A 6-hour Aurora Borealis hunt on the Tagish Loop

I hadn’t been out on a good aurora shoot in a very long time, mostly due to camera issues. I didn’t go out at all last winter (!), and the results from a 6-hour shoot a couple of nights ago were so poor that I’ve now ordered what I need to fix the problem.

The aurora forecast put out by the University of Alaska Fairbanks is my main source of inspiration to have a sleepless night, and the forecast for Wednesday night gave me extremely high hopes for a night of full-sky aurora. That’s not what happened, but it was a good night of scouting locations for future shoots along a 240-km (150-mi) route, primarily along what we call the Tagish Loop – from Whitehorse down the Alaska Highway to Jake’s Corner, returning along the Tagish Road and South Klondike Highway.

The aurora borealis forecast
I left the house just after 11:00 pm, and my first stop was the Lewes Dam on the Yukon River. Within a few minutes of arriving, the aurora show began, with a small arc along the northern horizon. Most people shooting the aurora seem to go for special effects, enhancing the colours and/or dramatically lightening them. I’m still old school – the photos I post show you what the Northern Lights actually look like.

The Northern Lights at the Lewes Dam
Continuing along the Alaska Highway, my next stop was at the M’Clintock River Bridge at Marsh Lake. I stayed there for a while, shooting both with and without traffic. Even this close to Whitehorse, very few vehicles are on the highway, and it takes a lot of patience to get one. I shot the next photo at 12:30 am. Noises in the bush here made me very nervous about bears and hurried my departure. With no snow on the ground, it’s very dark, and a headlamp is needed to move around.

The Northern Lights at the M'Clintock River Bridge, Alaska Highway
Because of the broad view, I had planned the Tagish Bridge to be one of my main shooting locations. The next photo was shot from the bridge at 1:47 am. During the 40 minutes or so that I was on the bridge, there was no traffic, no noise except a distant generator for a few minutes.

The Northern Lights from the Tagish Bridge, Yukon
I put myself in the next photo, shot a couple of minutes before 02:00. I was already getting very frustrated with getting far too many focus fails from the 18-200mm lens that is pretty much always on my Canon 7D. Too many as in about 90% – this lens just doesn’t want to manually focus.

Watching the Northern Lights from the Tagish Bridge
Next, I went to Carcross and then south along the South Klondike Highway to the Bove Island viewpoint. Well actually a bit north of the viewpoint, where trees are blocking the view too much now. Tourism or Highways really needs to do a bit of logging there. The next photo was shot at 02:45 – the moon had come up at about 12:45, just after I left the M’Clintock River Bridge.

The aurora borealis over Bove Island, Yukon

While I was at Bove Island, I could see a really strong auroral display in a narrow spot of sky to the north, just out of my photographable area. Timing and location have to come together for this to work. The 7 photos that I’m posting here were from the fairly brief strong displays that night, between which there were long periods of very faint aurora.

I stopped at Nares Lake on the way north, and met several young people from Skagway. Some were seasonals and had never seen the aurora before. With the border closed for another 5 hours or so, they were headed to Whitehorse next, for a very-early breakfast at MacDonald’s 🙂

I spent quite a while on the beach at Carcross, but got nothing usable. It was a gorgeous night, though, with Lake Bennett calm and amazing stars – the Milky Way was as clear as I’ve ever seen it. I tried to get some star photos but none focussed properly.

Northbound towards home, I stopped at the Emerald Lake viewpoint to have a nap, but as soon as I got settled, the aurora burst into life again, so I moved down to the shore of the lake. Emerald Lake is the most-photographed lake in the Yukon, but it doesn’t look like this in many photos. It was now 04:20.

The aurora borealis over Emerald Lake, Yukon
The final photo was shot from the Emerald Lake viewpoint, at 04:30.

The aurora borealis

I went to bed for a couple of hours as soon as I got home just after 05:00. When I got up, the first thing I did was go through my photos. Seeing the number of focus fails, I then logged on to my Amazon account and bought a better aurora lens. A Canon EF-S 10-18mm f/4.5-5.6 IS STM lens is now on the way, and I expect to be doing many more aurora hunts this coming winter.
[Edit: it turned out that the Canon STM lenses are not suitable for night-sky photography, and I’ve now ordered a Rokinon 10mm F2.8 ED lens]


A 6-hour Aurora Borealis hunt on the Tagish Loop — 4 Comments

  1. Wonderful pictures Murray ! I realize with your writting that you may have shot quite a few but these are great. As always, thanks for sharing such expériences.

  2. Beautiful pix. I don’t know how you can stay up all night to do this but sure appreciate it.

  3. Very cool. I remember seeing a very faint version of that years ago in northern Vermont. Would love to see it some day up that far north when I retire. thanks for sharing.

  4. I love natural aurora borealis more than the other ones. Emerald Lake is a stop we made every time we went for a ride to Skagway. Wonderful photos.