Yukon – The Northern Lights beyond the lens

Canada’s most western state – a vast land filled with dramatic landscapes, friendly locals, famous wildlife and spectacular natural light-shows, where each day and night is completely different to the ones that follow. Now, I must admit that before travelling to Yukon, my knowledge of this Canadian state was rather limited.

I knew it was part of Canada and that it was very cold and offered views of the Northern Lights, but prior to this, and like the majority of the people, I wouldn’t have even been able to point to the ‘Larger than life’ state on a map. A jam-packed one week itinerary was easily able to change that, and our small group of six was fortunate enough to experience a sample of what Yukon has on offer.

We touch-down in Yukon on the afternoon of 23 March, after a brief stay in Vancouver, and our journey began in the capitol, Whitehorse, where we experienced our first guided tour to witness the illusive lights of the Aurora Borealis. The Northern Tales tour pick-up was a late 10pm, but our weary-eyed group was buzzing with excitement and anticipation.

After a half-hour drive out of town, we arrived at our base camp for the next few hours – a wide-open field for unimpeded viewing to the north, with yurts and campfires dotted along the tree line to the east. Inside, the yurts are decorated with relics from yester-year and all of the necessities to get through the night. Outside, the temperature is a mild 15 degrees below zero, and the snow covered ground crunches under-foot as I find a suitable spot to set up my camera and tripod.

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Our guide has been giving us some helpful tips for our camera settings and now seems to think that there’s some Aurora activity towards the horizon. I begin squinting…trying to adjust my eyes to the night sky but still, all I can see is the sea of stars…there’s no Northern Lights here! I turn on my camera and put it on manual mode. The aperture is adjusted to the lowest setting and the shutter speed is set to 30 seconds, to allow maximum light to enter the camera.

The focus is switched to manual and adjusted almost to focus to infinity. As I press the shutter release button and stand back, waiting for the camera to take its first 30 second photo of the Yukon night sky, I’m sceptical with what I see. But, sure enough, as the photo appears on the camera screen, it’s picking up a definite green glowing band right across the northern horizon!

Although our guide describes the night’s Aurora activity as a low 3 out of 10, I can’t help but still feel a little disappointed and cheated. Where were these bright lights that we have seen in photos, dancing and taking on different shapes in the night sky? Are they just another ‘travel porn’ Photoshop gimmick and are they only visible through a good camera?

The following morning we are met by Nature Tours of Yukon, for a city tour of Whitehorse. It’s a beautiful day – the sun is shining, the sky is bright blue and cloudless, and the air is fresh and crisp. Our informative and knowledgeable guide teaches us about the history of this gold-rush town and its attractions, before we depart for the more remote location of a lake-edge property called Little Atlin Lodge, 90km out of town.

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Our basic self-contained lodge for the evening had no electricity, and the fridge, lights, heater and hot-water system all ran on gas. But with a fire place inside, a campfire outside, a frozen lake and the wilderness on your doorstep, what else do you need? We had been ensured that walking out onto the lake was completely safe, that the ice was about 3 feet thick, and had recently driven across in their pick-up truck, so we ventured out onto the lake to watch the sun slowly disappear behind the surrounding mountains.

The angle of the fading light brought out all of the uneven contours in the surface of the ice – small jagged peaks like a wind-swept ocean, frozen in time. With the sun disappearing behind the crest of a mountain, the temperature drops dramatically, right on queue. We retreat inside to the warmth of the fire and prepare our dinner, awaiting the complete darkness of the night and the prospect of some more Northern Lights.

With full bellies and dressed back in our winter-best, we walk back out onto the snow-covered lake, which is now glistening in the light of the full-moon. I’m now about 100 meters out on the lake, and although I know the ice is thick and frozen solid, it’s an eerie and unnatural feeling knowing that there is water beneath your feet. Once the tripods and cameras have been set-up and the first photos are being taken, we fall silent as the surrounding beauty of our environment begins to sink in.

Over the next 2 hours standing out on the lake, the aurora begins to reveal more and more of herself, with reds and purples now joining the prominent bright green glow. For my naked eyes, the faint-green haze across the northern sky has turned into a clearly visible and crisp green band, with hints of the reds and purples that the camera is picking up so well. This was getting more like what I had imagined the Aurora Borealis to be like! Suddenly, as though at the flick of a switch, the lights began to fade out until she was once again barely visible to the naked eye.

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As the sun eventually disappears around 9pm, the encroaching darkness slowly brings out a green glow to the north once again. Armed with my camera, tripod and a drink in-hand, I lunged through snow-covered ground straight out from the front door of our Sundog Retreat accommodation. Setting myself up in the nearby clearing, I can see the Aurora coming and going, with a minute of clearly visible colour and shape to a minute with only a hazy green glow.

I patiently spend the next few hours snapping away photos of the glowing night sky, and the camera is for the first time showing the Aurora Borealis with big shapes and curves, between moments of full sky-covering luminescent green. As the lights seem to be beginning to retire for the evening, I take advantage of the 30 second-long shots that I’m taking, and decide to have some fun with the light from my phone. After a number of attempts at running in front of the camera and writing YUKON backwards, I finally get the spelling right and all of the letters facing the right way. Ahh, the magic of photography!

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Our final Aurora Viewing Excursion, with Arctic Range Adventures, takes us to a small and quite location, about a 30 minute drive out of town. The viewing site featured a lodge with all of the necessities, and clear view to the north sky outside. The nights Aurora activity forecast is a high 7 out of 10 and is already on show, so we are quick to get out and start snapping away. Tonight however, the lights are more overhead than previous nights, are much brighter, are in thin bands and are really on the move!

Capturing crisp photos was proving to be a challenge, as the light-absorbing long exposures were causing the lights to appear blurred due to their fast movements. For the first time since we had arrived, the mystical Northern Lights were better viewed with our own eyes, rather than through a camera. It’s now the early hours of the morning, and the call has been made to start packing up. I guess the Yukon sky heard the call too, as she saved the best til last.

The next 10 minutes were spent standing out in the crisp winter air, heads turned straight up, watching an amazing light show directly above us! Tall thin luminescent green bands snaked their way across the night sky, with their top halves fading in and out of deep reds and purples. The way the lights moved and danced was magical and unlike anything I have ever seen.

Like sunrays piercing through dense cloud cover, the single Aurora rays seemed to be trying to push and pierce their way through the earth’s atmosphere, only to be denied entry and pushed back up in line with the rest of the lights. A single snapshot of this moment was similar to what I was expecting and hoping to find in Yukon, but watching the lights actually moving around in such a dramatic fashion simply blew me away! Piled back into van and driving back into town, the Aurora Borealis wasn’t quite finished yet. She danced across the star-filed sky, giving us a glowing send-off all the way back into town.

Still talking about the nights show the next morning, and we were all eagerly awaiting the next activity on our itinerary. We were on our way about 40 minutes out of town, up into the mountains to Sky High Wilderness Ranch for some dog sledding! Kitted up for our mushing experience, and after an operational brief, we each meet our own team of four dogs and get accustomed to our sled. The dogs are barking with excitement and are pulling on the anchored sleds, eagerly waiting what was about to come.

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With the safety rope untied and the foot-brake released, we are off! Our single-file convey is led by our guide, and our track soon opens up onto a large lake. There was something so humbling about this moment, being effortlessly pulled across a frozen lake by 2 pairs of dogs and the wide-open space surrounded by mountains, with the trot of 16 feet and the glide of the sled over snow the only sounds.

Yukon-11-smallerHeading off the lake and back onto a narrow track, the fun-factor really increases for me. As we begin to go uphill, I skate the sled to ease the strain on the dogs, and in return, the dogs sprint the downhill sections, providing some fast-paced white-knuckle action, as the sled twists and bounces over uneven sections and corners. We arrive back at the kennels, and after a short cuddle we spend our last 5 minutes in the puppy pen with some adorable furry youngsters! 

Sadly, the time had come to leave this beautiful part of the world. The Yukon gave us many wonderful experiences and left us with many memories that will last a life-time. Local culture, history and sights, many stunning landscapes, snow biking, a scenic flight, hot springs, wildlife, dog sledding, puppies and of course, the Northern Lights! The Aurora Borealis seemed to have been taking us on a journey as well…filling us with disappointment and question, before slowly revealing more and more of her magic until the ultimate mind-blowing finale.

If time allowed, I would return to Yukon tomorrow, once again around March, and spend the long winter days exploring the wilderness and dog sledding, while chasing the elusive lights through the nights. The locals raved about the summer version of The Yukon, when most of the snow has melted away, the lakes and rivers become liquid once more, and the daylight reaches almost 24 hours.

As a lover of the outdoors, the summer Yukon is now on my bucket-list, and although I’ve crossed the Northern Lights off the list, like many fellow winter Yukon visitors, the ever-changing ‘Larger than life’ Canadian state will always remain on the ‘Revisit’ list.

Written by Jayden Meyers, Infinity Publishing

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