Seeing the Aurora Borealis had been on my list of potential trips for quite some time, and when I learned that my wife and youngest daughter would be travelling to Europe for much of the month of February, I wondered what to do with all of that free time. I was able to convert my loyalty card points into a useful airline ticket, and that wish list item became reality during 4 days in February.
Note to readers: This trip was undertaken at a time when the World Health Organization had given COVID-19 its name only the week prior – those were very early days indeed. I make the point here so that my message is clear: in no way am I encouraging domestic travel to Yellowknife during this pandemic time. If I write about this subject today, it is only in the spirit of sharing a positive experience, and for those who are so inclined, something to look forward to.
A lot of night sky photo technique research, review, and prep; as well as clothing and gear assessment were in order for a trip like this. Temperatures in Yellowknife bottomed out at – 44° C the month prior to my travel dates, and I was concerned about frostbite, not to mention my camera’s ability to function under those conditions. The purchase of a serious pair of cold weather-rated winter boots, a balaclava, and spare batteries for my camera gave me the confidence I needed to make a successful go of it.
I flew with WestJet for this trip, and while the legs between Ottawa and Calgary were on wide-body aircraft, the legs between Calgary and Yellowknife were on turboprop aircraft where we were warned ahead of time that the water supply to the only bathroom on the plane might be cut off in order to prevent the pipes from bursting!
The Wabasca River winds its way for almost 450km from North Wabasca Lake to the Peace River. The abandoned oxbows – bends of the river that have been cut off from the active flow of water – reminded me of the Big East River in Arrowhead Provincial Park in Ontario (north of Huntsville), and seemed to guide our plane northward toward our ultimate destination.
With a permanent population of about 20,000 people, it’s thanks to the steady stream of tourists that this place feels like a big city. All of the big box stores that we have become accustomed to in the south can be found here, as well as local businesses that make the trip that much more worthwhile.
After researching hotel prices, I chose to stay in a guesthouse where my room had its own private bath, and I shared a kitchen with my fellow guests. I also chose to go solo for the purpose of aurora viewing, as well as my excusions to potentially see bison in an area about 75 kms west of Yellowknife. I achieved that level of independence by renting a Jeep for my 4 day weekend. Be prepared, however, to forego unlimited mileage, and low fuel prices if you choose this option. Aurora hunting trips on two nights eastward on the Ingraham Trail (highway 40) totaling 280 kms, plus two bison hunting trips westbound on Highway 3 for a similar total distance, resulted in a total rental, mileage and fuel cost of about $780, or about 90¢ per kilometre driven. By my calculus, the flexibility afforded by having a moving platform, as opposed to spending a night in a fixed location like an aurora camp (which do offer camaraderie, hot drinks, and a place to warm up), would net me the best aurora viewing opportunities possible. I was not disappointed!
The best time to view the northern lights is in a window that straddles midnight by two hours on either side. Given that I also wanted to enjoy daytime pursuits, I had to adapt to a sleeping pattern that worked in shifts – a shortened sleep between 2am or so, and late morning, followed by a nap between 6 and 9pm. Waking up at 9pm was particularly challenging as it was accompanied by a groggy, almost nauseous feeling. A quick washing of the face, and first sips of coffee + the adrenaline that came with the nervous anticipation and hope for a successful night of aurora viewing, were enough to get me going in the right direction.
My first foray into the dark landscape of the Northwest Territories night was with a bit of trepidation. Local guidance warned of parking on the side of the road, and rightly so – double length trucks continued to carry their cargo through the overnight hours from the big city out onto an ice road and the wild beyond. With a map in hand, I found pullouts and exits for the territorial parks (provincial parks as they say back home) from which I could safely set up my tripod and camera. It’s quite a feeling to be thousands of kilometres away from home… alone… after midnight… and somewhere along a stretch of highway that nobody knows you’re on…
Aurora forecasts are available by locale on a few websites, and they serve to let you know the probability of seeing one, as well as their strength, based on activity levels on the surface of the sun. The chances of seeing aurorae during my stay were about 30 to 35% on each night, but I actually got to see them on both of my outings! The intensity of the show varied quite a bit throughout the night, and again by the segments that were visible to me as I drove further and further away from the city. A tripod was a must given that my pictures were taken using exposures of 4 to 10 seconds. A standard 50mm lens set at f2.8 helped me to optimize the results. Having a digital camera with me enhanced the experience in the field because as the camera gathered light over those several seconds, the brightness of the auroral display on my camera back was stunning.
The magnesium alloy camera body ensured rapid heat loss from my exposed fingers as I attempted to operate the camera’s controls on my first night out. I learned from that experience and bought hand warmers to keep in my gloves when I saw that the nighttime lows were going to be 10° colder on my second night out!
While the primary focus of this trip was nighttime aurora viewing, I did have ideas for daytime activities as well… My daytime excursions westward to try to find bison were fruitless, but I was able to figure out which animal was responsible for all of the prints in the snow on and around the rock cuts along the highway – a beautiful red fox! My duffel bag served to carry options for other daytime activities like my snowshoes and skates, and I did find the motivation to go snowshoeing on one afternoon (not so much for skating though!).
I had never driven on a frozen body of water before, never mind a formal ice road. The aboriginal community of Dettah does have road access to the big city, but the ice road that connects it to Yellowknife in the winter months shaves almost 10 minutes off the 25 minute drive on the regular route. Knowing that it had been minus a lot temperature-wise for quite a couple of months, I was confident that the ice was thick enough to carry the weight of my Jeep…
My final hours in Yellowknife before heading home were spent looking for their Snowking Winter Festival, and the castle that has been built in each of the last 23 years. Without knowing it, I had a chance to meet the Snowking himself (aka Anthony Foliot) after he slipped and nearly lost his footing while he was relocating a large sign at the front of the castle.
As I get older, my opportunities for return visits seem to decrease as I focus on working my way down my list of must see destinations. Had youthfulness been on my side, I would definitely return to Yellowknife for a repeat experience!