconds, time enough to stand and appreciate the location: alone on a mountain long after nightfall. Afterward, I glanced briefly at the result on the camera’s screen, looked away… then looked back in complete surprise. What? It was the classic double take.

Oh my! The greyness to the north… it wasn’t haze. It wasn’t clouds…

waiting for the aurora - may 10 2024
What the camera saw. The northern lights, revealed.

Somehow, the camera’s sensor had picked up what my eyes couldn’t: the unworldly green glow of the northern lights. Conflicting emotions arose. First, I felt surprise, swiftly followed by confusion – confusion about why I couldn’t see what the camera could. Then came awe from knowing that the aurora was occurring, along with excitement that I could photograph it, followed by a twinge of disappointment that I wasn’t able to see the aurora for myself…

I took a several shots. A photographer doing what a photographer does. A compulsion almost – often not done as mindfully as perhaps it ought to be. But, soon, mindfulness returned, along with doubts. The situation created a dilemma.

As a photographer and writer – as a story teller focused on firsthand narrative accounts of nature – my goal has always been to tell an honest story, to accurately share what happened, what was seen, and what it felt like; to tell the truth of a moment in time to the best of my ability (or the truth as I perceive it), and to do it without exaggeration or embellishment. In essence to keep it real, not fake.

But, as I took my aurora photos I felt as though I was going against this, creating something fake, images that weren’t representative of what I was actually seeing. If I really focused hard I could just about make out the subtlest tinge of green within the grey, but nothing like the bright hue the camera was capturing. Which raised questions: what’s the point of even taking these photos? Do they have any value? How can I share images that aren’t representative of what I saw?

aurora front range colorado - may 10 2024
Camera view of the aurora above Denver.

The internet is filled with faked photos that masquerade as reality. The fakery comes in many forms: deliberately over-processed and over-intensified colours and details, distorted and stretched topographical features, implausible composites and montages, AI-generated ‘natural’ wonders that have no basis on reality. Some of the most basic fakery (in colour, most commonly) is simply the result of smart devices giving users an appealing but unrealistic look – a ‘fashionable’ look; a ‘style’ that many people appear to expect and want to see; a look that many people appear to have accepted represents what was seen. But the most problematic fakes are those where a photographer (or someone entering prompts into generative AI) deliberately mislead and don’t admit to it. Such ‘digital art’ isn’t necessarily harmful where creators present their images honestly (although there are still ethical and copyright concerns with AI use). But when presented as reality these images are harmful. They cheat people out of the truth. They create expectations that can’t be met. They lead to scepticism in all nature images, reducing trust in nature photography in general, harming the credibility of all photographers. Most of all, they lie about what reality is and what nature is. They add to the misinformation and lies we all face every single day.

And then those responsible for these fantasy images sit back and bask in acclaim. ‘Wow, what a great photo,’ onlookers frequently gush. ‘Isn’t nature wonderful!’

And the ironic truth is: yes, nature IS wonderful. Real nature, that is. In fact, nature is so much more wonder-filled than fake nature could ever be. Real is infinitely better than fantasy, because real is REAL, because you can actually step outside into it and engage with it through all the senses. Because you can touch it, see it, taste it, smell it, hear it. Because it can bring back to life all the instincts and emotions that modern living has partially buried but that we still need to be fully human and fully alive. Real nature has a real impact. Real nature is startling in its complexity, fascinating in its detail, elevating in its beauty, astonishing in its very existence, fulfilling when engaged with, and beneficial in too many ways to list. Real makes the fantasy dull.

But too many people appear so divorced from what nature really is that they can’t tell the difference. Or they simply don’t care. And too many people perpetuate the lie, doctoring images so that they stand out, because in the mass of images online it’s often only the extreme that gets noticed. And getting noticed is far more important than telling the truth, right?

watching the aurora - may 10 2024
Is this real life? Is this just fantasy?

Of course, no photograph can ever truly be reality, my own included. They’re only photos after all, mere copies. Plus, photography has always been a highly manipulative medium. And, of course, what is and isn’t real (even beyond photography) is far more complex than black or white, true or false. Reality is based on perception, and perceptions can be limited, flawed, and they can vary greatly. Our senses vary, too. Some people see more than others, or hear more. Two people can perceive the same event very differently. Even objectivity is varied, because it isn’t ever free from biases and instead is informed by a lifetime of influences and expectations – foundational experiences that are never identical for any two people. So, what was the reality of the aurora taking place right before me? Was it the reality my eyes were seeing, or the reality recorded digitally by the camera’s sensor? Or, were they both reality?

Investigation, days later, confirmed that the camera’s green glow was reality: that what I was photographing was there, but that my eyes simply couldn’t penetrate the light pollution that I hadn’t managed to leave behind. (Damn light pollution! Don’t get me started!) The camera was capturing reality… only not my reality. Which meant that the questions: Do my photos have any value? Should I share them? still remained.

Over the following week, aurora photos flooded the internet. Many came from areas away from light pollution. A few of these photos showed realistic colours, accurately portraying what the northern lights look like to the average human eye. Far more of them (it seemed to me) did the opposite and displayed over-processed fantasy versions of the aurora, wonderful works of art maybe, but not truth. There was also a deluge of photos from light-polluted areas where only camera sensors could ‘see’ the lights. Many of the captions accompanying these photos failed to mention how little had actually been seen by the photographer’s own eyes. It was almost as though admitting to this would invalidate the photos or the ‘experience’; as though the photographers were engaged in some big online competition and all that mattered was the photographic ‘trophy’ and the ‘likes’ it generated, not the experience, or the reality, or honesty.

This image flood occurred after the event. But seeing it later reinforced the decision I made at the time. As I took my aurora photos I decided that I would share them, but I’d also be honest about how little I’d personally seen.

———

Eventually, I reckoned I’d taken enough photos of the ‘grey haze’. I stood for a few minutes longer on the mountainside, savouring my lonely perch, then retreated into my tent, feeling – honestly – a little flat. I hadn’t seen the aurora myself, not really. But I hadn’t truly expected to. Oh well; it is what it is. I believed that the night was done.

Happily though, it wasn’t… although I nearly missed the second act. I could so easily have read a little, turned off my headlamp, then gone to sleep without looking outside again… but fortunately, at eleven-thirty(ish), I took a final quick spur-of-the-moment peak through the tent entrance. And what I saw banished any thoughts of sleep. Whoa! I thought. Bloomin’ heck! WOW!

NOW I could see the aurora!

aurora front range colorado - may 10 2024
The aurora – as close as I can get to how my eyes saw it.

The aurora had intensified. There were bands in the sky now. Ribbons. Curtains. And they were shifting about, dancing just the way I remember them dancing back in Arctic Norway. The bands were rising higher and higher into the sky, mingling with the stars, and there were colours, too… colours that were clear to the naked eye. Admittedly, they were subtle, muted, but they were there, clear to see.

Thrilled, I pulled on all the layers of clothing I’d earlier discarded, re-laced my boots, grabbed my tripod, camera, and dashed back outside.

aurora front range colorado - may 10 2024
As the camera saw it.

For the next hour or so (the time wasn’t measured) I wandered about the mountain, barely able to believe that this was happening here in Colorado, taking photos, and also just staring about in gratitude, soaking up the moment. The colours didn’t come close to what I’d seen twenty-six years earlier, but, as the ribbons swept by overhead, their motion at least compared with my memory. Even though the totality of the experience didn’t match what the Arctic had gifted, it still felt like a gift, and it still was without doubt an out-of-the ordinary moment…

aurora comparison front range colorado - may 10 2024
Bands of light, shifting, dancing. My view beside the camera’s.

The photos on the camera’s screen were beyond ordinary, too. But I vowed that I’d be honest when I shared them. I’d do my best to share what I was seeing alongside what the camera was capturing, and I’d also do all I could to make the camera’s view reflect the appearance of the aurora that I’d once seen back in the Arctic. There’d be no need to brighten the sky, or lighten the foreground, or dial up the colours, or exaggerate the contrast. No need to gild the lily. No need to make nature more than it is. Nature is perfect as it is. That’s what I’d try to show. An attempt at representing reality. An attempt to tell an honest story.

aurora front range colorado - may 10 2024
Camera’s view. How I remember the northern lights looking, back in Arctic Norway.

As I took the photos I was also mindful to take breaks, making room for actual experience. After all, the photos weren’t the primary reason for being there. When it came down to it, the experience was still by far the most important part, every aspect of it, every sense touched, every detail noticed: the icy air against my face; the snow crunching underfoot; the sugary-sweet dampness of the night; the joy from rediscovering a time of day too often neglected; the satisfaction in noticing that I felt utterly at home on a snow-covered summit even though I was alone and it was the middle of the night; the astonishing glow that lit the landscape as though the moon hadn’t set two hours earlier; and above all my gratitude for the bands of subtle colour sweeping across the stars overhead that brought back to life soaring emotions from another time and place…

The true story is: I didn’t feel flat any more.

aurora borealis panorama - may 10 2024
Camera’s view. Ten photos stitched together to fit in the entire scene, stretching from the Continental Divide, to the northern horizon, to the glow of metro Denver.
winter snow pines northern lights - may 10 2024
Camera’s view. A close up of the aurora.
winter snow pines northern lights - may 10 2024
Camera’s view. Above camp, close to the summit.
winter snow pines northern lights - may 10 2024
Camera’s view. A rare, rare night.
winter snow pines northern lights - may 10 2024
An approximation of my view. Muted… but still magical, still emotional.
winter snow pines northern lights - may 10 2024
Camera’s view.

As I wandered about the summit area my emotions soared. The bright photo directly above could, possibly, be considered a better representation of how being there felt than the more muted photo before it. But, it isn’t what the scene actually looked like. So, is it real life? Or is it fantasy? Does it even matter?

Well, if one goes deep enough, no – no it doesn’t matter at all. I mean, I’m not losing sleep over it! There are experiences in the real world that ‘fake’ photos can’t effect.

On the other hand, it does matter a great deal. It matters because of the destruction of trust and credibility that photographers face. It matters, because honesty IS important, because lies DO cause harm. It matters because learning to understand and appreciate what nature really is is important. Appreciating nature requires actual physical engagement with it, which brings all kinds of benefits, and also inevitably leads to a desire to care for it – and goodness knows nature needs more people caring for it! And it matters because learning to distinguish between real and fake is profoundly important, not merely in online nature images but in every single piece of information we encounter each day; because being unable to distinguish between truth and lies has far-reaching real-world implications in this politically and ideologically-divided era we live in.

comparison winter snow pines northern lights - may 10 2024
Comparison.

Eventually, the aurora began to fade. Soon, the bands had vanished, the colour had dimmed, and all that remained to the eye was a faint grayish haze on the horizon. We were back where we had started.

Contentedly, I descended to camp. Had that really happened? Here in Colorado? I’d never imagined it would. A once in a lifetime experience on Once In A Lifetime Peak! For some reason, a famous old rock song by Queen had inserted itself into my head and was playing on repeat. Bohemian Rhapsody… and the rhapsody part seemed appropriate. The first three lines in the lyric seemed fitting, too, especially the question asked by the opening line. I felt that the northern lights had answered it. In nature one could have both simultaneously.

For me, that’s one of the gifts of real nature: the out-of-the ordinary and intensely-emotional experience it can give. And that’s my message – the purpose for writing this blog (for whatever it’s worth): in this world of ever-more powerful AI deep- fakery and increasingly over-blown and over-processed images, for those who care about reality and truth there’s an easy solution: step outside. Step into nature. That’s where reality can be found.

And what a joy that reality can be!

morning view from camp - 11 may 2024
I slept well and long and missed sunrise. But no matter. Wanting even more than I’d already experienced would have been greedy!
andrew terrill camp morning front range colorado - 11 may 2024
Another out-of-the ordinary day!

———-

For anyone hoping to see the northern lights, this website can potentially help: https://auroranotify.com/

And then, for figuring out where the aurora can really be seen, this might help, too: https://www.lightpollutionmap.info

———-

 

 camp aurora borealis colorado - may 10 2024
Camera’s view.
camp aurora borealis colorado - may 10 2024
Reality… fantasy… both?

NOTES:

  • The above blog post is entirely based upon my own opinions. Undoubtedly, not everyone will agree with everything within it. If you have an opinion – if you agree or disagree, or have other observations – please share! I’d love to have a respectful discussion in the comments, or over on Facebook, here: Andrew Terrill
  • The peak featured in this blog is located in Colorado’s Front Range. I haven’t identified it and don’t intend to. If you know where it is or work it out, please consider the impact of how you visit and how you share it with others. I strongly believe that encouraging people to spend time in nature is a good thing, but encouraging large numbers of people to go to specific places can deeply harm those places. People who find nature’s special places for themselves tend to care for them a lot more than people who are handed them on a plate. Thank you for reading, and hopefully for seriously consider this issue! (For more on how I feel about revealing such locations, please see this blog post HERE.)
  • Finally, for more of my writing, please explore my other blog posts, or better yet, pick up a copy of my two books: The Earth Beneath My Feet and On Sacred Ground. They are available on Amazon in the US HERE and in the UK HERE. These books describe a continuous 7,000-mile walk into nature. They tell an honest story about how my views of nature changed through deep immersion into it. If you’ve found meaning in nature during a short hike… imagine what spending 18 months in nature can do!
Scroll to Top