The Elusive Aurora Borealis

The circumpolar world is right now having the best aurora displays seen in the past decade, but actually seeing them can be a challenge for a variety of reasons. Photographing them can be even more of a challenge.

Even with a great aurora forecast as we had on Monday night, the weather can make viewing them impossible. When the snow started falling about 7:00pm, I looked at weather reports for communities within a 5-hour drive, hoping for a break. The clear skies that I found in Dawson City prompted me to plan an immediate road trip. Looking at other communities in the region, though, the clear skies had the potential to be quite small (and thus gone by the time I got there), and as the snow kept falling, road conditions made my ambitious plan unreasonable 🙁

Whitehorse weather and aurora forecast

The forecast was for there to be no good viewing weather for days, but the next morning (yesterday), sunshine accompanied the 3 inches of snow that greeted us.

Fresh snow in Whitehorse, April 24, 2012

With both weather and aurora forecasts good last night, I determined to head out for an all-night aurora shooting session. A challenge that I hadn’t expected was getting fuel at 11pm. I expected that any fuel pump that you could use with a credit card would be available anytime as in other cities – but that’s not the way things work in Whitehorse. I tried 4 stations, and finally found a single pump at this station (Integra Tire) that would give me fuel.

Getting gas in Whitehorse at night

With no aurora visible yet at 11:40, I played around with some night shots at my usual starting location, the Lewes Dam. If you’re reading this in a bright room, you may not see an image below at all, but if you’re in a dark room, you’ll see what I saw.

The Lewes Dam at night.

Looking down the Yukon River from the boat lock at the dam, with the moon and Venus slightly diffused by haze. This was shot at midnight – the orange glow is caused by the street lights in Whitehorse.

The Yukon River at night

A few minutes later, the first faint glow of the aurora began to show to the east. The red lights are on a semi-trailer rig parked in the rest area at the Yukon River bridge.

Aurora borealis on the Yukon River

By 12:20 I started to get pumped as long ribbons of aurora grew across the sky directly above me.

Aurora borealis on the Yukon River

My next stop was at the M’Clintock River Bridge. I spent about 15 minutes there, and was rewarded by several minutes of very good displays all over the sky. This view is looking south down the Alaska Highway from the middle of the bridge. There were several birds calling here, including at least three owls. For me, hearing birds adds a lot to Spring aurora viewing.

Aurora borealis along the Alaska Highway

At 12:45 I stopped along Marsh Lake to watch a particularly bright display, and while I was parked there, one of the most impressive displays I’ve ever seen occurred directly over head. It was so incredible I was unwilling to take my eyes off it for even a second to set my camera up. I was directly under an extremely bright, fast-moving curtain of red aurora. It only lasted for about a minute, and I wish I could transfer the images that are in my head onto the computer! After it was over, I took a few shots of the displays going on around me.

Northern Lights along the Alaska Highway

I went out to my usual turn-around spot beside White Mountain and spent quite a while there watching very unusual displays. They were large, vaporous and very fast moving, perhaps impossible to capture properly with a camera.

Northern Lights along the Alaska Highway

The destination that I had the highest hopes for, the Tagish Bridge, fell flat. The aurora had gotten very dim, and although I stayed for almost 2 hours, never did return. Being able to listen to the swans was very special, though.

By 04:30 I was home in bed – it had been a great night. 🙂


The Elusive Aurora Borealis — 4 Comments

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