To Kluane Lake for Aurora Borealis Viewing

As our changing climate makes cloudy skies the norm during a Whitehorse winter, aurora borealis viewing gets less and less likely. Yesterday, once again seeing the frustrating combination of great aurora forecasts and cloudy skies, I decided to drive to wherever the sky was clear so I could see the lights. When I left the house at about 8:30 pm, I had Kluane Lake in mind (going by the weather reports and forecasts) but was open to almost anything, nearer or further.

At 10:00 I drove past the Otter Falls Cutoff and was surprised to see it open, as I’d only seen 2 other vehicles since leaving Whitehorse. I drove another mile and then did a U-turn, deciding to go back to top off my gas tank, refill my coffee mug and get a bag of junk food. I asked what time they closed, and the very pleasant young clerk said that they’re now open 24/7 year round. I can’t imagine how that could possibly be economically viable, but was happy to spend a few dollars to help keep them open.
Otter Falls Cutoff, Yukon
The sky still wasn’t clear, but the road was dry, I had great music to listen to, and fresh coffee and junk food beside me – a great night to just keep going as far as I needed to.
Music in the Cadillac

There were some dramatic temperature shifts as I drove towards Kluane Lake. At Km 1627 at 11:10 pm, the temperature was -1°C (30°F). Three minutes later, with no elevation change, it had plummeted to -9°C (16°F), then as I dropped down to Kluane Lake from Boutillier Summit, the temperature climbed back to -1C.

I pulled into the large parking lot on the lakeshore at Horseshoe Bay across from the Soldiers Summit trail at 11:30, but although the temperature was still -1C, the ground blizzard (snow picked up by the wind) made both viewing and photography all but impossible except for this video shot from inside the car.

I did some more scouting around the head of the lake for aurora shooting locations, but there were no lights yet, so I went back to a large parking lot on the beach at Km 1642, out of the direct line of the wind, and went to sleep for almost 3 hours.

I woke up just after 03:00. There was just the slightest hint of aurora glow, so I fired the car up to get everything warm again, then decided to try some real night photography. To use the camera on “B” (Bulb) setting for extremely long exposures (longer than 30 seconds with my camera), a remote shutter release is really needed, as even your heartbeat will transfer to the camera while you’re holding the shutter down. I’ve had remote releases for most of my cameras, but haven’t yet got one for the Canon EOS 7D. But anyway, I tried a few times, and this 72-second exposure at ISO 1600 turned out quite well. That’s a jet making the straight line across the sky. This is not Photoshopped in any way – as with all of my photos except when I state otherwise, this is what I saw.
Sheep Mountain and Kluane Lake on a winter night
At 03:40, a band of aurora finally appeared! I took a few shots from the parking lot and then drove towards Sheep Mountain, hoping that the wind had died.
Aurora borealis at Kluane Lake, Yukon
The view to the south from the Slim’s River delta was stunning, and I tried a few more night shots, as the wind had almost died. The exposure for this one was 48 seconds. Most of the images I shot were discarded because the camera moved a bit while the shutter was open, and this one is far from perfect but it’s good enough to show you the view.
Kluane Range at night
Back near Soldiers Summit at 0:400, having not seen another vehicle in the past hour, I stopped in the middle of the highway, set my tripod up beside the car, and took a few shots. This one was the best to show the snow being swirled around by the wind at this very exposed location.
Aurora borealis along the Alaska Highway at Kluane Lake
There was still enough wind at the Horseshoe Bay viewpoint to shake even my heavy Manfrotto tripod, but I got a few good shots of the Northern Lights with the moon. The lights across the lake are at the Kluane Bed & Breakfast.
Northern Lights over Kluane Lake, Yukon
Aurora borealis over Kluane Lake, Yukon
Another photo shot from the parking lot, looking to the south. This one was shot at 30 seconds, making it very dark, then Photoshopped to this point which is about what it looked like to my eye.
Kluane Range at night
A truck went by as I was about to leave Horseshoe Bay, so I waited for a few minutes to get some photos of his headlights lighting up the highway on the far side of the lake. The aurora was already fading. This had certainly not been the night I had hoped for.
Kluane Lake, Yukon, at night
I went back to the parking lot where I had slept, and the aurora returned briefly at 05:00.
Aurora borealis at Sheep Mountain, Yukon
As I drove back towards Whitehorse, I could occasionally see the aurora out the side window, so stopped at the large parking lot at Bear Creek Summit for a few more photos. This is the highest point on the Alaska Highway between Whitehorse and Fairbanks, at 1,004 meters (3,294 feet) – that’s 1 meter higher than Boutillier Summit.
Northern Lights at Bear Creek Summit, Yukon
At Haines Junction, I made a detour down the Haines Highway with a specific shot in mind. The aurora was quite faint, but this is basically what I had in mind – to get the “Welcome to Haines Junction” sign to show up, I shone my headlamp on it for 1/3 of the 30-second exposure.
Back on the Alaska Highway, I stopped at a viewpoint that I do a lot of shooting at, at Km 1566, at 06:30. The aurora was gone, but I took several “night” shots. Most of the ones I shot with the tripod were deleted due to camera movement, but this 48-second one was shot with the camera on the trunk of my car – a much more stable base. I should have thought of that a few hours ago!
The Alaska Highway and Kluane Range on a winter night
After only seeing 4 or 5 vehicles in about 8 hours, it was quite a shock to get back to Whitehorse as “rush hour” was starting at 08:00.
The Alaska Highway at Whitehorse during a winter sunrise

I got home just as Cathy was leaving for work, 12 hours after I had left on this little adventure. Normal people would call it a day and go to bed, but as the sun came up, I knew that the road to Skagway would be awesome!


To Kluane Lake for Aurora Borealis Viewing — 6 Comments

  1. Thank you as always for sharing! Love your sense of adventure (I too, love the winter nighttime adventures) and that need for one more shot. Are you tired up w studded winter rubber on the Caddy?

  2. Pingback: Great Light for a Drive to Skagway

  3. Oh how the photo of the Haines Junction sign tugged at my heartstrings! Beautiful shots of aurora!