Posts in: Venture Grant
Final night in Yellowknife. Best aurora yet. First night with camera problems. Obviously.
It was an early display last night, without the interim between the weak and strong displays that I had noticed two nights ago. My complimentary hot chocolate was interrupted by the announcement that the aurora was increasing in intensity, so I was already flustered as I tried to navigate the teepee flap with the tripod. Looking over the frozen lake in front of me I could see several distinct ribbons of light visibly dancing, where mere minutes before had only been a dull haze. Knowing that sometimes the lights can last as little as five minutes, I hustled over to the spot my dad secured on the lake and began setting up the tripod. I had been outside just a few minutes before, trying to photography the early aurora, so the metal was frozen and sticking. After struggling with the legs, I went to mount the camera, and the dang thing would not click into the base.
If I was flustered before I was basically frantic now. Around me I could hear the “Oww’s” and “Ahh’s” of the other guests at the Aurora Village whom I could not see, as night turned us all into black masses. Finally, I managed to get it secured, and with a sign of relief, I turned the lens to the tree line and composed a shot. By this point, the entire sky was ablaze with undulating green bands. Again, we had the privilege to be directly under a portion of the ribbon, but this time two ends flared out in either direction so you could trace the path of the lights from beginning to end. With all the settings adjusted, I pressed the shutter button halfway down and waited for the telltale hum of the auto-focus adjusting to the focal point.
Nothing. No movement. Frustration turned to desperation.
It was the coldest night that I had attempted to use the camera, and as I figured out later, the lens had stopped registering distances as the metal froze. Thinking that this may have been the problem, I dismantled the whole camera and stuck it beneath both of my jackets in an attempt to warm it before the lights faded away. The cold metal dropped my core temperature faster than I would have thought possible, so I quickly gave up that idea, and remounted the camera in a last ditch effort to get a few shots off before it was too late. For reasons still unknown to me, everything came together at that moment, and I took some pictures where the whole sky is full of clearly dynamic green ribbons.
All in all, I was able to get a few pictures that I would have been proud to share. Except, when I went to upload them to this post, I realized that they were all too big. I was experimenting with a higher ISO setting, and it made the images too large for this site to handle. What I could upload is actually a pretty neat picture of the Aurora Village backlit by the rising moon. Though it’s not the most breathtaking image of the night, it is a good representation of the beautiful landscape under which I experienced the aurora on my last night in Yellowknife.
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.
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.
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.
After a day of fishing, checking traps, and collecting firewood, I asked a new friend to tell me a story about the northern lights. Over tea and ginger cookies, he told me about a hunting trip with this father many years ago when naka (the Dene word for the northern lights) had led them to caribou:
Neither man had seen any sign of caribou in several days. After building camp for the night, the father pointed off into the distance and said they would hunt in that direction tomorrow. He was indicating the direction underneath the northern lights which could be seen in the distance, but made no comment on this coincidence to his son. However, this was his way of teaching. The son had to observe and experience in order to learn. The following day, the father set out early on snowshoes, while the son harnessed their best team of dogs. The son caught up with his father and together they traveled in the direction of the naka the night before. At first they did not see anything, so they traveled farther. Then they saw some tracks, but they were old, so they traveled farther. The farther they traveled, the newer the tracks became, until they came upon a large, fresh path through the snow. The father signaled to pull the sled up a hill and out of the way. He sat and began to pack a pipe to wait. Before he could light the tobacco, a herd of caribou rounded the bend and walked toward the men. The father abandoned his pipe, took off his hat and poured his shells inside. They shot fifteen caribou that day. The son asked the father if caribou were attracted to naka. The father responded yes, because when their hooves click together naka dances for them across the sky.
I took as little artistic liberty with that story as I could, except to exclude names. It was a really profound experience to hear this story from the man who lived it. The imagery he created and the utility of a phenomenon that I had only attributed an aesthetic beauty was quite remarkable. Hearing the story just redoubled my determination to see what I came here for.
Last night it all finally paid off, but I am finding it incredibly hard to articulate the event. It is too simple to say that I saw the aurora, because it was more of an experience. At the time it did not seem so profound, but now as I try to write and describe what I saw I am becoming increasingly more blocked. For now, I will let the pictures tell the story of my first experience with naka.
My Father likes to test the bounds of human capabilities. This usually leads to some pretty intense physical challange in far from ideal conditions. For example, before school began last year, my dad and I drove my car out to the Springs a few days early in the hopes of summiting Pikes Peak. Two days after arriving at altitude and one day after running the Warrior Dash, we decide it will be a great idea to start our Pikes ascent a little late to give us time to rest. Not too long into the hike, I start feeling the altitude, but not wanting to be the weak link I keep my mouth shut and keep trekking. Just as we reach tree line, the thunderheads we had been watching grew ominously gray and thunder sounded in the sky. My dad was thoroughly disappointed, but I was secretly rejoicing. I wasn’t sure how much farther I could have gone before it got dangerous. As the rain fell, we jogged the nine miles back to the car. On the way down I finally admitted how out of it I was near the top and I got seriously reprimanded for not being responsible enough to make my limits known. Easier said than done, when your hiking partner is over thirty years older but in far better shape with enough tenacity and fervor to fuel ten ascents.
So really I should not have been surprised when what was supposed to be a leisurely stroll on the ice road to watch the sun rise quickly turned into a challenge this morning. It started with simple questions like, “So how far is Dettah?”(the ice road connects a community across Yellowknife Bay with the greater city of Yellowknife during the winter. When the ice melts, it’s an 18 km drive around the bay). Then it turned into, “Well, do you think it would be dangerous to walk all the way across?” And this is where I made the mistake of responding, “I don’t think it would be dangerous, just uncomfortable.” And suddenly we were off.
When we started, the weather was warmish and a gentle breeze was at our backs. We walked facing the sunrise and watched it turn the clouds brilliant shades of auburn and crimson. We examined the ice that peaked through the hard packed snow and tried to estimate just how thick it was. But the farther we got from the shore, the more the wind picked up and the faster the temperature dropped. Conversation stopped and hoods went up as we fought the needling winds.
This was the point that I decided not to repeat my mistake on Pikes Peak. I called the trudging to a stop and pointed out how little progress we appeared to be making. We could still see Yellowknife clearly, but had not spotted Dettah on the horizon. Logic prevailed, and we turned around. It was probably one of the better choices I have made recently.
The walk back took twice the effort of the walk out. The wind was now blowing at an angle towards our faces, and no amount of tucking or angling could protect the exposed skin of my cheeks. Dad took the lead and I was able to draft, which cut the wind considerably. We turned around as the sun made its final ascent over the clouds and it was such a spectacular image over the windswept landscape that I had to take a picture. Tactical error. Even with my liners on, I lost all feeling in my fingers in the 30 seconds I had them out of my big gloves.
At this point, I am beginning to question my initial assumption that this walk would not be dangerous. With nothing else to do, we continue walking back. I replace my dad’s shadow as I tuck in behind his jacket to avoid as much of the wind as possible. As cold as my face, fingers and knees were getting, my torso had begun to sweat from the effort. But I dared not unzip anything because the sweat would freeze in seconds. And though it was just walking, my legs began to tire from a combination of cold and fatigue. But I dared not stop to rest because it doesn’t take long to get too cold to function properly. There was really no other option but to continue walking despite the increasingly uncomfortable situation.
We made it back none the worse for the wear, but looking hilariously windswept. The hair that has escaped my hat was frozen across my face and my cheeks were more red than a maraschino cherry. But my dad took the prize with a quarter inch icicle suspended from his eyelashes.
If my math is right, which it usually isn’t, it’s about five miles from Yellowknife to Dettah across the ice road. Adding the distance we had to walk from town just to get to the ice road, we are guessing we walked maybe five miles today. Just under half way across the ice road and we had to call it quits. I get my stubbornness from my father, and I hate having to back down from a challenge. However, I am not messing with these elements. Even though I hate admitting that I have any, its good to know your limits, and today we reached mine.
I did all the research and crunched all the numbers to find the most probable yet cost and education efficient time to see the northern lights, but sometimes the odds are just not in your favor.
The weather forecast for the next few days is a continuation of the last few days; cloudy. In addition, the aurora forecast, which is based on solar activity of the preceding days, predicts low activity for the remainder of my stay. Both of these projections are making me increasingly worried about the success of this trip. Initially I was concerned that my photography skills would not improve quickly enough to produce images worthy of sharing. Now however, I am judging “success” merely by a sighting of the aurora
Of my stay thus far, two nights have been clear enough for a hope of a sighting in at least a portion of the sky. Both nights found me out on a road outside of town staring hopefully at a monotonously dark sky. On Saturday I was rewarded with a brief glimpse of what could only be the northern lights. What I saw was a single, hazy green thread that stood immobile just long enough for me to spot an inconsistency in the sky before it dissipated into the surrounding darkness. Though it looked little like the dynamic and crystal clear images seen through Google, it was just distinct enough for me to recognize as the northern lights.
Sunday night I repeated the process in the hopes of some better results. On the advice of some residents, I tried an earlier viewing time but to no avail. Though it was clear enough to pick out my favorite constellations, no color was to be seen. I went to bed disappointed, but woke heart broken when I checked the aurora images of the night before. I found that not a hour after I had called it a night at the request of my ride, three faint bands of green were photographed just outside of town.
I will not say that this trip will have been wasted if I am not able to see the aurora. I have already learned a myriad of new information, from the rules and etiquette of Settlers of Catan to the lore and technique of ice netting. But, I will feel unfulfilled. The inspiration and planning of this trip centered on viewing the northern lights. All the amazing experiences I have had thus far were intended to be bonuses to the main attraction. I can adjust my thinking if need be to accept that these experience were indeed fruitful enough to curb my disappointment, but I hope that will be unnecessary. I am still holding out for a positive combination of solar flares, clear skies, and perfect timing necessary to see the northern lights.
No lights to be had up here in the Yellowknife. Though the odds and the timing should all be in my favor, as luck would have it, the weather is not. Clouds have blanketed the sky from the time I landed until tonight, and now there is just enough thinning to pick out small pockets of the deep black sky. And though I am enjoying the consistent and almost balmy -20 degrees Fahrenheit, apparently what really brings out the best displays is a sharp drop in temperature. So I am both hoping a dreading a 20-degree drop with clear skies before I have to go home.
In the mean time, I have been busy exploring Yellowknife. I bundle up as the sun rises around 9:30 each morning and trek out into the twilight. A 20-minute walk finds me at a coffee shop where I stop to thaw. Then back out into the cold for another 30 minutes through the downtown and into Old Town. Today, I spent a few hours roaming around the original settlement, which is now dominated by art galleries and a few restaurants exhibiting a classic “northern fare” of fish and strong coffee.
Though I haven’t seen the aurora in the sky, it is everywhere you look in town. Art galleries sell trinkets and masterpieces dedicated to the lights, souvenir shops are rife with paraphernalia, and the tourist center has an interactive screen where you can make your own aurora. Every activity offered to tourists, from dog sledding to snowmobiling to snowshoeing, has both a daytime package and a special aurora-viewing package. It may be possible to leave Yellowknife thinking you have seen the northern lights after just a walk through town and a quick browse through tourist pamphlets.
Though the town is up to its ear warmers in aurora imagery, I am extremely hesitant to assume that this reflects the significance of the aurora to Yellowknife residents. In fact, more than anything, I am inclined to think it is all for the tourists. I have found the imagery concentrated in places easily accessible to visitors, but lacking in the local haunts. However, to be fair, I have found myself in far more tourist-focused areas than not. And this is not to say that aurora displays are inconsequential to locals, I have heard from several people that they often go out to wait for the lights.
Perhaps all I am trying to plant in your head and my own is the idea of superficial presentation versus reality when traveling to a new place. What do you see at first glance in a new community? Is it a true reflection of that community, or a fabrication for the eyes of visitors? If it is a created façade, why?
Whatever menial generalizations I can make are based on two days of gallivanting around a new town. The only thing I can report with any conviction is that it is cold. Really freaking cold. The kind of cold where your eyes water to keep from freezing and then your eyelashes freeze together. But be careful when trying to unstick your eyelashes, because if you open your eyes too far, your contacts with freeze and pop out. Despite that unique quandary, I am loving roving around in the bitter cold. It is exhilarating and exhausting trying to outsmart the needling cold. The sun sets around 4:00pm, and so far, I have been ready to crawl in bed about that time too.
I am a notorious travel sleeper. Put me in a car, plane, train, or covered wagon and I am fast asleep before you can say, “are we there yet?”. This has served me extremely well in the past; sleeping through turbulence resembling a roller coaster, near death experiences while driving with my father, and sibling squabbles in the back seat of a family road trip. I have slept across Iowa, Minnesota, Colorado, Italy and Kenya. But for some reason I cannot sleep across Canada.
It can’t be because of the view. Looking out of my window, I am staring into the depths of the night that fell early. The sun set behind a dense bank of cloud as I landed in Edmonton in the early afternoon, and night fell shortly after. But the quality of night is different here. It’s somehow deeper, more dense, and yet crystal clear. A crisp quality that is perceivable through the windows and in the drafts that followed me onto the plane from the jet bridge. The crispness of the air manages to transfer itself somehow into the black of night that fills the empty chasm of the sky.
The sky contrasts sharply with the ground, blanketed in white. A think layer of cloud adds to the illusion of a perfect white pillow top that stretches indefinitely into the distance. With little topography, the whiteness below me and the blackness above stretch to meet at a horizon line, simultaneously black and white, indistinguishable from one another.
In the monotony a few landmarks shine through. Orion the Hunter lies along the wing of the plane, directly below the brightest moon I have ever seen. It’s light reflects off the metal of the wing, offsetting the dull gray of the plane from the black of the sky and the white of the ground.
But perhaps it is not what I can or cannot see that is keeping me awake, but the prospect of what I could see. As I fly north, I get closer and closer to the aurora oval, the area of the most aurora activity. Though they have been known to stretch down through Canada and sometimes into the States, especially in a peak year, the best viewing is within the ovals surrounding the poles. Flying north I am neither more or less likely to see the aurora than I would be if I were on the ground, but I would give anything to see them on my first night in the North.
Though the chances are slim, I’ll stay awake for this flight, just in case. I am eager to add a little color to the monotone pallet stretched around me.
Today is my day.
I’m off to Canada
I’m off and away!
I’m off to Yellowknife, Canada in pursuit of the Aurora Borealis. I have seen it once, but once is not enough for me. I was much to young to fully appreciate the brilliance and motion of the dancing bands of light. Nor did I understand the science behind photon emission as solar particles collided with the atmosphere and emit differing bands of color. Now the spiritualist, the artist, and the scientist in me all need to see the Northern Lights again.
So I began a mission to get far enough north this year to find them. This year is the peak of the 11-year magnetic cycle of the sun, the point of the highest solar emissions and therefore the most brilliant aurora displays at the poles. The clock was ticking. A few dead-ends and failed proposals and I stumbled upon the impending deadline for the Venture Grant. Write a proposal with budget during the first week of one of the hardest classes I have taken thus far for my major? Challenge Accepted. And Executed. This lucky Venture Grant recipient is headed to photograph the Northern Lights and investigate the relationship between the lights and their possible effects on the people who witness them, myself included.
And things start to happen,
don’t worry. Don’t stew.
Just go right along.
You’ll start happening too.
I don’t have many concrete plans for this trip, which is out of character for me, but so far I am thoroughly enjoying the relaxed nature of my expedition. There are some great Aurora viewing communities and amenities in Yellowknife, and the whole city seems fairly similar to my moderately sized hometown in Minnesota. Except a lot colder.
You’ll be on your way up!
You’ll be seeing great sights!
You’ll join the high fliers
who soar to high heights.
With the journey underway, it is with deep and sincere gratitude that I send out a few thank you’s to those who helped make this trip happen. Thanks to the Venture Grant committee and the Anthropology Department for making this journey possible. I think it’s a great idea, but thanks to both departments for believing in it as well. Millions of thank you’s to Stanley, the Yoda of photography, for lending me his camera. I’ll do my best to make you proud! Thank you to Ari for lending me a jacket, I am going to be the prettiest giraffe Northern Canada has ever seen! Thanks to everyone who encourages my ridiculous schemes, encouraging me to be not just a dreamer, but a do-er too. And thanks to Dr. Seuss for one of the most inspirational books regardless of your age.
I’m off to the Great Places!
Today is my day!
The Lights are waiting,
So…I’m on my way!