A Pattern to the Aurora

Last night we took ski-doos (I tried calling it a snowmobile and was met with a blank stare until I amended my verbiage) 30 minutes outside of town to a quaint cabin tucked into a small bay on Great Slave Lake. We were paying for an “Aurora Viewing Tour” which made me cringe for several reasons:

1)   I do not like paying for something that I can do for free. No one can charge to watch the display in the sky, but as I learned early on in this trip, you have to be patient and willing to wait. But waiting out in the cold and wind is not really an option up here, so in essence what we are paying for is a warm house with complimentary hot chocolate and muskox meatballs. The awesome mode of transport was just an added bonus.

2)   I do not like being “the tourist”. That person who walks into a room and stares wide-eyed as they try to get their bearings, equipped with dangling camera and area map. On this trip more than any in my past I have embraced the inevitable and succumbed to the tourist image. Which actually served me well because in addition to finding a bunch of great eateries and good deals, I got a free pass to complain about the cold (just a little).

Regardless to my unfounded aversion to spending money and owning up to being a visitor, the viewing tour was great. We had a beautiful view with a great foreground for my pictures and very little light pollution.

Because we had a warm house to retreat to, we were able to stay up and watch the entire sequence of the aurora. I am beginning to notice a real pattern in the displays, and our guide for the night verified some of my observations.

At first it is just a whisper of light, a band that cuts across the sky devoid of color and movement. Initially I was mistaking the band for a stray cloud and almost missed the beginnings of the show because of it. Eventually, the colors will deepen just enough to give off a faint green hue, but the ribbons of color don’t change their shape very quickly. Last night, this stage lasted for about 45 minutes, but it was so faint at the end that you could only see the color with a long exposure picture, it was no longer visible to the naked eye.

10:36 pm
The initial aurora, colorful enough to see with the naked eye, but with little movement

The aurora as it fades, I couldn’t see the colors without the camera’s help

I thought this was going to be it for the night as the aurora forecast for that evening was pretty calm. So when our guide called us to pack up around 12:30am, I was totally content with the images I had taken. Camera and tripod both safely secured to my dad’s back for travel, we waited outside for the ski-doos to warm up. I was the first to notice the indistinct cloud forming above our heads, and it was only a matter of seconds before it erupted into a flame of color. It stretched almost from horizon to horizon, east to west, and was nearly directly overhead so that we were looking up into the ribbons from below. Paralyzed by awe, I barely had time to get out my camera and snap a few hurried shots before it began to fade and we were herded on the ski-doos. I will confess that I was not a good driver on our way back, as I kept tilting my head back to see if it was still above us. As far as I could tell, it stayed with us until we reached the lights of the city, where it quietly faded away.

The second aurora of the evening with deeper colors and more movement

I think I let my descriptions get the better of me, so incase I was not clear, here is the pattern I have noticed thus far:

  • The initial manifestation of the aurora is a stagnant “cloud,” perhaps with a slight greenish hue
  • Early in the evening, an aurora with little movement, but a deeper color so as to clearly identify it as such, will appear slowly in the sky and last for around 45 minutes, the fade slowly back into the night
  • Later in the evening, the same preceding cloud will appear, but quickly explode with color and movement, lasting for less time than the first, perhaps 15 minutes.

I am happy to give my insight, but please take into account that I am still exceptionally new to this. I have heard so many different accounts from residents of Yellowknife that I can already recognize there are no fast and true rules to the aurora. It does what it wants when it wishes, and you have to be ready to observe it, for it will not wait around for you.

Tori Frecentese '13

I am a Senior Anthropology major with an African Studies minor from Stillwater, Minnesota. On campus I am involved in Salsa club, IM Hockey and Broomball, a student worker for Athletic Marketing, and a member of the Mortar Board and Blue Key Honor Societies. With varied interests and passions, at any give point you can find me at the library late night, tearing up the dance floor, or adventure-ing in the mountains.


  1. Barbra Barnes '53 says:

    Thanks for sharing those spectacular pictures and commentary.

  2. Joel M says:

    Great pictures and narrative! You guys are some of my favorite people!

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