Yellowknife: The Aurora Borealis in Autumn

For as long as I can remember, the Aurora Borealis has always been something I’ve dreamt of seeing. It was always my impression that I would need to go far up North in the middle of winter in a Scandinavian country just to see it though, making it a little difficult to do.

In researching where to best see it though, I came across several places touting how Yellowknife, Northwest Territories is in fact one of the best places in the world to see the Northern Lights. You mean I don’t even have to travel out of my home country? Sold!

The Aurora Borealis in Yellowknife in August reflects on the lake surface.

Why Yellowknife?

With flat lands, no mountains, nor salt water surroundings, the resulting dry climate creates an ideal condition for seeing the Aurora Borealis, making it scientifically one of the best places in the world to see the Northern Lights. Yellowknife also sits directly under what is known as the Aurora Oval. This allows us to see the Northern Lights every which way, including directly above you—which is such a surreal experience.

When geomagnetic activity is high, this oval can stretch further south—sometimes as far south as Northern Ontario. In these cases, if you drive far enough to a place with little light pollution, you can often see a hint of green along the horizon facing North.

The unmistakable green colour of the Aurora Borealis seen north of Toronto.

In Yellowknife however, the Aurora Borealis is literally dancing right in front of your eyes, making the show that much more spectacular.

The Aurora Borealis at Tibbitt Point—at the very end of the Ingraham Trail.

The next question I asked myself was: when is the best time to see the Aurora Borealis?

In the Spring of 2016, I happened to meet someone filming a documentary on why the Japanese have a love affair with the Aurora Borealis. He told me a little known secret: go see the Aurora Borealis in the Autumn season. You get to see the lights without having to endure the cold winter weather. He explained the Aurora Borealis never really stops during the summer months. You just can’t see them then because the night doesn’t get dark enough. Once darkness starts to roll in again at night in mid-August, the Aurora Borealis viewing season begins.

And that’s how I found myself in the Northwest Territories in late August of 2016.

*The film he was making is currently scheduled to be released in early 2019! Titled Aurora Love, you can head to their website for more details.

The Aurora Borealis in Yellowknife can be quite spectacular.

The Advantages of Seeing the Aurora Borealis in Autumn

There are a number of advantages of seeing the Aurora Borealis during the Autumn season. If you think I may have missed a reason, please feel free to let me know in the comments below.

  1. Temperature. One of the most obvious reasons is the temperature. Mid August to early September offers a cooler but still manageable Autumn temperature in Yellowknife. With an average of about 13C, you won’t have to endure the cold temperatures of the Northwest Territories in the winter. This lets you stay out for a longer period of time without having to go indoors to warm up.
  2. Travelling. Travelling by foot or by car in Autumn is much easier than in the winter months. Without the snow-covered roads, you’ll be able to drive to wherever you want to see the Aurora Borealis.
  3. Reflections. The rivers and lakes have yet to freeze over during the Autumn months in Yellowknife, which means if you go by a body of water to see the Aurora Borealis, you’ll get to see the reflection of the Northern Lights, which also makes for spectacular images.
  4. Photography. Using your camera outside in the Autumn months poses very few problems. If you’re out by a lake, you may get some foggy lenses at most when the humidity increases, but other than that, you won’t have to worry about the laundry list of items you’ll want to do when you photograph in the winter time.
  5. Blue Hour. Daylight hours are still somewhat long in August with sunset being around 9pm in late August. This means you’ll have chances of seeing the Aurora Borealis during blue hour when it isn’t pitch black. This is great for wonderful blue hour images with the Northern Lights that you don’t see too often.
The Aurora Borealis during blue hour can be quite stunning to see as well.

The photo above was taken at Tibbitt Point, which is about 60km northeast of Yellowknife. I drove about an hour to get to the end of the Ingraham Trail, which offered a great view of the Northern Lights. With the reflection seen in the water, I was able to capture this in the blue glow of the evening. This was taken shortly after 11pm.

This particular photo covers most of my points. I had to drive far to get here, you can see the reflection, and you can see the blue glow of the evening.

The Disadvantages of Seeing the Aurora Borealis in Autumn

While there may be some disadvantages of seeing the Northern Lights in Autumn, I don’t believe they are significant enough to not see them during this time.

  1. Scenery. If you love winter scenery, then seeing the Aurora Borealis in winter might be the better option for you. With untouched snowscapes and those clear winter nights, it can be a great time to experience the Northern Lights.
  2. Travelling. While it might be easier to travel in Autumn, you’re restricted in travelling on only the roads. In the winter, with frozen lakes, you are gifted with different vantage points that you wouldn’t normally get in Autumn.
  3. Humidity. While humidity is generally not too much of a concern, there may be chances where your lenses can fog up through a night by the lake. If this ever happens, you’ll need to take proper care of your camera gear.
I love a good winter scenery so seeing the Aurora Borealis in winter was something quite special for me.

Seeing the Aurora Borealis for the first time in my life was breathtaking. Reminding us how small we are in this world, the Northern Light puts on a show that you will never forget. And that’s precisely the reason why I believe everyone should see the Aurora Borealis with their own eyes at least once in their lifetime. It is that special a moment.


Taku Kumabe currently has openings for his 2019 Aurora Borealis Photography Workshop at Blachford Lake Lodge in the Northwest Territories. Click the photo below, or the link above, to find out more about this workshop, and to register!

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