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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!

Blachford Lake Lodge

Blachford Lake Lodge

Blachford Lake Lodge

While planning my trip to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, I thought it would be nice to supplement my camping itinerary with a little bit of pampering—after all, we were celebrating our fifth anniversary and wanted to make this trip a little more memorable. After searching online through countless pages of things to do and places to go, I came upon Blachford Lake Lodge and I am truly grateful that I did.

Perhaps it was the five days of camping in the wilderness of the Northwest Territories, or maybe it was the 1600km of driving we did in those five days, but whatever the reason, we found our trip to Blachford Lake Lodge in the last week of August so relaxing, memorable, and truly a great place to enjoy Mother Nature at her best.

Sunrise over Blachford Lake with the lodge on the left.

Sunrise over Blachford Lake with the lodge on the left.

Blachford Lake Lodge—situated in the most remote of places about 100km south east of Yellowknife—is an eco-friendly, all-inclusive lodge that aims to pamper its guests by creating a family-like atmosphere while you’re there. My experience with the lodge, starting from my many email enquiries and ending with my flight back to Yellowknife on the chartered bush plane, was a fantastic one.

Because of the location of the lodge, you can only go there via a chartered bush plane, like the one below—or in the winter time, you have the option of snowmobiling there, or taking a trip with a dogsled! Our bush plane carried 13 guests, which just happened to be the only guests to share the lodge with us during our 3-night stay there.

The bush plane that flew us to the lodge.

The bush plane that flew us to the lodge.

The lodge is run by a limited number of staff members and a large number of volunteers who come from around the world to gain experience in hospitality and tourism. The volunteers are there for a two-month period so there is a bit of a turn-over rate.

Common lounge area with the daily updates on the chalk board (right).

Common lounge area with the daily updates on the chalk board (right).

After disembarking the bush plane, we were warmly greeted by the staff and volunteers of the lodge. We were brought up to the main lodge area where we had our initial orientation. Our bags were packed up onto a buggy, where they drove them to our respective cabins.

The Eagle's Nest cabin.

The Eagle’s Nest cabin.

During the orientation period, they told us to relax, and treat everyone as if we were all one big extended family. (I’ll mention that it was an interesting coincidence that of the 14 guests staying there, nine of them were Japanese!) Our cabin, the Eagle’s Nest, was a spacious one with two bunk beds along the wall. With a pellet-starting fire place, this was quite roomy for my party of three.

Inside the Eagle's Nest cabin with the pellet stove.

Inside the Eagle’s Nest cabin with the pellet stove.

The volunteer who went around to check up on us at the cabin was new so she didn’t know how the pellet-starting fireplace worked when we asked. She was more than happy to look into it and got back to us at a later time. While this isn’t a big deal, it’s things like this that add up when you have a high turn-over rate.

I personally found the staff and volunteers to be truly helpful and at our needs. If there was something we wanted, they would be happy to accommodate to our needs. If we wanted a fire pit started at night, they would start it up and even give us a bag of marshmallows to go along with it. Mmm…it’s the little things like that, that make you feel pampered.

Excursions

There’s no shortages of things to do at Blachford Lake Lodge. During the day, you can explore the grounds by hiking the 2km, 4km, or 6km loop trails, canoe/kayak Blachford Lake, take a motorized boat and go fishing, or just take it easy and enjoy the lodge itself.

Boating to an eagle's nest in the rain.

Boating to an eagle’s nest in the rain.

Hiking on one of the trails.

Hiking on one of the trails.

There are guided hikes that you can sign up for, and the volunteers do a great job of organizing this the day before. We went on two hikes—both of which offer fantastic views—a boating trip to see if we can see any eagles nearby (the rain didn’t stop them from giving us a great boat ride either), and took a guided kayak/canoe tour around Blachford Lake.

A great view of the landscape at the Carldrey Lookout—our destination for the 6km loop hike.

A great view of the landscape at the Carldrey Lookout—our destination for the 6km loop hike.

Kayaking on Blachford Lake.

Kayaking on Blachford Lake.

There’s even a popular porcupine on the grounds that isn’t afraid of humans.

The resident porcupine.

The resident porcupine.

Food

With any all-inclusive package, food plays a big role. The meals at Blachford Lake Lodge were hearty, satisfying, and just what you wanted after a full day of activities at the lodge. I looked forward to every dinner we had.

First day's hearty meal that really hit the spot.

First day’s hearty meal that really hit the spot.

All three meals are self-serve and buffet styled. You line up and grab what you want on your plate. Afterwards, you clean your plate by throwing away leftovers in the appropriate bucket, and place the dish on the rack. This is all part of their eco-friendly program so while some may have issues having to do this on their own, I personally didn’t mind it at all.

The buffet-style food table.

The buffet-style food table.

Hiccups

While we all strive for perfection, there will always be some room for improvements. There were a few hiccups along the way but this didn’t really affect the quality of the trip overall. One breakfast, my family noticed that the orange juice that was put out tasted funny. In fact, it no longer tasted like orange juice, and there was a bite to it that only comes when the juice goes bad. We enquired about this to the kitchen workers and they shrugged it off saying the orange juice was fine. Nobody else was complaining about it, so I took a glass full and drank it. I later realized I shouldn’t have had that glass as my stomach was a little upset for the good part of the morning and afternoon.

There was another time where the cranberry juice that was put out was not mixed with water. Only the concentrate was put in the pitcher! I informed the kitchen worker about this and they took it away without an apology.

The dining area.

The dining area.

Our last hiccup came when we asked to get a thermos for our tea. They gave us a thermos not realizing that an old tea bag had been sitting in there for who knows how long. We made our tea in the thermos and as soon as we drank our tea, we noticed it didn’t taste right. After telling the kitchen worker about this, their response was “yuck!” with no apology afterwards.

While these issues are not enough to affect our overall experience, it’s just one of the drawbacks of having a constantly-changing roster of workers who may not be trained enough to handle various situations.

Aurora Borealis

It wouldn’t be a trip to the Northwest Territories without an Aurora Borealis sighting. While it’s never a guarantee that you’ll see it, there’s a good chance that you will during the viewing season. I intentionally went during the start of the Aurora Borealis viewing season before the temperatures drop to a chilling -30C (and beyond). All we needed were clear skies and an active geomagnetic storm to pass through and we were set. Of our three night stay, we were blessed with seeing a fantastic showing for one night. This wasn’t my first time seeing the Aurora as I had a few other sightings during my camping road trip prior to coming here, but this had to be one of the more spectacular viewings that week.

Blachford Lake Lodge Aurora Borealis

Blachford Lake Lodge Aurora Borealis.

After a day of hiking the trails and enjoying the outdoors, my family decided to jump into the outside hot tub to enjoy the scenery and evening sky. What we saw then was just the beginnings of a fantastic showing of the Aurora Borealis. It started early around 10pm at which point we weren’t sure if what we were seeing were just clouds. But watching it move quickly across the night sky, we knew this was the real thing. You can’t ask for a better timing as we sat in the hot tub, relaxing and viewing the Aurora Borealis. With so much activity in the sky and being surrounded by the beauty of Blachford Lake and the lodge itself, it was the perfect evening.

I was up until around 3:30am admiring and taking photos of the Aurora Borealis. I just can’t get tired of seeing them.

Here’s just a sampling of the lights that I was able to capture as I was in awe every second of the evening.

Overall

Overall, Blachford Lake Lodge is a terrific place to stay and enjoy what Mother Nature has to offer. Located in the most remote of places, it’s a great getaway from the hustle and bustle of city life. And with plenty of activities to choose from, you won’t have trouble keeping yourself busy. My trip during the Autumn season made travelling and enjoying the night sky comfortable. I only wonder how things are during the winter—and one day I hope to find out!

Staff and volunteers saying goodbye to some of the volunteers who left Blachford with us.

Staff and volunteers saying goodbye to some of the volunteers who left Blachford with us.

Group photo of most of the staff, volunteers, and guests during our stay there.

Group photo of most of the staff, volunteers, and guests during our stay there.

 


For more information on Blachford Lake Lodge, visit their website, Facebook page, or Instagram account.

The Real Aurora Borealis

The Real Aurora Borealis

Viewing photos of the Aurora Borealis online can be quite exciting: the beautiful greens, reds, purples, and more dancing in the night sky is something we all dream of seeing one day. If you think about it, it’s hard to believe those vibrant curtains of light actually flow and dance right in front of you. Or do they?

The Real Aurora Borealis

For many of us—myself included—what you see in these photos is unfortunately not what you see in real life. Our eyes are often not sensitive enough to see the colours of the Northern Lights so we just see faint colours (bordering on white) moving in the night sky. On overcast days, you can easily mistaken these for clouds.

The Aurora Borealis at Cassidy Point.

The Aurora Borealis at Cassidy Point.

To understand why this happens, we need to understand how our eyes work.

Our eyes are comprised of two photoreceptor cells: the rod and cone. The rod is responsible for sending low light information to our brains, and do not detect colour. The cone is responsible for detecting colour and higher light levels in the scene. If what you’re looking at isn’t very bright, the cone photoreceptor cell doesn’t get activated, leaving you with information from only the rod photoreceptor cells. This would explain why I only saw colour in certain situations—when the Aurora Borealis was really strong.

The photos below will show you what I typically see with my eyes, compared to what my camera captures with a long exposure.

The Aurora Borealis edited in Adobe Lightroom.

The Aurora Borealis edited in Adobe Lightroom.

Compare the above photo with the one below, which is more like what I see with my own eyes. The colours are barely visible below. Furthermore, the long exposure of the camera makes it look a little more sensational than it really is as well since the camera picks up the movement of the light, whereas the eye can only see the lights in one place at a time.

The Aurora Borealis closer to what I saw with my own eyes.

The Aurora Borealis closer to what I saw with my own eyes.

Here’s one more example:

The Aurora Borealis edited with Adobe Lightroom.

The Aurora Borealis edited with Adobe Lightroom.

The colours above look great, but here’s what I really see with my own eyes:

The Aurora Borealis as seen with my eyes.

The Aurora Borealis as seen with my eyes.

The more vibrant the Aurora Borealis, the better chance you will have of actually seeing colour in the night sky.

I only found out about this shortly before my trip to Yellowknife, so I wasn’t completely dumbfounded during my first sighting of the Aurora Borealis. Through most evenings though, I was able to discern a hint of green, yellow, purple, blue, and even red.

The vibrant colours of the Aurora Borealis

The vibrant colours of the Aurora Borealis.

Each evening always started with trying to spot a white cloud-like object that would move in the sky. If I thought it may be the Northern Lights, I would take a picture of it to confirm. If the photo on the back of my camera showed any colour, then I knew the magic had started. If objects in the sky turned out white on my camera, then I knew they were simply clouds.

A test photo to see if the Aurora Borealis was showing.

A test photo to see if the Aurora Borealis was showing reveals nothing but white clouds.

I spoke with some people who said they could see all of the colours with their bare eyes; I’m quite jealous of their eye sensitivity—it would be quite spectacular to be able to see colours like this with your own eyes.

The Movement

While some of us may not be able to see the colours very well, we are still able to discern the movement of the Northern Lights in the night sky. This in itself is a magical experience since it’s really nothing like what you would ever see anywhere else. Whether it’s a slow moving aurora, or the lights dancing from left to right, the movement is unique and unquestionably something that only the northern lights will create.

I believe this alone is worth the effort to see the lights whenever possible.

What About Photoshop?

No doubt many of the photos you see on the internet have been edited in one way or another, with photos of the Aurora Borealis being no exception to this.

I mention this because the colours that we see in these photos are largely dependent on how the photographer chooses to edit their photos. With a simple click of the mouse button in Adobe Photoshop, or a slide of the slider in Adobe Lightroom, they can change that bright green you see in the photo to a neon green or a more muted one. Moreover, changing the white balance of the scene can change every colour of the Northern Lights in one fell swoop.

Here's a standard edit of The Aurora Borealis. The blue hue to the sky is created from the sunlight coming in from the horizon.

Here’s a standard edit of The Aurora Borealis. The blue hue to the sky is created from the sunlight coming in from the horizon.

Compare the above photo with the ones below, where all I’ve done was change the white balance in Adobe Lightroom.

The Aurora Borealis with just a slight change in the white balance changes the overall look and feel of the image.

The Aurora Borealis with just a slight change in the white balance changes the overall look and feel of the image.

The colours can change even more—it all depends on how the photographer feels like editing their photographs of the Aurora Borealis.

The sky has a deeper purple hue to it, with slightly different hues of the Aurora Borealis.

The sky has a deeper purple hue to it, with slightly different hues of the Aurora Borealis.

What does the Aurora Borealis really look like then?

There isn’t just one prescribed set of numbers used by the masses for editing Aurora Borealis photos. When editing my photos, I adopted to using a set of numbers that closely reflected what I remember seeing, even if it was very faint most of the time. These numbers were found to be fairly consistent with how some other photographers edited their Aurora Borealis photos. Hopefully this means we’re representing this wonderful phenomenon more truthfully. I’ve seen many photos where the Aurora Borealis had been over-saturated to the point where I knew that couldn’t be real. I’ve also seen photos that included colours that I’ve never seen before in the night sky. I wonder if that is just because I’ve just never been lucky enough to see them, or if that was just some creative editing by the photographer.

An over-the-top edit of the Aurora Borealis. This is way too saturated to be truthful to reality, in my opinion.

An over-the-top edit of the Aurora Borealis. This is way too saturated to be truthful to reality, in my opinion.

So, what do you think of these Aurora Borealis photos now? Are you surprised by any of this or did you already know these facts about the Aurora Borealis? Let me know what you think about these brilliant display of colours that we all love to see so much, by commenting below.