In Search of the Northern Lights – The Weekend

Duke Johnson
WOW! What a display!

While Thursday was cloudy, Wednesday and Friday proved to be truly exceptional. We were battling temperatures with highs around -21 F, and lows between -28 F and -35 F. The cameras really don’t like it below -20 F. Mine especially started making labored noises with each shutter click and the battery life was only about 20 minutes. Luckily, we had 6 spares that we kept in interior pockets to keep warm.

Desert Skies

Wednesday the display started early, with aurora on Vee Lake kicking up right at 10:30 pm. We were amazed at how red the early aurora was. We saw an eruption of chasing lights across the sky that circled and danced until about midnight. Sometimes slow, sometimes with such speed that you could hardly follow it all. Our challenge was to get a quick enough exposure time to freeze the action so everything didn’t turn to mush, while allowing enough light into the camera to capture the scene correctly. The VERY bright narrow bands tended to be so bright that they would blow out the image and leave everything else underexposed. The best compromise was when there were other bright, widely spread aurora in another part of the sky. In a number of cases, the light turned the snow lime green to both the eye and the camera. In dim conditions, we were forced to take exposures of about 20 to 30 seconds each. When the aurora was at its peak, exposure times dropped to 3 seconds, which allowed us to better stop the action in general, although brighter auroras tend to move faster. The aurora was so plentiful that we got over 500 images on Wednesday and over 350 on Friday.

We literally ran from one place to another as fast as we could through the snow, trying to place interesting foreground objects like trees and rock formations in front of the most intense displays. It takes very little time for you to warm up under such circumstances! You actually work up a good sweat at -35F. What amazed me (well, one of the many things that amaze me) was that until mid-Friday night, I was getting by with just the thinnest pair of Thinsulate (100 grams) gloves due to the fact that my core temperature was high. Later Friday, we experienced a good breeze that gave us an effective wind chill that hit -43F and necessitated thicker gloves.

Dr. Morrow said that watching Will and I was like watching soldiers on a battlefield as we composed, focused, shot and moved to do it all over again (but obviously our only risk was frostbite or a missed opportunity). I believe that to be somewhat of an apt analogy. The structure we found in a large alcove provided an almost endless string of possibilities as we could shoot in nearly any direction and have an interesting foreground. We still had to move quickly to capitalize on it, but it was possible.As we started out on Friday night, we photographed several ice houses on the lake. Amazingly, we all saw an extremely bright bolide (very bright meteor) and managed to capture it with both cameras. What a site. I believe that this is the brightest meteor I’ve ever captured. After that, we waited for about 1.5 hours in the car until the aurora really got going about 12:10 am. The next morning at breakfast, we chatted with a couple and later on some others that had stayed out until about midnight but had given up. We felt so bad for them because the display after midnight was amazing.


Some of the neatest displays were hard to capture as they took place precisely overhead. With the Big Dipper at the zenith, it is very hard to aim. As you can see,we got several shots where the aurora appeared to be emanating directly from that spot. It could never be said that the images we captured could give an accurate impression of what actually takes place overhead, but it starts to come close. The constant movement and evolution of the aurora simply takes it to the next level. We hope you enjoy these photos. All that has been done to them is to extract them from the RAW images files.

After several cloudy days, we’ve recovered from our average nightly sleep of 3 to 4 hours with a 1-2 hour nap but we’ve still got a long way to go. We are about to head to a large frozen waterfall (CameronFalls) and then the Ice Road. If you check out the first season of Ice Road Truckers, that was set here inYellowknife.

That’s all for now, we have to get ready for the rest of our day…which will include our first attempt at photographing comet Pan-STARRS.

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