The Northern Lights, also referred to as the Aurora Borealis, can be at times a jaw dropping sight. There are nights where there is just a single green line cutting across the sky, others where the sky is full of reds, purples, greens, and oranges, dancing in the sky like flames. They feel so close to you, as if you could just reach up and touch them, even though they are actually between 90 and 130 kilometers up.
Yellowknife is considered to be one of the best places in the world to witness the Aurora. The city is right under the path of the lights, and with no large city within hundreds of kilometers, there is very little light pollution to dim their brightness. One of the ways we can tell the changing of the seasons is by the influx of Japanese tourists. They start showing up in September, when the night’s darkness returns after the 24 hour daylight summer. They leave briefly during the months of October and November, when the skies cloud over, and return in December when the temperatures drop into the -20s and it becomes too cold for clouds to appear. The tourist season ends in the spring when the skies fill with clouds again, and the daylight stays too long to see the lights. Throughout the winter Japanese tourists are everywhere and it is easy to spot them in their rented blue Canada Goose Parkas. I’ve spoken to a number of them and most say they only get 1 week of vacation a year. It’s amazing to think that these people use their precious time traveling for 4 days round trip, to spend 3 nights out in the bitter cold. Meanwhile, there is a perfectly nice road linking Yellowknife to the rest of Canada, and very few Canadians venture north without a job related reason.
The very basic explanation of these lights is that charged particles are thrown at the earth from the sun. When the particles hit the atmosphere, they excite the atoms and molecules within it and create a colorful glow, the same way the gas in neon lights glow when electricity is passed through them. It can be tricky to capture on camera the feeling that the Aurora Borealis instills in you when it is lighting up the sky. A point and shoot camera will not do for this type of photography. A tripod is a must! Also, the camera shutter must be able to stay open for a long period of time, and the film sensitivity (ISO) must be adjustable to allow more light through the lens and onto the film or sensor. Depending on the quality of your camera, if you keep the shutter open too long then you’ll get a grainy picture. If you increase the ISO too much, you’ll also get a grainy picture. It’s a balance that will take some time to figure out, one that I have not quite mastered yet.
To see, and maybe photograph the aurora, you need patience and warm cloths! Often times the forecast will call for a beautiful show and when you get out you find an empty sky. Sometimes you’ll wait for hours with no reward, and leave disappointed only to find out the lights appeared later that evening. It’s all luck and patience, but if you have both then you’re in for a real northern treat.