Glacier Bay Northern Lights

Northern Lights over Glacier Bay, or The Best Aurora Show I’ve Seen in 12 Years

Alaska, Photo Essay

I was about to go to bed when a co-worker started pounding on my door while screaming my name. When you live on-site and work at a hotel, having someone frantically pound on your door at night is never a good thing. I assumed the lodge was on fire, or perhaps worse, the bar ran out of beer.

“THE LIGHTS ARE OUT! THE LIGHTS ARE OUT!!!” she shouted. Although I was exhausted and about to sleep, I did the only sensible thing in this situation – I grabbed my camera, cold weather gear, two beers and ran down to the pier. When I arrived, I looked up and saw this –

Northern Lights over Glacier Bay

  • and knew it was going to be a sleepless night.

For several hours, the northern lights danced around, setting the northern sky ablaze. It was an above average northern lights show, and I got some decent photos with the lights reflecting slightly in the water. I felt a deep sense of awe watching them, and a sense of victory – I got to see the lights this year! – something that isn’t necessarily guaranteed. Little did I know that the best was yet to come.

Two days later the skies were clear and the northern lights forecast called for high activity. I went out shortly after sunset to look up, wait and watch.

Early in the evening, with an orange glow from the setting sun still visible in the western sky, the lights burst from the heavens and danced above, displaying vibrant greens, yellows and purples. Bartlett Cove was a mirror, reflecting the elaborate show of lights. Every 20 or 30 minutes, the sky would ignite, sending columns of fire dancing across the sky. Sometimes the lights would be directly overhead, with shafts of surrealistic light beaming down from above like something from God’s chandelier. It was the best aurora borealis display I’d seen in 12 years in Alaska.

Glacier Bay Northern Lights

As I watched the lights for hours that night with a rotating cast of co-workers, tourists and locals, I realized that people react differently to the lights. Some of those watching with me sat in silence, some furiously took photos while others offered words of encouragement as they started to appear – “Come on! Come on!” I have known some people to howl at the lights like wolves, but it should be noted that those people bring more than two beers with them. When with others, I usually talk dirty words of encouragement to the lights. “Oh, yeah, dance for me girl. Yeah, dance for me Aurora. Do your thang, girl!” When alone, I usually watch in a state of wonder, maybe whispering WOW over and over again. The lights, no matter where you see them or what your reaction, are worth missing a night of sleep over.

Glacier Bay Northern Lights

Glacier Bay Northern Lights

Glacier Bay Northern Lights

Northern Lights and big dipper

Northern Lights Bartlett Cove

Glacier Bay Aurora Borealis

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Currently living in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. I travel, write, take photos, and stalk street cats. ~

46 thoughts on “Northern Lights over Glacier Bay, or The Best Aurora Show I’ve Seen in 12 Years”

  1. I probably would react list a little school girl, elbowing who ever was next to me saying “Wow are you seeing this!?” while jumping up and down a bit. What an amazing occurrence and your images are spot on.

  2. Wow! I’m sure I would be oohing and aahing, gasping and marveling like I do with fireworks. But these are so much better than those man-made flashes; it’s hard to even fathom that these lights emanate from the sky. I’d love to see them someday.

    • They are indeed better than the man-made flashes, but they are maddeningly unreliable though. We were supposed to have a solar storm last night and I spent about 3 hours in the cold for nothing! Hopefully you get to see them someday. My advice – spend a winter way up north to maximize chances.

  3. I am so willing to stay awake for the northern lights. This year’s aurora borealis seems very majestic, to say the least. The lights, the stars, the night skies, and the reflection on Bartlett Cove make a magnificent ensemble of some of nature’s finest elements. Like a very refined painting.

    • Thank you Bama. I saw them just as good two years ago, but I was on a dirt road with power lines and scrubby trees in the way. This was a magical scene!

  4. Jeff, this post leaves me spellbound. If it looks this good in photos, I can’t even fathom how it must be to see the aurora in person. I would probably alternate between taking ridiculous numbers of photos and picking my jaw off the ground. Your posts on Alaska are steadily pushing it up my wish list!

    • Thank you James. In some ways photos are more impressive because they sometimes pick up extra color, but nothing beats seeing it in person and watching it dance and move across the sky. It is a pretty mind-blowing experience. You should do Alaska someday but see if you can get a magazine to pay for it because it is expensive!

  5. Mechelle Andtews says:

    Jeff, when I lived in Gambell on St. Lawtence Island was the first time I saw the lights. My fifth and sixth graders would stay out all night watching and screaming at the lights. The next day they would be asleep on their feet and hoarse from all the yelling. They believed they could call down the lights. It scared the Daylights out of them when they seemed about to pounce for they also believed they would be taken away! Their journal entries were often a yelling treat to read!

    • Mechelle, that is awesome! I can only imagine what a kid must think, or what the earlier tribes thought when we didn’t know the science behind them. It does have a certain ominous effect. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Oh, what a night! We went to Alaska for our honeymoon in 2000 and are planning on returning to celebrate our 20th. Hopefully we will get lucky with the lights, too. Thanks for sharing your beautiful photos. Already looking forward to our return trip to Alaska in 2020!

      • We used the Alaskan ferry system to see the Inside Passage. We stopped in Wrangell, Juneau, Glacier Bay and Ketchikan. It was all great, but Glacier Bay, of course, was incredible. We also really loved seeing the bears at Anan outside of Wrangell. Have you been there? If not, definitely try to make it. It is fascinating to watch the bears feed and fish for salmon from a blind right on the river!

      • I’ll have to check out Wrangell – that sounds great. I get over to Juneau sometimes and that is a totally underrated city. There are so many trails and water activities there but I never see it on The Lists of top outdoor cities or top cities in America, which I guess is fine. If you come back to Glacier Bay look me up.

  7. oldpoet56 says:

    Thank you for two things, you having a great coworker and you having a great camera eye.

  8. Jeff these are unbelievable! I love that you took provisions to the dock including two beer. Good man to have your priorities straight.

      • Sometimes Jeff out in the mountains. Here in Calgary of course with all the light it doesn’t happen. I grew up on a farm in Saskatchewan and we often saw them there. Nothing like this though!

  9. Wow, wow, and wow! We have never seen those dirty dancing Aurora’s anywhere near that incredible! Thanks for sharing with us. We hope to catch those hot babes on an upcoming excursion to Churchill, Canada. We splurged on a polar bear research course with the Great Bear Foundation. I shall bring more than two beers!

    • Ron, that should be really cool. I bet you get some great lights up there, and yes, you may need more than 2 beers there – I bet that is cold!

  10. Wow. Wow. What a night you had. Glorious. And wonderful photos too. I’m glad to say I’ve seen them so I don’t have to brave the cold again 🙂
    but then I think that with the right clothing I probably would – just to see them again!

    • One nice thing about watching them on the coast versus in the interior (like Denali) is the temperature. It was light-jacket weather while watching these, but usually below zero in the interior!

  11. To see the Northern lights are a big bucket list item for me. How lucky are you? I now have a serious case of ” job envy” . .

    • Come work in Alaska! Last night we had clear skies and they forecasted a solar storm, but we saw nothing, so it is hit or miss. You really have to dedicate some time in the north land to be sure to see them.

  12. I know exactly what I’d be doing – saying OH MY GOD! OH MY GOD! OH MY GOD! over, and over, and over again.

    Your photos are simply spectacular! I was wowed looking at your photos, I can only imagine how much more breathtaking they were in person. Serious, serious, serious envy going on right now!!

    • Thanks Joanne. It is incredible in person. Photos don’t do it justice, but photos also show a slightly different view than reality. I think I need a post to explain this!

      • I’ve seen Northern Lights as a teenager in my hometown, but that was a long time ago and nothing even remotely as spectacular as what you’ve witnessed!! It’s definitely on my list of things to experience again one day!

  13. Stunning photos Jeff ~ what a great way to prep for a shoot too, while it is never great to be woken up in such a way, when it comes to photography there is nothing better.

    • Randall, I’ve shot enough northern lights by now that I can change all the settings it the dark so I didn’t have do any prep other than get my hydration!

      • This past winter, I was set to go up and shoot my first northern lights…it must be a sight. Envious to hear you’ve seen and shot them so much ~ and made that much better with a beer or three ~ Cheers!

  14. One of my dreams is to see the northern lights in person. I have seen many photos, and find this phenomenon so magical. Your photos here are some of the best I’ve ever seen Jeff, and I can imagine how blissful they must have been that night. Terrific post.

    • Thanks Jet. If you want to see them, my recommendation is to spend a long time up north, like several weeks in October or March. You need clear skies + solar activity and they don’t always cooperate!

  15. Pingback: Bubble Net Feeding is Awesome, Or I Got Covered in Whale Snot | Planet Bell

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