Chasing Aurora in the Yukon: Week 1


Leaving Home in a post-Cooinda Hurry

20th January, the day I left Melbourne, I woke to a text message alerting me to the news that there had a been a major eruption from a sunspot on the sun, which had hurled a 'coronal mass ejection' (CME) towards earth. This was the first significant eruption in many months from a sun still emerging from an extended minimum. So for the next 48 hours, I would be racing that CME across the solar system to Whitehorse in the Yukon. Kaz dropped me at the airport for the start of the journey, both of us looking forward to Part II of this adventure when she joins me in Scotland in early April.

The international flights were (happily) uneventful. I spent a few hours at Auckland airport tidying up some Camp Cooinda reports, where Camp Two for the summer and the site pack-up had finished only three days earlier. In Vancouver, I spent a few hours on a little goose chase to find a SIM card that would work up north and a phone that would work with the SIM card. Then I met up with Rob (a friend of a Canadian Cooinda friend) at The Naam vegetarian restaurant for a lovely and hearty meal. Aside from waiting on the wrong side of the road for the bus (left-hand drive anyone?) getting around in the cold and wet wasn't too bad either.

The airline computer for the final flight to Whitehorse had to be rebooted a couple of time before we could leave (what happens when Windows 'crashes'?), which meant that my hosts Andrea and Florian were waiting up even later than the scheduled arrival which was already after 1am. That seemed a lot to ask of a best friend, let alone 'friends of friends of friends'. Luckily they seem to enjoy late evenings. I was brought some extra gear and bundled straight into the car. Then thirty minutes up the road and we arrived at their delightful, remote and toasty warm log cabin. It may have been tough in the early days for their family, but after successive upgrades to the building, insulation, windows and fireplaces, it is now far warmer and more comfortable on the inside than our poorly constructed, drafty two bedroom unit in Melbourne is during winter. That despite it being anything up to an extra fifty degrees colder outside!

Shallow Bay, Lake Laberge, Yukon Territory

After long nights chasing gaps in the cloud, short days (starting late) have been filled with Andrea and Florian teaching me how to feed the cats, chop firewood, stoke the fires and operate the backup oil burner. And all the little things like finding all the light switches and where the cats will leave the mice that they catch during the night. And since water has to be trucked in (and kept warm) there's even more reason to save water here than in Melbourne.

Click to view image in SmugMug album

We've had a few trips into town and so I'm just starting to learn my way around and figure out what supplies I can get locally. To start with, I got myself a great deal on a pair of boots rated to -70C (!) and a one-piece snow suit from Canadian Tire (aka 'the church'). Together with my down jacket, I'm good for any temperature (but would prefer not too have any wind). Driving on the right in town has an extra degree of difficulty when you can't see any road markings under the snow.. so don't follow me!

And the Aurora?

It was about 3am on the night I arrived before we finished a short chat around the kitchen table. It had looked pretty cloudy but I caught a glimpse of some northern lights out the back window, so I quickly setup a camera out on the deck before finally tucking into bed. The camera didn't see much more though either.

The next night, my first real night here, was also quite cloudy (can you pick the theme?). But the aurora storm still had not arrived. It did eventually, much weaker and later than expected, but you don't need much when you're this far north. I stepped outside at the right time to catch a ten minute gap in the cloud as the aurora kicked in and managed to fire off a few shots. Around the same time, there was another larger eruption on the sun and it was this one that seemed to capture a lot of media attention (not exactly sure why as there will be dozens of these events over the next year or two). When that second storm arrived the weather here was even worse, although the timing favoured night-time in Europe anyway.

On the night in between the arrival of those two storms (my third night), we got a great aurora show in clear skies here. Whitehorse is definitely far enough north to see plenty of aurora without the need of any 'space weather' storms. Catching the gaps in the clouds is the tricky bit. Two other nights I've caught very brief periods (5-10 minutes) of active aurora, with conditions pretty quiet the rest of the night. That leaves a lot of waiting and anticipation, and swapping and recharging batteries to keep cameras ticking over, for a few short minutes of totally unpredictable activity. Very hard to record timelapse of such short bursts of activity too.

Click to view image in SmugMug album

Each subsequent night, I have unpacked more photography gear (and toys) and progressively worked through issues with batteries, power supplies, tripod heads being too stiff in the cold to operate, and other more complicated bugs in the DIY aspects of my kit. But after upping the level of complexity (I have four cameras running most of the time) I'm generally happy with how the gear is coping with the cold temps (down to -35C last night!). And I'm coping ok too, although you can sure feel the cold on your nose!

This week I take Andrea and Florian to the airport for their winter break in Hawaii. The moon is also on the way, so I'll have a slightly more subdued week or two to process some of the 300GB of data I've collected already, look after the house and the cats and start scouting some new locations. Stay tuned!

Comments

Fantastic work,I can not say

Fantastic work,I can not say a word.

Great Work!

Great work Phil, you've already captured some cracking shots, and no doubt getting better at taking happy snaps of random aurora moments along the way. Looks cold too. You'll be loving that. And in other news, it was 34C today and we have put most of the nets on (31 rows of PN), 50% veraison at the top of the hill. Bet you're kicking yourself that you missed that!

Some great images Phil, and

Some great images Phil, and certainly getting a sense of how hard you're working to get them. I was also fascinated that some people actually choose to live in those conditions all year round... but then I found out they go to Hawaii - only the crazy photographers stay through the heart of winter. Good luck getting some clear skies and staying warm!

Phil!! Those photos and your

Phil!!
Those photos and your account of life in the cold Yukon, are AMAZING!!! It's amazing what nature provides on the artistic side!!
My 8 year old daughter was looking at the photos with me and now wants to go to Canada next holidays! Her comment was also, "Its like a big green sea in the sky!"

My comment, just "AWESOME!!"

Yukon auroras.

Thank You for these beautiful images.
If you are not in http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/page/2/#.UMWxX6wU8sY
then you deserve to be.