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Photographer on Arctic Trek Snags Stunning Northern Lights Photos

National Geographic photographer Mike Theiss taking in the northern lights. The sign marks the edge of the Arctic Circle can be seen to the left.
National Geographic photographer Mike Theiss taking in the northern lights. The sign marks the edge of the Arctic Circle can be seen to the left. (Image credit: Mike Theiss / National Geographic)

National Geographic photographer Mike Theiss has always wanted to see the northern lights. So when an assignment took him to Whitehorse, in Canada's Yukon Territory, he rented a car and drove more than 550 miles (885 kilometers) north to the Arctic Circle.

While it usually takes a major solar storm to send the northern lights dancing over the lower parts of Canada and the northern United States, auroras can sometimes be seen in the Arctic Circle even when not visible elsewhere.  And sure enough, they made an appearance for Theiss.

He spotted them and stopped to take pictures a short drive from his hotel, at a lonely truck stop off the Dempster Highway, a route that follows on old dogsled trail and connects the Yukon cities of Dawson City and Inuvik. "In the winter, nobody really goes, and it's quite dangerous because it's so cold," he told OurAmazingPlanet.

Since it was so frigid — with temperatures around minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 40 degrees Celsius) — he had to keep his car running during the four hours he was photographing, both to keep warm and to ensure he didn't have to start it again. His normally trusty camera batteries had to be changed and heated to keep functioning.

But the northern lights made it worth it. "I was yelling and screaming when it happened," he said. "All of the sudden, a stripe of color shoots up off the horizon, and goes all the way over my head, from one side to another. There was no way to capture it all," he said. [See Theiss's aurora photos.]

"What happens is, it does dance; the lights twist and come rolling at you. I swear to God it looks so low that you can touch it," Theiss said.

He also got a mild case of frostbite from just touching his metal tripod without a glove. "Maybe it's because I'm from Florida, but I didn't know that could happen," he said. The focus ring on his Canon 1D Mark IV camera also froze, so he couldn't focus properly.

Luckily, most of the pictures of the northern lights turned out. "I'm really happy I got the photos I did, but it wasn't easy," he said.

For more of Theiss' photo adventures, follow Mike on Twitter or see more of his work at www.ExtremeNature.com.

The northern lights above a sign marking the edge of the Arctic Circle. (Image credit: Mike Theiss / National Geographic)

Reach Douglas Main at dmain@techmedianetwork.com. Follow him on Twitter @Douglas_Main. Follow OurAmazingPlanet on Twitter @OAPlanet. We're also on Facebook and Google+.

Douglas Main
Douglas Main loves the weird and wonderful world of science, digging into amazing Planet Earth discoveries and wacky animal findings (from marsupials mating themselves to death to zombie worms to tear-drinking butterflies) for Live Science. Follow Doug on Google+.