Night skies

Northern lights event had most looking to the heavens

Posted 5/14/24

Powell stargazer Greg Wise sounded groggy as he answered the phone Monday morning. He had spent the entire weekend looking up at the night sky with his wife Susan well into the morning hours. He …

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Night skies

Northern lights event had most looking to the heavens


Powell stargazer Greg Wise sounded groggy as he answered the phone Monday morning. He had spent the entire weekend looking up at the night sky with his wife Susan well into the morning hours. He probably had a neck ache to go along with the need for coffee.

He wasn’t alone. Friday’s spectacular aurora borealis event had most people looking to the stars. Hundreds of vehicles full of Park County residents headed to Polecat Bench, Deaver Reservoir and into nearby mountains and foothills to see the event; the strongest aurora borealis event in this part of the country in decades, Wise said.

“From now on this event will be known as 5-10,” Wise said gleefully when the dancing green, purple and pink colors broke out overhead.

But you didn’t have to leave town to see the colors washing over the Wyoming landscape. You could step outside in the middle of Powell and Cody, with all the light pollution of the cities, and still see the jaw-dropping natural phenomenon.

The northern lights were visible to much of the nation. People from as far south as Texas were watching and photographing the event.

“Never in my life did I think we'd see the aurora borealis from central Texas,” said Meteorologist Avery Tomasco of Austin on social media.

There are quite a few folks, like Wise, needing a restful vacation after this past weekend. But for the retired Wise, 70, every night is like the weekend.

“Since we retired, every day is like a Friday or Saturday night. We just sleep in when we want,” he said.

Wise started looking to the stars with a camera in his hands with one of his best friends, Lynn Richardson, who passed away in 2022. The two started out by photographing moonlight photography. They were near Clark on a late night trip when they saw something new to them in the northern skies.

“What is that glow over there?” Wise said he asked Richardson at the time. “I took a long exposure and there were these great colors. At the time we thought, what in the heck did we just see.”

After that night Wise couldn’t stop looking forward to night skies events. He watches northern lights forecasts and is always ready to jump in the truck for a new adventure.

“You can see someone or something just a few feet in front of you and at the same time you can see stars from millions, maybe billions of light years away. I mean, it's incredible,” Wise said.

Wise shared his passion for the heavens with all of his friends, founding Wyoming Night Skies on Facebook. His enthusiasm is infectious. Now more than 5,000 people are members of the group.

Friday night he had a group of about 16 photographers and friends joining him at Deaver Reservoir for the event. He often takes groups out when there are high Kp forecasts. The level of geomagnetic activity is indicated by the planetary K index or Kp. The Kp index ranges from 0 to 9. The weekend event had forecasts as high as 8.0, which is the highest Wise had ever seen.

Shortly after dark, the northern skies started to glow in purple and pink, visible to the naked eye. Then the entire sky exploded in color. The show was everywhere, even glowing for an extended period of time in the southwest skies.

Cody resident Ross Gorman didn’t stop at photographing the night skies. He also pointed his camera (fitted with the proper filters and his personal safety equipment) at the sun looking for the sun spot that caused all the excitement.

“The sun spot is 16 times the size of earth,” he said.

He spent Friday night in the Cody city limits photographing the geomagnetic storms — which continued to fuel the northern lights shows throughout Friday and Saturday  — at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, placing Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s sculpture “The Scout” in the foreground to give placement to his photographs. But for many observers, even their cellphones worked to get a picture, resulting in thousands of posts on social media.

Powell residents Scott and Justine Larsen didn’t plan on staying up to watch the event, having been underwhelmed by previous attempts to catch a glimpse of an aurora borealis being visible in Park County. But their curiosity got the best of them and they loaded up the Jeep. What they found was more traffic in Powell than they had seen for years.

“There was a steady stream of cars heading north of Powell — a solid stream of lights [from the vehicles],” Scott said. “Cars were coming and going and parked everywhere on the side of the road.”

The Larsens were in search of a quiet place to watch the northern lights. Almost everyone in town had the same idea. Groups had bonfires going and there were several parties and hundreds of cars, he said.

They had seen enough at one point and were going to leave the scene, but then suddenly Scott saw flashes of color. He was somewhere between shock and awe.

“I was whispering to Justine, ‘get out of the car and look up,’ like I was going to scare it [the northern lights] away,” he said.

Wise was far from a whisper. His group sounded like tap dancers with the click of multiple camera shutters mixed with all the oohs and awes. He is already planning his next night adventure.

On each trip he has fond memories of travels down darkened roads with Richardson. He misses his friend, who was always willing to help when needed and took photographs of the landscapes he loved daily. Richardson’s last moments were spent helping a neighbor round up an erstwhile cat. He died of a heart attack shortly after.

Wise isn’t ready to slow down anytime soon.

In a couple weeks the Milky Way’s main core will be fully visible in this part of northern Wyoming and on May 23 there will be a full moon — known as the flower moon in honor of spring blossoms.

“I just love it,” Wise said about capturing images of the night skies and sharing time with loved ones and friends.