CROUSEVILLE — The outside temperature is 9 below and falling as Paul Cyr parks his black Hummer on the side of the road in this one-street town. He connects his mini-tripod to the side of the driver’s seat window, setting up a shot that will capture a picturesque red-roofed barn as a backdrop. Cyr’s main concern, however, is the vast sky, glittering with stars, unpolluted by any light in this northern Maine outpost. He grabs one of his numerous Nikons from a box on the back seat and attaches it to the tripod. Then he gets to work, setting the aperture on the full-frame camera at an extremely large opening (such as f/1.4) to allow as much light as possible into the lens.
Cyr has already checked www.spaceweather.com and knows that solar activity is extremely low tonight, so the chance of seeing the northern lights is slim to none. Yet, the crisp night sky is still clear and the Milky Way seems to shine, especially compared with the dimly lighted suburban sky that I’m used to. Cyr, 60, reaches back and changes cameras, goes from a D800 to a D700, to try to frame land and sky just right and get that iconic shot — exactly as he did on Jan. 25, 2012, from 3 to 6 a.m.
That night his trusty website noted that a huge explosion on the sun had flung a wave of solar particles toward earth. On average, it takes about 2½ days for the sun’s eruptions to reach our planet’s upper atmosphere, and Cyr was ready for the glancing blow. He picked as his backdrop a windmill on an Amish farm in nearby Easton.
“The clouds started to break and I could see a little green stripe. Then the green grew larger and formed a wavy ribbon that started moving. Then the blues, and purples, and reds started to appear,” says an animated Cyr.
This master chronicler of the night sky was ready to capture the moment, clicking at least a thousand times until the sun rose and he drove away exhausted. One shot, in particular, taken around 5 a.m., has the windmill standing tall, with vivid patches of red, green, and blue forming a kaleidoscopic quilt in the sky. That photo would soon appear on the front page of the Portland Press Herald downstate, catching the eye of Kevin Gove, a publicist for the Maine Office of Tourism. When Gove put the same shot on the MOT Facebook page, the response was overwhelming.
“People were surprised to know that the northern lights can be viewed in Maine. They thought they could only be seen in Alaska, Iceland, or Scandinavia,” Gove says.
According to Joseph Kunches, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colo., seeing the northern lights in Maine is not uncommon.
“Over a typical 11-year solar cycle, there might be 500 to 600 events that could cause the aurora oval to go that far south. Back in 2003, around Halloween, there was a two-week episode where the sun got really eruptive with big flares. It ended up pushing the aurora as far south as central Florida. But that only happens once every 15 years,” says Kunches.
Aurora borealis, or the northern lights, occurs when charged particles from the sun collide with Earth’s atmosphere. Viewed above the magnetic pole of the Northern Hemisphere, the band of colors is created by those solar flares interacting with varying gases in our atmosphere. For example, oxygen molecules produce the most prevalent color, green. The much rarer nitrogen forms a blue or purplish aurora.
While the crisp, clear nights of winter are most associated with viewing of the northern lights, Kunches notes that the spring and fall have the strongest magnetic storm activity, adding that this year and early 2014 will be extremely active.
“We’re at the peak of the latest 11-year solar cycle. We see sun spots accumulating, storing energy, that are ready to pop,” adds Kunches.
For the novice northern lights viewer, Kunches recommends finding a dark area on a hill, away from city lights. Check your local weather to ensure that you’re going to have a clear night. Also take note of the face of the moon. If it’s full, there’s a far lesser chance of viewing the lights. Most importantly, visit the Space Weather Prediction Center on the NOAA website, www.noaa.gov, or a comparable website such as www.spaceweather.com, to see what the sun is up to and whether there’s any chance of solar activity that night.
At Cyr’s 120-acre alfalfa farm in Presque Isle, the conditions are optimal. It was here in 2010, while taking photographs of hay bales at night, that Cyr first noticed a streak of green lighting up the sky. Now the Maine native avidly searches space weather websites to find the next geomagnetic storm, asteroid sighting, and satellite movement to document in digital form.
He calls himself an amateur, having made his living manufacturing a snowmobile part he created from his own patent. Yet, publications are starting to take notice of his talent. Down East magazine used his shot of Mount Katahdin in winter as the cover photo for its January 2013 issue. His wildlife shots, close-ups of bears, moose, and snowy owls that he spots on his property, have shown up in calendars, coffee table books, and on websites across the globe. In summer he loves taking aerial shots of Aroostook County and its many potato and broccoli farms from a motorized paraglider.
Cyr knows we’ll see no northern lights tonight, but he tries his best to humor me. It really doesn’t matter. Just one look at the brilliant night sky in these parts and I’m smitten. Having grown up on a farm in nearby Hamlin, Cyr knows the backroads better than most and he leads me to another one of his favorite backdrops, a shed in Fort Fairfield. He reaches back to grab a camera and starts taking photograph after photograph, just a few of the more than 200,000 images he will create this year.
“Look at the way the apple tree frames the picture,” says Cyr, and I’m sold as soon as I see the lonely shed under the vast, sparkling sky. In fact, if I saw the piece at an art show, I’d happily purchase it for my office wall. It dawns on me that in these parts, the northern lights are simply the icing on the cake.