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Old 24th March 2024, 09:30   #1
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Chasing the Northern Lights!

Let me start with a teaser of what I saw

Chasing the Northern Lights!-dsc02368.jpg

For a long time I have been wanting to see the northern lights, also called aurora borealis. During two of my vacation trips - one to Alaska and other to Iceland, I thought I'll be able to see them, however I was out of luck and didn't get a chance to see them even though the forecast was showing a good chance of seeing them. In US there are very few places where they are visible and trips to Finland/Norway didn't work out so far.

When I moved to Canada, i started researching for places where I could see them and being close to the pole, there should be many places in theory. I had seen reports of people seeing them in 2-3 hrs of driving distance from Toronto region. Churchill in Manitoba was one of the most popular places where they say you can see the lights 300 days in a year. That sounded like a guaranteed viewing, if we went on any of the tours in that region. The tours were however very expensive as Churchill is not an easily accessible place and it's not just famous for northern lights. This part of Canada is known for polar bears and hence most tour operators run their tours as a combination of polar bear discovery and northern light tours. The polar bear tours take you on an ice explorer truck into the heart of bear territory and at night they also run northern light viewing tours. The prices were in the range of 50-10k CAD, so this option was ruled out. After some more research we narrowed down on Yellowknife and Whitehorse (until few months back I had not heard of these two places). A cab driver told me he thought these were cities in some other country Yellowknife was in Northwest territories and Whitehorse in in Yukon, two different provinces/states. So flights options were going to be quite different. Yellowknife was at a higher latitude than Whitehourse, so we decided that Yellowknife was a better option. Once the place was decided, we had to get down to the actual plan of how many days, what tours and other activities were possible. Temperatures were in the range of -40, so it was certainly not same as the winter we had seen in Toronto (although the temperature had dropped to -20s on some nights in the past few years).

The Plan
We decided to do a 4 days and 3 nights trip. Timing was important as we didn't want to be there when it was snowing, but low temperatures meant no precipitations and hence no clouds and more visibility in the sky. The aurora seasons starts from November and lasts till early April. Looking at flights, we decided that first week of march would be a good time and also gave us some cost savings. We found a direct flight from Toronto for onwards and return journey, so that it saved us any time needed for layovers at other airports.

Now that the dates and flights were decided, we started researching for tours and their reviews. There are two types of aurora tours in Yellowknife - first that takes you to a campground where tipi/tents have been arranged and all you have to do is sit there and wait for the arurora to appear and second, where you go aurora hunting. After going through pros and cons of each tour operator, we decided to go with the second type with northern light tours. This operator did a combination of tent based and aurora hunting tours, if you took multiple day tour. For a single day tour, you would get whatever the plan was for that night. We also decided to book a dog sledding tour and a Yellowknife city tour, since we didn't want to sit at the hotel the whole day. The final plan looked like the below one

Day 1- Arrive in Yellowknife, take the night tour
Day 2 - City Tour, take the night tour again
Day 3 - Dog Sledding, take the night tour
Day 4 - Depart from Yellowknife.

Day 1
We had a morning flight, that would reach by noon in Yellowknife. There was a last minute aircraft change due to which there were many seat changes. Our initial aircraft was an A319, but we ended up getting an A321, so the crew was making lot of adjustments and people were given the option of sitting anywhere since half of the aircraft was empty. After some delay, we finally took off and landed on time in Yellowknife. The airport there is quite small and looks like a small warehouse. There was no bridge so we had to walk to the gate. The moment we were outside the aircraft, the temperature was around -35 or -40 and our noses had started to freeze (since everything else was covered). We managed to get into the building quickly and had to wait for half an hour to get our bags (everything is manual there). We were told that the hotel had a shuttle from the airport, but we didn't find anything, so had to rely on a tourist shuttle to reach the hotel after collecting our bags. Since we reached few hours earlier to checkin time, we had to leave the bags with the hotel and went to the in-house restaurant for some food. After a while we managed to get 1 room ready for use and the second one was ready in another hour. The rooms were good and spacious and we had one room with a full kitchen. We had taken winter clothing on rent from the tour operator, so he came down with a bus full of winter clothing. Except for the jacket and pant, theater things were just basic and we didn't feel that much confident with the quality and heat protection. We noticed that some tours were giving canada goose jackets (which are the best rated jackets and cost like 2-3K per jacket). To be better prepared we had purchased battery operated gloves, socks and heating pads for shoes (again never heard of these items before this trip, to be honest).

Since we paid for the winter clothing, we took whatever he provided. After a quick dinner, we got ready for the first night's aurora tour. A bus came along with 2 people (driver and guide). This was supposed to be a hunting tour for that night. We went about few places, a frozen lake, some viewpoints. Initially we saw only faint ones, but at the last stop, we saw a fairly good aurora and stopped there for at least half an hour. The guide also took photos of all people on the tour (this was a complimentary benefit with this tour). I didn't carry my DSLR on the first night, so relied on the guide's camera and my own phone. Without a tripod the photos were really shaky and blurry, but with worse than freezing temperatures the phone performed well. One of our iPhones got switched off when it was left in the jacket pocket. Samsung still held up the entire night.

The tour was over by around 1:30 AM and we came back at the hotel by 2 AM. Being in mountain time, we were already sleepy, so we decided to wake up late and then plan for the next day.


Short video on the science behind auroras



Photos from Phone (there was lot of shake due to the 3 second exposure on the phone)

Frozen Lake seen from the flight
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Last edited by aditya_rao : 29th March 2024 at 01:43.
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Old 25th March 2024, 00:12   #2
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re: Chasing the Northern Lights!

Day 2

As expected, we woke up late in the morning but we had to get ready quickly as we had a city tour starting at noon. The guide informed us that there was a delay to start it as some people had issues with winter clothing. That gave us some more time to get ready and have food. Around 1:30 we started on the bus tour starting with a tour of an ice castle that is open only in the month of march, so we were lucky that we had chosen march for the travel. The snowking castle is built on a frozen lake called Great Slave Lake and there is also an ice road on that very same lake. While walking on it, you can see the transparent thick ice below you and while we didn't fall on the ice, it was quite slippery as the sun was out and that was causing the top surface to become smooth. The ice road on this lake is probably few kms long and connects to a town of Dettah. When the lake is not frozen there is a longer route to go to that community, however in winter, it does shorten the commute. We spend about 30 mins at the ice castle taking photos and enjoying the snow slides.

From there we visited a viewpoint called Bush pilot monument. This is a high point in Yellowknife from where you can see the great slave lake and other areas of Yellowknife.

After that we went around some parts of the town and then finally came to the visitor center where we got stamps and a postcard souvenir to take home. The main city area is quite small with some grocery shops and some office buildings. After that we were dropped back at the hotel. Today was the second night for the aurora viewing, so like the previous day we had our dinner early and then got ready for the night.

We got a smaller bus and the plan was to go a bit far to another frozen lake on which the tour guide had two tents setup. We reached there in about half an hour. The aurora was very faint and the guide used this time to pull the logs and setup the fire heaters within the tents. The lake surface is much colder than the -30 or -40 and we soon realized that our electric gloves, heating pads were barely able to hold up in the -50 or -60 surface. Coming back to the tent also didn't help a lot unless we were almost next to the wood heaters. We couldn't go any closer as the material of the clothing was not fire proof and hence it was risky to stay very close for more than few seconds.

In few mins the guide announced that the aurora was getting started and he expected a very good display. He setup his camera and asked us to come one by one for the photos. Since I had brought my camera also, I set it up next the tent and tried some sample shots. For the next hour or so, we saw a wonderful display of lights with short duration of the lights appearing as though they were dancing. After that the aurora started to move north and the guide asked us to pack up as he would try one more location if possible and then drop us at the hotel. On the way back we didn't see any good spots to stop, so we just headed back to the hotel and that was the end of the second day.

Short video of the dancing aurora




Photos from Day 2

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Last edited by aditya_rao : 29th March 2024 at 01:42. Reason: added link
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Old 25th March 2024, 09:12   #3
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re: Chasing the Northern Lights!

Day 3

With the second night tour providing the entire worth of what we spent on the tour, we planned only one activity before heading out again at night. After brunch, we headed out for the dog sledding tour. The kennel provided a pickup from the hotel. we had to book directly with the kennel as the tour guide mentioned that his sledding person had some issue and didn't have availability for this date. Once we reached there there were many dogs barking everywhere and the driver told us that this was the biggest kennel in Yellowknife and they had over 200 dogs. The only weird thing we noticed was that the dogs were quite thin and definitely not huskies, as we had thought. While there are body structure requirements for sled dogs, we had always thought that up north everyone had huskies or similar thick fur dog breeds, but in reality this kennel had the very opposite. Some reviewers of this tour said that the dogs are kept in small cells like jails and we too noticed the same thing. A big sled was waiting for us as we got out of the bus. They asked us to sit in the sled and then the dogs were off to a blazing start. The entire ride took us about 20-25 mins covering the circumference of the frozen lake, however my GoPro stopped working after about 7 or 8 mins due to the freezing temperatures. In the sled we hardly had any room for movement nor did we realize what was happening. To be honest, I would have preferred the snow mobile ride than a dog sled as we were all packed into a small sled and with the wind and low temperatures, we were barely able to see anything. Once the ride ended, we were taken back to the office where we had some hot drinks. After that we got dropped off at the hotel.

Today was the 3rd night and the final day of the night tour. We again got the big bus and the guide and her driver husband. This time we went over the dettah ice road to a very different area and the aurora didn't fail to amaze everyone. It turned out to be the best across all 3 nights.

Words don't do justice to the actual views, so here are the photos from the 3rd night and the dog sledding video



Dogs from the sledding tour
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Last edited by aditya_rao : 26th March 2024 at 09:43.
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Old 26th March 2024, 09:50   #4
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re: Chasing the Northern Lights!

Day 4

With all 3 nights of the tours done, it was time to go back. Our flight was at noon, so we hurriedly packed up, checked-out of the hotel and took a cab to the airport. We missed the free shuttle by a minute (and it was already full), so had to call a cab to the airport. There was a long queue at security (being a small one, there was only 1 X-ray machine and people were slowing pushing their stuff through the machine. There are some vending machines, near the gate, but don't expect any Starbucks or any other shop. Anything you need has to be taken before coming to the airport.

Even though the flights were expensive, it was a trip of a lifetime and something that we would remember for a long time.

a local airline
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frozen lakes view
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Old 29th March 2024, 09:58   #5
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re: Chasing the Northern Lights!

Thread moved out from the Assembly Line. Thanks for sharing!
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Old 29th March 2024, 23:08   #6
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re: Chasing the Northern Lights!

Ah the Aurora Borealis. It is on my bucket list and you have just re-ignited the desire. Thanks for sharing the lovely pictures and your wonderful experience.

What is the recommended clothing for the weather, since the battery operated gloves were not sufficient?
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Old 30th March 2024, 09:15   #7
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re: Chasing the Northern Lights!

Quote:
Originally Posted by amitoj View Post
Ah the Aurora Borealis. It is on my bucket list and you have just re-ignited the desire. Thanks for sharing the lovely pictures and your wonderful experience.

What is the recommended clothing for the weather, since the battery operated gloves were not sufficient?
You can try the use and throw hand warmers that go inside the gloves. When we were inside the bus, it was somewhat manageable, but the longer we stayed in the open (or on the lake), the hands were getting colder and colder. If you are not going to use the phone or camera for taking pictures, then keep 2-3 layers of gloves and you should be good. But using any of the two devices means taking off the thicker layers and that's when the problem starts. Battery from any device will drain at rapid pace in freezing temperatures and make them ineffective quickly.
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Old 30th March 2024, 15:31   #8
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Re: Chasing the Northern Lights!

Quote:
Originally Posted by aditya_rao View Post
Battery from any device will drain at rapid pace in freezing temperatures and make them ineffective quickly.
I have heard about this problem from those who go for winter hikes here in the mountains. There solution is to keep the phone in the pocket of your innermost layer so that it stays warm from your body heat. Of course that would make it difficult to take pictures
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Old 30th March 2024, 18:33   #9
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Re: Chasing the Northern Lights!

Quote:
Originally Posted by amitoj View Post
I have heard about this problem from those who go for winter hikes here in the mountains. There solution is to keep the phone in the pocket of your innermost layer so that it stays warm from your body heat. Of course that would make it difficult to take pictures
I have heard this as well. I tried that with the iPhone and it got turned off in 15-20 mins. The problem is, with all the heavy jackets, the only pocket available to keep the batteries is the outermost one, which is closer to the exterior temperature than your body heat. For regular winter hikes when temperatures are around 5 to -5 degrees or manageable weather, this should work, but we had to wear 3-4 layers of pants and upper body wear, there was no option to keep in the interior pockets. The Samsung phone still help up in the same pocket, probably due to the case (I didn't have the case on the iPhone, so it was bare metal exposed to the cold)
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Old 31st March 2024, 14:55   #10
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Re: Chasing the Northern Lights!

Wow amazing photography The pictures are wallpaper material. This is a bucket list item for many. BBC released this video of an active volcano with this backdrop:

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Old 31st March 2024, 22:29   #11
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Re: Chasing the Northern Lights!

Amazing sights and photos. Been on my bucket list for decades, finally got to see them in Tromso, Norway last week. Completely surreal experience. This is supposed to be a good year for chasing the Aurora based on the Solar cycle.
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Old 1st April 2024, 00:52   #12
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Re: Chasing the Northern Lights!

Excellent travelogue and some really really gorgeous pictures of the Northern Lights. If I recall correctly, you had made a trip to Alaska before and missed seeing them. Glad that you were able to catch them this year.

I think 2024 is touted as most active year in more than 20+ years for Northern lights so hopefully, it will be in full session this entire year.

I'm planning to go back to Alaska this year to see them again. Do you think this location is a better idea instead of Alaska?
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Old 1st April 2024, 06:11   #13
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Quote:
Originally Posted by mobike008 View Post
Excellent travelogue and some really really gorgeous pictures of the Northern Lights. If I recall correctly, you had made a trip to Alaska before and missed seeing them. Glad that you were able to catch them this year.
Thank you sir, had tried in Alaska and Iceland, but didn't get lucky that time.

Quote:
Originally Posted by mobike008 View Post
I think 2024 is touted as most active year in more than 20+ years for Northern lights so hopefully, it will be in full session this entire year.
Yes, this year and next are I think the peak of the solar storm cycle, so anytime this year end and early next year are the best time (since the current season is almost over)

Quote:
Originally Posted by mobike008 View Post
I'm planning to go back to Alaska this year to see them again. Do you think this location is a better idea instead of Alaska?
Fairbanks and higher areas are probably the best places, but going beyond Fairbanks will be challenging in winter. The weather there is probably more unpredictable compared to Yellowknife where it's extremely cold, hence precipitation is less (unless there is a snow storm). Wherever you decide, stay for 2-3 nights and that should hopefully give you a better chance at seeing them. Yellowknife boasts of higher viewing probabilities and availability of multiple tour options, who specialize in this.

Quote:
Originally Posted by rag_nfs View Post
Amazing sights and photos. Been on my bucket list for decades, finally got to see them in Tromso, Norway last week. Completely surreal experience. This is supposed to be a good year for chasing the Aurora based on the Solar cycle.
Do post your pictures from Norway

Last edited by benbsb29 : 4th April 2024 at 12:06. Reason: Merged back-to-back posts.
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Old 1st April 2024, 11:07   #14
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Re: Chasing the Northern Lights!

Quote:
Originally Posted by aditya_rao View Post
Do post your pictures from Norway
Marvellous pictures and videos!
I was lucky to see Northern Lights last week sitting at my home - here is a pic


Also a video I created of sighting -


In Trondheim (63N), I have never seen below -14c, so can only imagine the cold you described and the pain undertaken to uncover hands to capture pics.
Attached Thumbnails
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Old 2nd April 2024, 05:56   #15
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Re: Chasing the Northern Lights!

Quote:
Originally Posted by electro-monk View Post
Marvellous pictures and videos!
I was lucky to see Northern Lights last week sitting at my home - here is a pic


Also a video I created of sighting -
https://Youtube.com/watch?v=LmXJ44QB...1vQR1jWZtEvM_I

In Trondheim (63N), I have never seen below -14c, so can only imagine the cold you described and the pain undertaken to uncover hands to capture pics.
These are amazing, you are lucky to get this view sipping a hot drink and we have to spend thousands to find such a place

Do you work there?
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