Driving to an Incredible Aurora Borealis Display

On the night of March 17-18, I spent 11 hours driving 493 kilometers to experience one of the best aurora borealis displays I’ve ever seen. The combination of strength, colours, patterns and movement were simply incredible, and just going through the 184 photos I shot to pick some out for this post has brought back some of the excitement of the night.

The aurora forecast was for a night of very high-strength displays, and photos I saw online from the night before were wonderful. But the skies in Whitehorse were cloudy. The closest report I found for clear skies was north at Carmacks, or much further east past Watson Lake.

I left home at 8:20 pm, 15 minutes after sunset. My plan was to simply drive until I found the aurora, though I had Five Finger Rapids and Eagle Rock (north and east of Carmacks respectively) in mind as shooting locations. It started snowing lightly just before 9:00 – the first photo was shot right at 9:00, at Km 215 of the North Klondike Highway (highway mileposts start at the ferry dock in Skagway).

A snowy night on the North Klondike Highway in the Yukon
The snow got heavier as I neared Fox Lake, and the road was bad enough that I started thinking about turning back. It’s not like this was something that I had to do, after all. I decided to keep going until Braeburn Lodge, as sometimes the narrow valley at Fox Lake holds storms and it’s better past that. Shortly after making that decision, I could see a thin bright band that indicated clear skies ahead. By the time I could see the lights of the lodge, pale aurora was also visible. Whoohoo!!

Nearing Braeburn Lodge on the North Klondike Highway in the Yukon at night
At 9:50, just a few hundred yards past the lodge (that’s the Braeburn air strip on the right), I made my first stop of the night to capture these wonderful colours. None of the 33 images in this post have been post-processed (“Photoshopped”) in any way. While the camera “sees” reds and purples better than the human eye does, these are all what came out of the camera, with no unusual settings/filters on it either.

Northern lights in the Yukon
Continuing north, I stopped a couple of times so I could show you what the drive looked like. When the aurora is this bright over the car’s headlights, you know it’s a very strong show.

Aurora borealis on the North Klondike Highway in the Yukon
I stopped at the ruins of the Montague Roadhouse, but the lights had disappeared. I stayed for a few minutes…

Aurora borealis in the Yukon
…and then noticed that the aurora was visible past some clouds ahead. This is the only photo of an aurora that I’ve ever taken with a telephoto lens 🙂

Aurora borealis in the Yukon
The aurora was gone until just before 11:00, when it returned even stronger than before. The bright line to the right is an airplane, not a shooting star – its track shows up on 3 photos.

Northern lights in the Yukon
A “roadside attraction”, Yukon style! This was shot at the same spot as the one above, at 11:05. There was virtually no traffic (less than 1 vehicle per hour), so I could shoot whenever and wherever I wanted.

Aurora borealis on the North Klondike Highway in the Yukon
At 11:35, I pulled off the road just north of Carmacks and spent a while shooting. I’d never seen such vibrant colours last this long.

Aurora borealis in the Yukon
Looking back at Carmacks. The sky to the south, the direction I needed to get the aurora over the town here, only lit up for a few minutes in the 11 hours I was out.

Carmacks, Yukon, on a starry night
Right at midnight, I reached Tatchun Creek, the furthest north I was going to go. The trees at bottom left are along the creek, the highway going north can be seen just to the left of bottom centre.

Northern lights at Tatchun Creek, Yukon
The view to the northwest down the Yukon River from the same spot.

Aurora borealis over the Yukon River
I went back to the Five Finger Rapids rest area and spent a long time shooting there, as planned.

Aurora borealis over the Yukon River
A “selfie” at the Five Finger Rapids viewing deck.

Aurora borealis in the Yukon
One more Five Finger Rapids shot at midnight:45. Despite my patience, the aurora never did show to the southwest over the Five Fingers rocks. I next headed back south towards Carmacks and the Campbell Highway turnoff.

Aurora borealis in the Yukon
My exposure times and ISO settings were all over the map as I tried to keep up with the light variations. Some of the incredibly bright displays were shot at as short as 6-second exposures instead of my more common 30 seconds.

Aurora borealis in the Yukon
The displays starting a few minutes before 01:00 were absolutely stunning. I don’t have words to describe it, but just going through the photos sends a shiver up my spine. Incredible work, Mother Nature!

Northern lights in the Yukon
The next 4 photos were all shot between 01:00 and 01:30 on a few k stretch of highway just north of Carmacks.

Aurora borealis in the Yukon

Aurora borealis in the Yukon

Aurora borealis in the Yukon

Northern lights in the Yukon
Looking back at Tantalus Butte from halfway down the steep hill to Carmacks, the Yukon River and the Campbell Highway. I’ve done a fair bit of exploring the old Tantalus Butte coal mines over the years, but I need to do more this coming summer.

Aurora borealis over Tantalus Butte, Yukon
Looking to the east up the Yukon River from the same spot as above. The lights are at a home along the Campbell Highway.

Aurora borealis over the Yukon River
As I drove east along the Yukon River on the Campbell Highway, the aurora faded, and was pretty much gone until 03:00 when a strong show gradually returned. My “base of operations” was 27 km east of Carmacks, at Eagle Rock, which is officially the Columbian Disaster Rest Area, with signs that describe the September 25, 1906 explosion on the sternwheeler Columbian that killed 6 people. The next 3 photos are looking down the Yukon River towards Carmacks.

Aurora borealis in the Yukon

Aurora borealis in the Yukon

Northern lights in the Yukon
I really wanted to get the aurora over Eagle Rock itself, but it was in that problematic southerly direction. With a broader view, though, Eagle Rock is seen to the right, the Yukon River to the far right.

Aurora borealis in the Yukon
At 03:30, the aurora got particularly strong again and I was firing off shots pretty much constantly.

Aurora borealis in the Yukon

Northern lights in the Yukon
Finally the display moved over Eagle Rock for just a couple of minutes and I got the shot I’d hoped for.

Aurora borealis over the Yukon River
At 03:40, I shot some “selfies” at the Columbian interpretive signs, then packed up my gear and started the long drive home.

Aurora borealis in the Yukon
On the way home I stopped at Montague Roadhouse again, and after waiting a bit to see if any aurora would appear, had a nap. By the time I woke up, clouds had moved in, and by about 06:00, as I got near Braeburn Lodge, it had started snowing lightly again. Around Fox Lake, the temperature had climbed to near freezing and the road got quite slippery.

A snowy Yukon night drive
No wonder the car was starting to sound and feel a bit odd!

Wet snow buildup in my wheel wells
On drives like this, I always carry my Spot GPS tracker. Almost my entire route was outside of cell coverage areas, but it’s a big comfort knowing that I have a satellite-powered SOS button if I need it. As well as the “hidden” features like that, it broadcasts my position to a Web site that Cathy (or anyone else) can see. A screen shot from that site is seen below, and you can see the real site by clicking on that image (the track disappears in 7 days).


My SPOT trip track through the Yukon

Well, that’s the story of my amazing night on the road. I am so incredibly lucky to be in a position to do silly things like that now 🙂



Comments

Driving to an Incredible Aurora Borealis Display — 22 Comments

  1. WOW!! WOW!! Love the shot with Orion in it near beginning……and wishing I could have clicked on some of the pics and was able to see them full screen!! Thanks for sharing!!
    Ellen

  2. murray, I’m so jealous , not really, but I’m so glad you are taking these amazing pictures, and sharing them with so many people. Thanks .

  3. Murray, must have been a similar feeling to a kid in a candy shop ?, I wouldn’t know which way to turn next, in case I missed something….
    An experience I will probably never have, but I really feel as though I have done the next best, looking at your pics…

    Thanks Murray, now please excuse me whilst I go back to the start for another look.

    • Thanks, John. “A kid in a candy shop” was pretty much one of the feelings. And Christmas morning, with presents in every direction! I try to keep these photojournals as accurate to real life as possible in terms of colours, darkness, etc – I’m sure that some people spend thousands of dollars to come up looking and then are disappointed that the colours aren’t neon-bright and it’s not as bright as day as many photos suggest.

  4. WOW, Murray, this long drive was surely worth it. Thanks for sharing ! This seems to have been quite a year for auroras in the Yukon, am I mistaking ?

    • Actually it’s been a very poor year until the past couple of weeks, and very, very few people got to see this show because most of the territory was clouded over.

  5. Truly gorgeous. The colors seem to move. How much longer will you be able to get aurora shots?

    • Thanks, Rejeana. We have about another month of decent or good viewing. As we head towards the next full moon, the aurora gets overpowered but the next new moon is April 18, and that dark sky may still allow us a view before the Midnight Sun takes over in late April.

  6. Truly amazing photos Mr. Murray! What camera settings do you use to capture the aurora? I will be in Anchorage for work in the middle of April and would like to try my hand at this if the stars align. Thanks for the inspirational work!

    • Thanks, Brian. You’ll be here at the extreme end of the aurora season, but could get lucky is there are solar storms anything close to this strong. It takes some playing around to get the exposures right each time, but I generally start off with 30 seconds @ ISO 800 and f4. While a tripod is very useful, I have gotten good shots just using a coat as the camera brace.

  7. Thanks for sharing your adventure..excellent captures. Makes me want to move there even more now..might get my road trip up there later this week if Im lucky!!

  8. Good things are in wait for those who have the patience to make it happen! Nice! Have you ever seen aurora while flying commercially? I just wonder if the pilots and passengers make a big deal of it?

    • I have, actually – twice. Pretty much everyone else in both planes seemed to have had their blinds closed, sleeping or watching movies. Their loss.

      • Neat. One friend in Fairbanks jumps hoops to get good ‘seats’ for the Auroras during winter (brr!) while my two city life brothers in Anchorage; it’s largely a yawn to them… pity.

        • I used to be incredulous that most people have no interest in the aurora. I got over that, but am still amazed at the high percentage of people up here who have no real interest in the natural world at all. People who have never been out of Whitehorse in the winter, who consider caribou on the highway to be a nuisance, who don’t see the attraction of the Dempster Highway – you know the ones I’m talking about!