The Man Who Chases Auroras to Push Away Darkness
After tragedy followed Hugo Sanchez from El Salvador to Canada, he started photographing the northern lights, finding a new sense of purpose in the wintertime sky
Throughout the pandemic, we'll keep publishing news to help you navigate the state of travel today (like whether travel insurance covers the coronavirus), as well as stories about places for you to put on your bucket list once it's safe to start going more far-flung.
Clouds that obscured our view a few hours ago have since given way to dazzling stars and a crescent moon.
The clarity sends Hugo Sanchez into high gear. Tugging a neck warmer up over his nose, he grabs two tripod-mounted cameras and starts trudging across a snow-covered field toward a riverbank.
It’s around 12:45 A.M. on a February night. The temperature is minus nine degrees, but a steady wind blowing over interior Alaska’s Middle Fork of the Koyukuk River makes it feel more like minus 20. Behind us, silhouettes of the scattered log cabins that comprise the hamlet of Wiseman look like something out of a different century.
Hugo keeps walking, pushing farther from our small group and the log fire that most of us are huddled around. One of the tour guides, a burly man in a snowsuit, follows Hugo and me toward the river’s edge, then asks that we stop. The frozen river is probably safe to walk on, but unnecessary risk doesn’t pair well with tour operations in absurdly remote and frigid locations.
After setting and resetting his tripods in the snow half a dozen times, Hugo is finally satisfied. He angles the cameras, and then we wait. Before long we’re stomping in place and swaying subconsciously, the body’s automated reply to the brain’s insistence on staying out in this outrageous cold. The Milky Way is aglow, illuminating the forest and snow-covered roofs. We haven’t yet seen what we came here for, but conditions couldn’t be better.
Every now and then, Hugo bends to look through a viewfinder. Forty-eight years old and standing about five foot seven, he has large brown eyes and a slightly purplish nose. He’s partially deaf in one ear, the result of a long-ago infection, and his English, although fluent, is tinged with the Spanish of his native El Salvador.
Growing up in Central America, Hugo had never heard of the northern lights: la aurora was a phrase used only to describe the special glow of dawn. But since relocating to Edmonton, Alberta, nearly 30 years ago, he’s had scores of sightings of what he sometimes calls Lady Aurora. Nowadays, when the forecast looks good or half decent, Hugo will load up his 2007 Mazda and drive, alone and often in the middle of the night, to Elk Island National Park, about 40 minutes from his home on the northwestern edge of Edmonton. There he’ll set up and wait. It’s a calming place, he says, where he can reflect on what he’s been through, what he’s lost, and what he still has.
Before peeling off from the group, Hugo and I listened to a Wiseman local give an informal lesson about the physics of auroras. He stood outside a cabin filled with furs and mining-era memorabilia, and, with mittened hands gesturing toward the sky, explained how nonstop nuclear fusion in the sun sends electrons and protons zooming into space—the solar wind. Some of these charged particles make their way into earth’s upper atmosphere, where they smash into oxygen, nitrogen, and other gases. The collisions emit visible light: greens mostly, with cameos from pink, violet, blue, yellow, and red.
They’re visible, mind you, if it’s dark and no fog, clouds, snow, or light pollution impede your view. The show is best in an oval region that surrounds earth’s magnetic poles at high latitudes. Situated at 67.4 degrees and perched on the edge of Gates of the Arctic National Park and Reserve, Wiseman is as front row as it gets.
A few people huddle around the fire outside a cabin; others stay indoors, sipping instant cider, trying not to nod off, and trusting that someone will alert them if there’s light from above. Not Hugo. He stays at his outpost nearly the entire time, close to three hours. I worry that he’s colder than he lets on, but this is his element.
In 2016, Hugo’s ten-year-old son, Emilio, died from complications caused by profound developmental problems. Throughout the challenges, pain, and sadness of that decade, Hugo struggled, as anyone would, to make peace with existence and its cruelties. Yet he has managed to do so, thanks in large part to photography and his quest to capture the northern lights.
I first connected with Hugo more than a year ago, when a NASA scientist sent me the names of a few aurora aficionados who share their images with the scientific community. After learning a little about his story, it felt like a good idea to take him someplace he’d never been—a place known for clear skies, stunning vistas, and tourism infrastructure catering to aurora chasers. My thinking was that really getting to know this photographer, elementary school custodian, and philosopher-poet would require a dream trip. So in February of last year, we met up in Anchorage to begin our journey into the heart of an Alaskan winter.
Hugo was raised in San Salvador, in the northern part of the capital, not far from the University of El Salvador. One of his neighbors was a baker, and Hugo can recall happy mornings traveling in the back of the man’s pickup to deliver fresh bread around town. He enjoyed soccer after school and on weekends. His family often went to the beach, buying a watermelon to have on the way and returning home with fresh fish or crab. But Hugo’s teenage years were defined by the civil war that ravaged El Salvador for 12 years starting in 1980. Decades of tension between an impoverished citizenry and an oppressive right-wing government erupted into full-scale conflict that spring, after government snipers opened fire on a crowd gathered for a funeral, killing 42 people and injuring hundreds more. In response, leftist insurgent groups united to form a guerrilla army intent on overthrowing the regime.
The year 1980 was also the height of the Cold War and the dubious notion that drove much of U.S. foreign policy in the region: “spheres of influence.” Turning a blind eye to the Salvadoran government’s barbarity, the U.S. gave military support to its counterinsurgency campaign. A decade of fighting, marked by widespread human-rights violations, rape, torture, and disappearances, left an estimated 75,000 dead.
At the start of the war, Hugo was more wide-eyed than frightened. When he was about 12 and visiting his grandparents, he and his cousins would lie on a hill and watch government helicopters fire at guerrilla camps on the forested slopes of a mountain named Guazapa.
“It was so cool to see the lights, the gunshot fire in the sky,” he recalls. But soon the skirmishes between rebels and U.S.-backed government forces began closing in on San Salvador. Hugo remembers seeing dismembered corpses on roadsides, dead bodies in a dumpster. Entering the university at 17 helped him avoid military recruitment, but it always felt like he was just a sideways glance away from execution.
By 1989, explosions, gunshots, and murders were the norm. Hugo, not yet 20, was already married and had a baby daughter. Fearful of crossfire, no one left their houses for days on end. Hugo’s family passed the time with marathon sessions of Monopoly as food supplies dwindled. Then, on November 11, Hugo awoke to shouts: “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!” (“The people united will never be defeated!”) Gunshots echoed up and down the street. It was the beginning of the opposition fighters’ final offensive against the government. The house shook as helicopters fired rockets and sprayed gunfire into nearby buildings.
Hugo’s mother-in-law was already in Canada, and her church had been sponsoring immigrant applications for friends and relatives back in San Salvador. The process took more than a year—documents, medical exams, interviews—but Hugo, his wife, and the baby were finally approved for Canadian residence. In September 1991, they flew 3,000 miles north to start their new life in Edmonton.
Despite support from the church group, Hugo struggled to adjust; the language barrier was intimidating, and he could only get low-paying jobs doing painting or landscaping. The cold weather didn’t help, and his marriage was strained. In 1998, Hugo and his wife had another child, but by 2004 it was clear their relationship wasn’t working, so they split up.
Charged particles from the solar wind smash into atmospheric gases. The collisions emit visible light: greens mostly, with cameos from pink, violet, blue, yellow, and red.
At a bar one night in 2005, Hugo met Jamie House. She was a lot younger than him, but they appreciated each other’s nonchalant vibe and shared easy laughs while playing pool. “Our sense of humor kind of clicked,” Jamie says. The two dated for about a year before Jamie got pregnant. “I loved him and wanted to have a child with him,” she says. “When you’re young, you want your happy ending, and that was where I saw it.”
Emilio was born on May 24, 2006, seriously ill from the start. “They rushed him into intensive care because he wasn’t breathing properly,” Jamie recalls. “I didn’t get to hold him until he was two days old.” Emilio didn’t leave the hospital for five months, following multiple surgeries on his trachea and abdomen.
Over the next few years, Emilio went back and forth between home and hospital. His doctors never came up with a comprehensive diagnosis, but he had difficulty breathing and eating, could barely see or hear, and never walked or talked. He would come to endure dozens of trips to the emergency room and still more surgeries. Caring for a child like that, one of Hugo’s close friends told me, is like trying to tread water with an anchor around your neck.
Our plan in Alaska was straightforward: hopscotch to different aurora-viewing hot spots, linking up with local tour operators who know the best places, the ones far from the lights of civilization and set against dramatic backdrops like fjords and abandoned mining buildings. We started in the south, outside Anchorage, then made our way to the interior, first to Fairbanks and then another 270 miles north to Wiseman. Over the course of a week, we stayed out most nights, checked the forecast compulsively, and did a lot of marching through knee-deep snow.
The chase itself began around 9:30 P.M., when the local guide we were working with phoned to give us an update about the prospects of seeing auroras. This input was based on weather conditions and something called the Kp-index, a numeric scale conveying the intensity of the solar wind, with lower numbers (1, 2, 3) indicating less geomagnetic razzle-dazzle and higher numbers (4 to 9) indicating more.
Seeing an aurora on a Kp 9 night is like a religious epiphany—or so I’m told, because that’s very rare and it didn’t happen for us. But the truth is, seeing an aurora at a 3.5 or a 4, on the right night and in the right setting, is so magnificent that it leaves you laughing.
The forecasts mattered little to Hugo. He’d seen many auroras on nights when conditions were supposed to be poor, and he’d come up empty when forecasts looked great. The only guarantee is that you won’t see anything if you don’t show up. If the midnight trek to an old mine, the drive to the top of a dark ski mountain, or any of our other frigid adventures yielded no reward, at least we would know that we tried.
The other thing about an aurora quest is that there’s a lot of downtime during the day—in February in Alaska, you get roughly six to nine hours of daylight in the state’s northern areas—and Hugo was hell-bent on making the most of it. During a stop at Chena hot springs, outside Fairbanks, we rode a couple of beat-up snowmobiles around, laughing our asses off when I rolled mine and Hugo did the same about 30 seconds later. Afterward we toasted our snow-machine rides with appletinis poured into glasses made of ice while sitting on ice stools at a bar also made of ice, inside a building made of ice and decorated with scattered caribou furs and—go figure—medieval-themed ice sculptures.
Make time for hot springs? Check. We also went to the University of Alaska Fairbanks’s Museum of the North, where Hugo made goofball faces in front of a stuffed grizzly. He also sat quietly in a room filled with music created from satellite data measuring the particles of the solar wind.
The next morning, in a Facebook Live session with friends, Hugo previewed our afternoon plan. “My next adventure is going to be one of my dreams,” he said. “We’re going to go dogsledding. I’m ready to mush, mush!”
It was a crystalline day, and the setting was a pristine river valley. Hugo, wearing a GoPro and lying low in a cocoon of blankets, threw me a sideways peace sign as he whooshed across a meadow of untracked snow. When he was finished, he took a knee with the boisterous dog team. “I have to thank them!” he said, hugging each one and giggling at their frenzy of affection.
When darkness arrived and it was time to try our luck, Hugo’s unassailable good mood was a balm for frustration when the skies didn’t deliver. On one of our first nights, at a spot along the Seward Highway southeast of Anchorage, we were coming up on two hours with nothing to show for our efforts. Hugo and our guide were unfazed, chatting about the best camera settings for capturing aurora reflections on water, and discussing how photography is simultaneously an expression of the self but also a way to connect with others.
“To me, it’s not because I want to be Insta-famous,” Hugo said. “No. I want to show people how beautiful the earth is. The magic. They can call it whatever they want—creator, God, science.” For Hugo, witnessing an aurora is a kind of meditation. But the sight, the image, is a gift that should be shared. “That’s why I love photography,” he said.
Another night, near Fairbanks, we rode in a snowcat with a small group to a remote hilltop, where we were engulfed in a soupy fog. A yurt stocked with a supply of instant cocoa and oatmeal provided relief from the cold, but as the night wore on, the air grew thick with disappointment. True aurora chasers, like true fishermen, have to be zen about coming up empty. It happens. But that’s easier said than done for travelers who have come from far away, paid thousands of dollars, and may not have this opportunity again.
Hugo was never down. One night he joked about the weather with a tourist from China. “You know Mother Nature!” he said. The man laughed and finished the thought for him: “Anything is possible!” Hugo patted him on the shoulder like an old friend. “Ohhh, yeah,” he said.
When Emilio was three, Hugo and Jamie made the wrenching decision to place him in the Rosecrest Home, a full-time care facility. Hugo and Jamie could visit whenever they wanted, but they could also try to regain some balance in their lives. (By this point, Jamie and Hugo had split up, but they remained friends.)
A rare happy memory from that time came when Hugo first saw the northern lights. He and Jamie were driving on Highway 2 between Calgary and Edmonton, far from any cities, when they saw a glow rising from the horizon, gradually lighting up the sky. Even to Jamie, who had seen many auroras, it was stunning. Later she told Hugo that her people, the Cree First Nations, believe “the northern lights are dancing spirits of loved ones who have passed on.”
Jamie hated Rosecrest and the sense of failure it symbolized. “It was difficult having people tell me how my son was doing and how he did overnight and stuff,” she says. “It should have been me.” But for Hugo, Rosecrest had the opposite effect. He believed Emilio was happy there, and he could see that the boy’s quiet charm had won the hearts of the staff and other families. Rosecrest also gave Hugo, for the first time in years, just enough personal freedom to pursue a new interest.
A few years earlier, a friend had loaned him a camera, a Canon T2i. He went to a nearby park and photographed Canada geese on small ponds. He went again a few days later, and again to explore other parks. “Day in, day out, I was photographing what any amateur photographer would,” he says. “Flowers, ducks, benches, birds flying around.” Money was always tight, but the next year, using his Christmas bonus, Hugo bought a Canon T3i. “I had a new toy, and I wanted to play with it,” he says.
He borrowed photography books from the library, watched tutorials on YouTube, and stole away to practice. He began visiting Elk Island National Park in the daytime, zooming in on bison, deer, and owls. His job required him to be at school around 7 A.M., so he would take pictures of the Edmonton cityscape at dawn. He began posting his favorites on Facebook and Instagram, enjoying likes and praise from friends and family.
Meanwhile, through Rosecrest, Hugo made a connection that would change his life. Tom Braid, then the photo editor at the Edmonton Sun, had a son whose condition was similar to Emilio’s. Tom’s boy died before Emilio got to Rosecrest, but Tom and his wife had stayed close to the community there, helping with the family support group and fundraising.
One night, at a send-off party for a Rosecrest doctor, Hugo volunteered to take pictures. He and Braid struck up a conversation, and Braid asked what he did. Hugo told him he was a custodian at a local Catholic school but that his passion was photography.
“What kinds of pictures do you take?”
Hugo handed him his phone and Braid started scrolling, mostly through shots of wildlife and landscapes.
“Whoa, these are good!” Braid said.
Braid made a point of supporting budding photojournalists, and before long Hugo had a press pass and was doing assignments for the Sun around town—fairs, farms, fireworks. One day in the spring of 2013, Hugo heard there was going to be a meteor shower. He’d been experimenting with taking long-exposure images at night, so he headed out of town. He failed to capture a single picture of a meteor, but when he got home and uploaded his images, he saw that he’d taken a hazy shot of the northern lights without knowing it.
Emilio’s doctors never came up with a comprehensive diagnosis, but he had difficulty breathing and eating, could barely see or hear, and never walked or talked.
The photograph was unimpressive, but Hugo was hooked. He loaded his phone with apps for aurora forecasting and began reading about strategies for taking pictures. During the daytime and early evening, when he wasn’t shooting for the Sun, working his regular job, or caring for his other children, Hugo was at Rosecrest with Emilio. They would usually watch movies together—Emilio’s favorite activity—and rub noses in greeting, “which he loved so much,” Hugo says.
After leaving, Hugo would go home to fetch his gear. If it was still early, he might grab a nap or visit the Azucar Supper Club, a Latin-themed nightclub owned by longtime friends. Then, come 11:30 P.M. or so, he would head out to hunt for the northern lights.
Our daylong drive out of Fairbanks began at 8:30 A.M. at the airport, where we joined a tour group and settled into our seats on a small bus pointed north. Outside town, the bus merged onto the Dalton Highway. The scenic and treacherous artery, built during the seventies to support construction of the 789-mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline, stretches from Prudhoe Bay to Livengood, not far from Fairbanks, and is the setting for the reality show Ice Road Truckers.
By early afternoon, with daylight dwindling, we reached the Yukon River, where we stopped at a lonely outpost for a salmon-soup lunch. A few hours later, we pulled off beside a sign marking our arrival at the Arctic Circle, 66° 33’ latitude. We piled out of the bus to stretch and take pictures.
Our fellow aurora chasers included retirees from Oklahoma, a couple from North Carolina, and about a dozen people from China. By this point, Hugo was already a favorite of the group, talking cameras with one elderly man, using his phone to share photographs of auroras, exchanging e-mail addresses with a woman from China, and linking up on social media for future friendships.
It was the same throughout our week together: while we explored the mountains outside Anchorage, visited the ski town of Girdwood, or ate burgers in downtown Fairbanks, Hugo was open to talking to anyone about his life, including the story of his son. Yet it never struck me as oversharing. Being around Hugo made me wonder if the rest of us are sharing too little.
Around 9:30 P.M., we reached Coldfoot Camp at the foot of the Brooks Range. Consisting of a truck stop, a diner, and a motel cobbled together from the same portable structures once used to house workers constructing the pipeline, the place scarcely exists, and there’s no real reason to visit in winter except for the one big exception that we all hoped to see.
In the diner, Hugo bought a few souvenir magnets for friends back home, then we sat down to eat. Afterward, it was so cold outside that we had to cover our hands and faces just for the walk across the parking lot back to the motel, where we prepped our gear, then rendezvoused in the lobby at 11:30 P.M. for the 16-mile drive to Wiseman.
Emilio’s death was both sudden and expected. There had been so many close calls, so many times when Hugo and Jamie thought, This could be the day. Then, on December 9, 2016, they each got a call from Rosecrest. Paramedics were already on their way.
Hugo was wrecked. “I wanted to see no one and talk to no one,” he says.
After saying goodbye to his son, Hugo called Braid, who suggested they meet at a coffee shop. They sat for hours, talking and crying, two fathers of dead children. They discussed how kids like Emilio and Braid’s son, Nicholas, are “born pure, live pure, and die pure.” Braid reassured Hugo that he and Jamie had done right by Emilio. “He is proud of you,” Braid said. But now? Now is the time to go and live. “Emilio wants you to be free.”
Hugo decided to visit family in Atlanta. The trip helped a little. God did, too, but Hugo still felt broken. Where he did find solace was in nature photography. He started going back to his favorite parks and roadside pull-offs at all hours of the day or night. He would go to work the next day, sometimes having slept only a few hours, and keep one eye on the forecast. Jamie could see it. “He was chasing something,” she says.
It's about 1:20 A.M. in Wiseman when Hugo first spies a thin, ice-green trail over the treetops behind us, looking almost like lava but flowing upward and across the sky. It grows steadily, morphing into the shape of a mountain, then sending streams bursting and shooting into the heavens. To our left, over the Middle Fork of the Koyukuk, the sky looks like fire, then a dragon, then massive flickering pink and green columns, rolling, brightening, and fading.
I give Hugo space as he works quickly with his cameras, setting up exposures, repositioning tripods. I wonder if he’s nervous about getting the shot, or not getting it, like skiers who get stressed out on a powder day. But he isn’t. “I don’t even know what to shoot anymore!” he shouts, holding his arms up to the sky, delighted.
Over the past few days, Hugo had been saying, half joking, that we would see aurora in Wiseman. He just knew it. Even earlier in the evening, when clouds threatened to fill the sky, he gave me a sly smile. Now, with the show on full display, we can hear cheering from the rest of the group back near the cabins. “These guys,” Hugo says, referring to our guides, “they want to hire me to be their lucky charm.”
A few minutes later, Hugo steps away from his cameras. He looks up at the sky, alive with color and motion, and takes a deep breath. “I’m happy to see you, Emilio,” he says, sniffling, his voice cracking slightly. “I miss you, buddy. And I love you. Mom loves you, too. So, thanks for everything you’re doing lately because this is…” he says though tears. “I love you, buddy.”