When the weather is a balmy -20°C outside and you’re riding through the woods outside Yellowknife, Canada with your head hanging out the window and not feeling the cold at all there must be a good reason for it. In my case that reason was the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis.
The natural light show is one of the few things I would consider a “bucket list” event and I don’t really have such a list. I’d seen the photos before and in the days leading up to this trip I was looking at them again more often. The photos are amazing – and I definitely made a few of my own – but seeing the spectacle live is other-worldly and truly the only way to actually have the experience.
In our case the sighting was not without some troubles. We were originally scheduled to visit Aurora Village for a viewing party on the first night of our trip. When we arrived in Yellowknife my friend who we were meeting informed us that the weather forecast was quite unfavorable so we were not going to see the Aurora that night. Night number two actually had worse weather than night one; it was snowing rather than just being overcast. Alas, our reservations were not particularly flexible to begin with and after managing one change we were stuck with what we had. No Aurora on night two either, though we did spend 3 hours out in the cold with about 30 Japanese tourists.
Our friends were scheduled to leave on our third day in town. They made it to the airport only to discover that the flight to Edmonton was oversold. They took the bump in exchange for some VDB credits and another night in town. Maybe – just maybe – that was something of a sign: the airline needed them to stay in town.
Drinks and dinner and drinks and some live music later, we were staring down 10pm and headed outside for a weather report. Stars. We saw stars in the sky. Clear skies finally! We quickly suited up, adding a few extra layers for the outdoor adventure, and piled into the rental car, heading north towards Vee Lake, about 20 minutes from town and just a few miles from Aurora Village. As we cleared the town’s light pollution we were looking out the windows hopefully. Our wishes were granted. The Aurora was there!
A few close calls on the road (driving while watching the Aurora is NOT recommended) and a few minutes later we were standing out on the frozen surface of Vee Lake, staring up at one of the most amazing natural displays I’ve ever seen.
The Aurora is dynamic, constantly shifting in colors and shapes at the particles striking the atmosphere are moving. One minute there would be a broad green stripe clear across the night sky and a few minutes later the stripe had faded, with smaller strokes closer to the horizon popping up. The main color – green – was more visible at some times than others. Occasionally the Aurora looked more pale or white. And, with the help of our cameras we were able to see the reddish fringes on the edge of the Aurora.
I spent most of the time out on the ice with one or both gloves off, fiddling with my camera gear. Strangely, my fingers never got particularly cold. Adrenaline is a strange drug.
It is also worth noting that the Aurora actually makes it harder to spot some constellations in the sky. Maybe it was just the distractions of the awesomeness that was the Aurora or it was the extra light that made finding some darker stars a bit harder. Still, Orion, 7 Sisters, Big Dipper and The North Star are all pretty easily recognizable in the above photos (not all constellations in all photos). That was another fun bit of the sighting time.
If you happen to be in Yellowknife for an Aurora viewing and you’ve got a rental car at your disposal I’d skip the Aurora Village and just head to Vee Lake on your own. It is essentially the same view and a heck of a lot cheaper. Sure, no heated pods to sit in but they weren’t all that warm to begin with. And you can pack a thermos of coffee or hot cocoa for a lot less than $125/person. Plus, you can leave when you’re ready. Definitely an easy trip to do on your own. Maybe drive out to the lake once in daylight to familiarize yourself with the route, but it is pretty easy. And completely worth it.
Aurora Village, with no Aurora:
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Wow. Once again–simply amazing picts.
Never looked into it but what would be an optimal destination for Aurora Australis? Despite the name I’m thinking even Tasmania may not be far enough south – and I’ve been there mid-winter in July too, didn’t see anything though admittedly wasn’t actively looking for it.
Yeah, sorry about the DUA (Driving Under Aurora). Opps.
As for the Aurora Australis, I’m pretty sure you’d have to get as far south as the Antarctic Peninsula to see reliable displays. Even Ushuaia is only at 54 Degrees South. Yellowknife is 62 North.
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