Todd is back from another mid-winter northern Alaska aurora hunting season in his pop-up camper. This time he’s got something all-new to show us; “Aurora Hunting” on DVD!
Todd Salat was one of our very first interviews back in February of 2007. If Todd’s mid-winter northern Alaska truck camping in a pop-up camper wasn’t enough to get your attention, his aurora photography certainly was. Now Todd’s back with a new twist on his aurora hunting photography with an aurora video!
Angela, Harley, and I absolutely loved watching Todd’s new “Aurora Hunting” DVD. And there is no shortage of truck camper shots either.
If you’re interested in truck camping, Alaska, or learning about when and where and how to see the auroras, Todd has the video for you. Congratulations Todd and Shay!
TCM: What keeps you going out into the cold dark Alaskan winter to photograph the Auroras?
Todd: It is such a natural calling that I couldn’t imagine not doing it. I actually think I would go crazy if I could not pack up the truck camper and go into the yonder.
TCM: What’s going through your mind when you head out to go aurora hunting?
Todd: There’s freedom in that whole process. Sometimes it’s lone wolf mode for me. My wife Shay and I have a wonderful relationship and love to travel together, but when I’m in lone wolf mode, I’m off and independent.
Shay likes September aurora hunting and, come January and February, I get to be a lone wolf. And then she goes out again with me in April. I can get her up to our cabin in the winter because we have a wood stove there. She just doesn’t have the same urge to freeze as I do. It makes me feel extra alive to be out at thirty below.
TCM: That’s insanely cold. Do you feel connected to the auroras or are they just a scientific phenomenon?
Todd: That’s a good question, Gordon. I have a scientific background with a Masters in Geology. That was my ticket to Alaska. My spiritual connection lies with mother nature and the northern lights. It’s an awe-inspiring combo punch.
TCM: So it’s personal?
Todd: Yes, it’s amazing how personal it feels when you’re out there. I’ll put you there… It’s January, four in the morning, and not a living soul is awake for hundreds of miles. It feels like the aurora show is for you, and just for you. There’s a major connection. The auroras are pulsating on top of you; green, pink, and purple. It’s unbelievable. And there’s always the feeling that you’ve earned it when it’s really cold and late at night.
TCM: You call your camper the Rejuvenator. The Rejuvenator is getting up there in years. Are there any thoughts of a Rejuvenator II?
Todd: That’s a great question. Every time I go out on a trip I look at my camper and wonder, does it still have it? It’s an old 1994 Starcraft pop-up with a roll and a half of duct tape on it. When things get down to twenty below, things start to crack. I love that it weighs just 1,100 pounds and I can carry it on my 2001 Tundra. It allows me to have a smaller, more nimble rig.
TCM: Isn’t it a bit cold for a pop-up camper in the middle of winter in northern Alaska?
Todd: It definitely gets cold. I often sleep with the top down in what I call, “stealth mode”. I crawl in back with the top down and it’s essentially a hard-side camper. Eventually, I will be forced to get a new camper because I will wear this one out completely. I think I still have a few more good years with the Starcraft. It’s home away from home.
TCM: Where did you get the idea for the Aurora Hunting video? We loved it.
Todd: I really appreciate that you like it. The original idea for that concept came from Shay and I being asked by the Discovery Channel to get raw footage of auroras. We were to have a little cameo appearance on a show, so they flew us up somewhere north of Fairbanks. They wanted us on a dog team going down a field. They took photos of the auroras, but wished they had moving footage of the auroras.
All of the sudden, I saw a need and had the idea of how to get the auroras in motion. Basically, it’s time lapse photography smoothed out. With it being a night-time phenomena, you can’t use regular video, so I’m using a higher resolution digital SLR with time lapse.
Shooting auroras in motion is my new found passion and I’ve made the transition from film to digital. My technique is a secret recipe that makes the auroras look natural on television and video. Every time I went out, for a year and a half, I was developing that technique. I was actually asking you, Gordon, about what kind of video camera to get and you guided me to the Canon XH-A1. You nailed it spot on.
TCM: That is a nice camcorder. What are your photographic plans for this year?
Todd: Right now I’m putting together putting together a 2011 Wild Things Calendar that has northern lights, wildflowers, and wildlife. On September fifth, I’ll be going to Denali for the Pro-Pho. I might be going with friend who has a big Lance camper. I’ve been going into Denali in July for seven years now. They’ve got a lottery process and you list dates that you want. I put down that I’d take September and got lucky.
TCM: Why September?
Todd: In September, the moose and caribou will be in their prime. Their antlers will have the velvet off and they’ll be sparring and there will always be a chance for a grizzly bear experience. Plus, there’s Mt. McKinley. Darkness returns to the sky in September, so I may even see auroras at night, plus the sunrises, sunsets, and wildlife during day. It could be tough finding time to sleep!
TCM: Good deal. For someone that wants to see the auroras, when does the Alaskan aurora season begin and end?
Todd: It does not have to be cold to see the auroras. It just needs to be dark. That eliminates May, June, and July when we get constant daylight in Alaska. It’s best to come in August and September when autumn hits and darkness slowly comes back to the sky. Last year I actually saw auroras on August first.
In September, we have half day and half night. That’s when aurora season typically begins, and it’s a really wonderful time to be in Alaska. There are fall colors and we’re not at sub-zero yet. Plus, statistically September and March, which are the two equinox months, are the best times to see the auroras.
TCM: Is there any luck involved in actually seeing the auroras or are they there all the time to see?
Todd: It’s a lot of luck, especially with clouds that can obscure the sky. The more time you have here, the more chance you have of getting lucky and seeing auroras. Plus, location is important. You want to head to the far north like the Fairbanks area. And auroras are best viewed between 11:30 PM and 3:30 AM.
TCM: Your video shows the auroras moving quite a bit. Was that all in real time or did you speed up the auroras?
Todd: My dad always asks me that. When watching auroras on video in real time, we found it to be too slow. They just aren’t exciting enough to hold people’s attention, so we sped them up by two times.
We want to preserve the shape, movement, and feel of the auroras. In real time, they move slowly like a cloud at first, and then they enter the break up stage of the geomagnetic storm and look like they are rippling across a stage. Ripples in the aurora can move from horizon to horizon, a distance of about 1,000 miles across, in just five or ten seconds. We stand there in disbelief of how fast they are moving. When they are moving that fast, it’s very difficult to capture them with a camera.
TCM: What was the worst weather you ever faced while photographing auroras?
Todd: My worse nemesis is wind. I can do forty below, but put a five to ten mile per hour breeze on top that, and it’s awful. The wind chill makes any night very cold. In the pop-up camper, we either have to put the pop-up down or find a sheltered spot in the trees during high winds.
While traveling, we always have a lot of water, keep the propane full, and have the gas tank full. We have our sleeping bags and parkas so we can always hunker down inside the camper and hibernate.
TCM: Any run-ins with wildlife?
Todd: Once, I was in Denali lying on my belly taking wildflower pictures. Then I saw a park bus driver waving at me from the road. I jogged down the hill to see what they wanted only to discover that a grizzly bear had approached to within forty or fifty feet of where I was lying. I’m glad that bear didn’t think I was a caribou!
Another time, on a dark windy night, I heard a creature crunching through woods. I was tent camping so I couldn’t seek refuge in my truck camper. The animal burst out of the woods, fangs blaring. Come to find out that it was only a porcupine. It was so noisy that I thought it was a bear! I tend to make noise when walking through the woods saying, “Yo bear! Yo bear!”
They say up here in Alaska that year seven is when you get too confident. You think you’re a seasoned vet, so you become complacent and get yourself in trouble. I have never lost respect for nature. I don’t want to take unnecessary risks.
TCM: How can someone get a print of your photographs or your new DVD video?
Todd: We have a website at www.AuroraHunter.com. We have information our website on how to aurora hunt and a bunch of links that can take you to other sites to expand your knowledge.
TCM: Thanks Todd. Is there anything we didn’t ask that you would like to add?
Todd: We love our lifestyle. We say it everyday. I heard Shay say today, “I love my life!”. Right now it’s sunny and beautiful, we’re doing well in business, and the garden is growing. Even in the wintertime, when people get seasonally affected disorder (“SAD”), we go to Hawaii or somewhere south. For us, it’s all about the independence and freedom and being able to do our own thing. I feel very fortunate.
TCM: Stay out of the bears in Denali this September. And thanks for sending us the video. It rocks!
Todd: You’re welcome.