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Seeing Stars

07/17/2017 14:55 ● Published by Alesha Damerville

By Jimmy Westlake

By Jimmy Westlake

August 12, 2000 was one of my most memorable nights under the stars. Some friends and students and I were camping out on Sand Mountain in north Routt County to watch the annual Perseid meteor shower, expected to peak that morning. Meteor showers generally are best in the hours after midnight and the waxing gibbous moon was due to set around 3:30am, so we were having fun just strumming the guitars and singing around the campfire during the late evening.

Around 11:00pm, I noticed a small wisp of light in the northern sky and commented to the group that it looked like the start of an auroral display. If it was, then it should really erupt around midnight, I predicted out loud.

The sun had erupted earlier in the week with a solar flare that was expected to spark auroras up north, but the experts had given only a 5% chance that the arctic lights would spill down over Colorado.

Wow – was I right. At about two minutes after midnight, the northern sky exploded into shimmering curtains of red and green light, all dancing above the moonlit flanks of Hahn’s Peak in the distance. I placed my Nikon film camera on its tripod (this was before I went digital) and started snapping pictures. Without the instant gratification that a digital camera provides, I was shooting blind, as we all did back then, trying every combination of exposure and f-stop in hopes that something would turn out well.

All the while, the meteor shower was sending flaming shooting stars through the colored lights. We all stood spellbound with our eyes toward the heavens, afraid to blink for fear that we would miss the next spectacular moment.

Once the moon set, the auroras just got brighter and the colors multiplied until they ran the entire palate, from pink to green to violet. The display had been going on for hours. Some of my friends had seen enough and turned in for some sleep, but I was still going strong, running on pure adrenaline.

At 4:30am, I was making something like my 200th image of the night when a blazing Perseid fireball plunged through the aurora right above Hahn’s Peak, where my camera was aimed. That was the one I had been waiting for. I closed the camera shutter knowing that I had just captured one of the most spectacular moments of the night on film.  

 

Together, the best annual meteor shower of the year and an unexpected auroral storm on that summer night in 2000 provided a cosmic memory that will last a lifetime. And I have pictures to prove it.

In Print, Today, People Colorado Mountain College Stagecoach Jimmy Westlake University Alaska Anchorage Valdosta State University Georgia Yellowstone

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