Living Snoqualmie’s number one clicked photo on Instagram in 2021 was a photo of the Aurora Borealis by local photographer, Travis Wetherbee. When we saw he was going to write up his experience that night, Living Snoqualmie asked him to do it for us. This is part one of his exhilarating tale.
I was out on a walk with my son when I got a message from my photographer friend Mike Deal. He said there was a strong possibility of a Geomagnetic Storm that night and wanted to know if I was headed out. I said I would check when I got back to the house.
When I arrived home and started looking at the data, things looked interesting! I messaged Mike back, and soon we were on the phone working on a location. Two places came to mind within the time frame of the predicted storm, Startup Washington or Rattlesnake Ridge in North Bend.
I had hiked Rattlesnake a few times with friends earlier in the spring but had not hiked the Startup location in about 18 months. Startup was the much easier hike by a wide margin. But not knowing the area in the daylight makes it more challenging at night, even with proper lighting. Duvall was an option until I checked the dew point and realized fog would make it difficult to get a good shot.
While Rattlesnake was the harder hike, knowing I’d have a partner for support and security made it the best option. Plus, I knew that view overlooking Mount Si along with the foreground of North Bend below would make for a great shot if the storm showed up. So, I decided the risk was well worth the reward.
I called my lovely wife and alerted her to the goings-on. This is my 4th year chasing the Aurora Borealis, so she knows the drill and is the most supportive partner ever.
After a quick 20-minute nap, I loaded up the Forester. I grabbed all my gear. My Sony A7III, new Samyang FE 24mm Astro Lens and my Sony FE 24-70mm f2.8 GM lens, lens heaters, tools, tripods, phones, chargers, remotes, cold weather gear, headlamps, batteries, flashlights, food and my sidearm.
We were to meet at Rattlesnake at 8 pm to start our hike. I headed for McDonald’s, as is customary on my hunts. It’s the dinner of choice for Aurora chasing! After I grabbed my food, I got a message from Mike that I will be solo for the evening; my partner had a previous obligation that slipped his mind. This is an acceptable excuse as Lady Aurora makes you drop everything once that alert comes in.
The storm’s start was estimated at 9 pm. At this point, I have a choice. I can pick a new spot that is easier to get in and out of or stick with my plan and make some adjustments. There was no choice to be made. I was going to Rattlesnake no matter what. It was foretold, plus I was already eating my McNuggets and Fries, I couldn’t back out now! I figured if anything went wrong on the way in, I would back out and scrap the trip.
Hunting the Aurora means coming home empty-handed 9 out of 10 times. The other thing that made me want Rattlesnake was the dew point within reach near sea level up to 250ft. I didn’t want to waste the opportunity and get washed out by fog.
I consulted Mark Davis from NorthBendWeather.com and was reassured Rattlesnake wouldn’t get socked in with fog or high winds. It was October, the weather can be nasty, change quickly, and Rattlesnake is the last place you want to be when that happens.
I arrived at Rattlesnake around 8:41 pm after stopping for extra water. I checked spaceweatherlive.com and noticed the storm looked promising, so I grabbed my gear, did one last check for essentials, and headed up!
At the bottom of the trail, I almost ran into a bunch of deer coming from the lake toward the parking area. I progressed along the lake, heard rustling in the woods and saw more deer coming back from watering. It’s pitch black, so I had my headlamp on. I started up the trail and took my time to make sure of every step on the way.
My cell reception cut out around the first switchback, but around the 1/4 mark, I received a message that a G1 threshold had been reached! That essentially means it’s about to go down in Aurora Chasing terms. At this point, I am determined and start making tracks. In all, it took me precisely 59 minutes to arrive at the lowest landing closest to town
It took me about 10 minutes to set up and get my first shot. Around 10:30, the storm hit the G2 threshold, and that’s when things went completely insane! I remember just hitting the button on my wired remote and crying because the pillars of photons were dancing over Mount Si! When I envisioned the shot in my mind’s eye, it was never anywhere near what I was able to capture that night!
For two hours, I just kept hitting the button and getting shots I’ve only seen in magazines. By 12:21 am, the cold started to cut through the gear I had with me, so I packed up and started my hike down. I left my music on to keep me company, but the speaker was muffled in my backpack.
About a quarter of the way down the trail, I stop to take a pic of a cool tree that says “you can do it” in Sharpie. That’s when the hair on the back of my neck stood straight up! I lowered my phone, placed my right hand on my gun’s safety, and slowly pulled my sidearm. I could hear and smell everything; my sinuses were so clear I could smell the water from the creek a ways away.
I leaned left, and I saw a pair of angry eyes were shining back at me! The adrenaline had taken over at this point, and thinking was out the window, so instead of acting, I took cover. I just bent down on the trail and prayed to Thor. I’m an atheist, but at this point, if I’m calling in a care package, it’s going to be Thor!
Thor didn’t show, so I formulated a plan to calm my heart rate so I could think. As I practiced circular breathing, I stood back up and yelled, “if you’re human, tell me now because you have a gun pointed at you!”
Next in Part II- What was in the bushes? Will Travis make it down the mountain unscathed? Did Thor show up to save the day? Tune in next week to find out!
[Travis Wetherbee runs Last Lite Photography. He is a landscape, nightscape and Rock n Roll photographer. You may spot him at a show or on the side of our local roads around the valley, camera in hand, ready to capture the perfect scene]