Chasing Aurora in the Yukon: Week 9

Well my nine weeks chasing aurora in the Yukon has come to an end. A happy end.

Here's the (long) final blog for the series, until such a time as I can actually produce a video from my 187,792 image files which take up three and half terabytes of disk space, more than my entire ten year collection of digital images taken prior to this.


Close conjunction of Venus and Jupiter with Orion (left) and Northern Lights, Tombstone Park, Yukon Territory Canada, 15th March 2012
Canon 5DMKII, 24mm lens, five frame panorama each 8 sec, f1.4, ISO800
View on SmugMug


Cloudy Moonlight

The hoped for snow shoe up a Yukon mountain with Louis never eventuated. What was a sunny forecast one day turned out to be overcast, snowing and not much fun by the time the day arrived. In fact, it was cloudy and snowing a lot for ten days straight. We barely saw the sun or any stars at all in that time (take note if you were planning a short trip to see the aurora in the Yukon!). This was also the period when some big aurora storms were making news around the world. Friends back home even photographed the aurora from Melbourne and Castlemaine, a rare feat indeed! But not here. On the plus side, it was still close to full moon, so hardly the best time for observing or photographing aurora. As long as the weather pattern broke before too much longer I wasn't too worried.

Heading North

After giving a presentation to the local camera club, it was time to raise the stakes and head north. I had a good collection of timelapse footage already, but needed just a couple more good nights out of the third and last new moon cycle to go home happy.

So on Wednesday 14th March, I loaded up the truck again with food, water, fuel, assorted batteries, emergency supplies and all the camera gear and headed 500km north on the Klondike Highway towards Dawson City. I picked up one of the world's biggest cinnamon buns at Braeburn and travelled happily under blue skies for three hours or more, but then hit clouds. With some thoughts of staying back where the skies were clear, I turned right onto the Dempster Highway, a legendary 736km unsealed road that extends from the sub-arctic central Yukon to Inuvik and the truly arctic northern coast of Canada. My aim was a mere 80km further north to Tombstone Territorial Park, for some of the more rugged and spectacular mountain scenery of the Yukon. Apparently very picturesque in summer and especially fall, in winter it is simply bleak, barren and beautiful.

The clouds got worse as I travelled north into the hills of Tombstone Park, so I figured I would just be scouting out the landscape this first night. But the clouds were not pushing north over the range and so just ten minutes from North Fork Pass the skies cleared and the prospects for the night ahead looked a whole lot better.

North Fork Pass

With sunset now fast approaching, I didn't have time to explore and simply chose the first lay-by area I could just below the pass with a great view up the North Klondike Valley. I got out of the truck and it was cold. Really cold. I geared up with everything I had and got to work, setting up Fred Vanderhaven's automated bulb-ramping twilight exposure timelapse machine. We'd done a lot of work trying to solve issues related to how the servo motors operated the camera in the cold (among other things) but this was going to be a real test. As I recall, it worked quite well.

It was one of those spectacular eye-candy locations that was tough to translate to camera. The mountains got lost in the wide angle lens and it was hard to make something of interest in the foreground out of the usual mix of white snow and stunted trees. Perhaps other photographers know the feeling? Perhaps the great ones don't? At any rate, there was quite some effort involved in carrying the Dynamic Perception dolly and other timelapse gear a hundred metres down the road and then up through deep soft snow in search of an interesting scene. Then rinse and repeat dozens of times through the night, moving between gear stationed around the landscape and trying not to forget when the next one would need a new battery or memory card. At least it kept me warm.

Thankfully, the aurora remembered its part. A hint of rays in the north early soon became a fully fledged display with lovely rays and curtains stretching from the east to west and overhead with nice colours and structure in the images. The foreground was not such an issue anymore.

With activity continuing, it became a long night. I finally crawled into bed about 5am, and slept warm enough at -22C on my new Exped down sleeping mat.. highly recommended! It was a short sleep though as I got up at 7:30am, for the one manual intervention required on the automated morning twilight sequence, only to discover that the lens was completely covered in frost anyway. But then I noticed the waning crescent moon rising above the distant jagged mountains. A few hasty minutes later I was capturing another hoped for sequence and it looked good on camera except for all the horrible dust on the sensor suddenly visible at this longer focal length.

Rather than getting straight back into the sleeping bag, I explored a little further along the road to see what my options were for the next night and then battled my way through waist deep snow to the toilet in the summer campground. Yes, the seat was cold but at least I slept comfortably after that, and warm too with sunlight streaming in.

A View over the Ogilvie Ranges

Nori Sakamoto had an image on Google+ which was one of my sources of inspiration in heading to Tombstone Park. My morning drive had discovered the obvious location where his photo was taken, just a few kilometres further on from the pass before the road started descending to the plains to the north. Conveniently, there was a cleared area beside the road, in front of a gate (to a gravel pit?). Places to pull off the road are few and far between in winter and this looked pretty good to me. I assumed Nori had spent a night here too, perhaps a decade or more earlier.

That evening, I quickly discovered that my thermometer does not read below -25C, and the grease in my tripod heads froze which it had only previously done in my first week in the Yukon with the temperature below -30C. Yep, it was cold, with just a breath of wind enough to make one's nose sore.

Again, I slogged my way up through the snow, stomping another long trail that got easier to walk with each successive trip. It was hard work but the scenery and the crystal clear blue skies were highly motivating. Then, at some point in the still bright twilight, I realised aurora rays were already taking shape. I was in for a good night. With the twilight timelapse sequence taking care of itself, I grabbed the panoramic tripod head which Karen had posted from home for me and set about capturing some still image sequences on another camera to add to the all timelapse which had been my primary focus most nights.

Whether it was the cold, or being tired, or getting lazy after so many nights, I got the focus a little wrong on most of these panorama shots. In fact, I should have noticed weeks earlier how much the correct focus point on my 24mm lens had shifted compared to using it at home.. it must have got shaken up on the journey to Canada (or it didn't like the cold). But that slightly soft focus may just have helped make the stars and constellation of Orion look a little more obvious in this image so I'm ok with it.

A little later that night, the aurora went completely nuts. I have never seen it so bright, so fast moving. At one point, I was recording it in live video mode on the camera. It was also the only night I shot many sequences in JPG rather than RAW files, as the camera couldn't shoot RAW files fast enough for long enough.

I've never rattled off so many exposures as I did that night. The landscape around me was blazing and I was shooting aurora over the mountains to the south which wasn't part of the original location plan. This was indeed what I drove up the Dempster Highway for. Heck, it's what I came all the way to the Yukon for. And it's also why I came for nine weeks, and not just one. Shows like this don't happen every night, anywhere.

Eventually things started to die down, and some clouds started to move in from the south-east. If they were coming to spoil party, they were way too late, but I felt incredibly grateful for the clear weather that had allowed me to enjoy that night. After about three hours sleep in the car at -30C, I woke but I wouldn't quite say I was warm and comfortable. I got back in the front of the car and took stock of the weather. The clouds had really closed in and the wind was up too. In short, it was not very pleasant.

Click to view images on SmugMug


Dawson City

I stomped back up the hill to see if the all-night camera sequence was still running but the 12V Lithium battery had died a long time ago (it had run for eight hours though.. not bad for -30C!). So that was the cue to pack it all up. After a few more trips up and back through the snow, everything was packed in the car. I visited the campground toilet again (yep, still cold) and then went in search of somewhere out of the wind to wait, sleep some more and think about what the next move should be. I pulled off the road in a car size space that had been cleared where the Grizzly Creek Trail starts in summer. After waiting there only a short while, the car stalled. Then it stalled again. Hmm.. not good. I poured in one of my 20L containers of fuel in case that was an issue, as initially I thought ice in the gas lines may have been the problem. But not long after it stalled again while idling. The next time I got it going, I just drove. And I kept driving until I arrived in Dawson City an hour and a half later. (This would have to be one of the more amusing uses of the word 'City' in a name).

I filled up the car with fresh fuel and some gas-line antifreeze (condensation in the fuel system can freeze and block the fuel lines at these temperatures). Then I checked into a motel to start recovering from the rigours of the last two nights. Driving into town that night, with a passenger looking for a ride from the motel, the 'Check Engine' light came on, as it had when the oxygen sensor failed on the previous four night expedition. But I couldn't believe that the new one would have failed after barely a week and there are a myriad number of things it can come on for, but clearly something still wasn't right. After dinner, I caught up with Justin, my hosts Andrea and Florian's son, who lived in Dawson City in his small pad with three kids visiting as well. On his advice I took the car for a longer spin to let the gas-line antifreeze work its way through the system. Things seemed back to normal so there was hope. After all that, I can't tell you how much I enjoyed the bed in the motel that night.

I drove into town the next morning (Saturday) to restock, but after a short trip the car stalled again driving through the back streets but this time I couldn't get it going again (not immediately anyway). So began a bit of a saga that eventually saw the car checked into the mechanic on Monday and the discovery that the brand new oxygen sensor had indeed failed. Only this time it was causing the car to run rough and stall.. which I don't think is supposed to happen even when it fails. With the sensor now disconnected, the car at least ran reliably but not quite as smoothly as it should. When a new sensor arrived and was installed on Wednesday, everything was back to normal and has remained that way since.

Friday through to Monday night were all cloudy, windy and snowy so I wasn't missing any aurora action by being broken down in Dawson City. But it was costing a little more in motel accommodation than I had planned on (I was counting the pennies after two months on leave without pay from work back home!). Tuesday night was still a little marginal, but I headed up Dome Road which looks down steeply on Dawson City. I panned the camera over the city lights as it got dark but unfortunately the clouds rolled in so the aurora to really the make sequence work didn't.

Once more unto the breach

With the car properly fixed on Wednesday, it was time for one last trip up the Dempster into Tombstone Park to see if I could make something more of this expedition to the north. This time when I got back to North Fork Pass, it wasn't just -30C, it was also blowing a wild 20 knots, making for a wind chill of -50 degrees C. But I was pretty determined and so I just avoided spending any more time outside the car than necessary! Cloud threatening from the south looked to be clearing around sunset so I setup the main camera again. Once it was running autonomously I left it there and drove further along the road to the Ogilvie Ranges viewpoint, where I had such spectacular success last time. To my surprise, the wind was *much* calmer, despite the exposed location so hanging around for awhile no longer seemed out of the question.

Skies looked good early on, but there was no sign of any aurora which was very surprising given how far north I was. Then slowly the clouds took over more of the sky. I think it was about 1:30am when I finally pulled the plug. Clouds had taken over the sky and through the gaps I could still tell the aurora was a no-show anyway. I packed up the gear from the two locations, then headed south back to the Klondike Highway where conditions were much more amenable to sleeping (only -20C). After a solid six hours sleep, I made my final decision. With only a week left in the Yukon, there was plenty to do back at Shallow Bay, and while the skies looked much better I knew I could easily be let down again by the mountain weather and/or lack of aurora. What started with a bang in two of the best nights of my nine weeks, was followed by a drawn out affair in Dawson City and then ended with a whimper. But photography in the sub-arctic winter takes its toll and the body was clearly saying that we'd done enough.

The drive home was straightforward and five hours later I was enjoying the sunshine and balmy early spring conditions of the southern Yukon. The contrast with the brutal conditions of just 24 hours earlier was amazing. Photography became easy again, and being outside was enjoyable for a change. Motivation for what was possible over the remaining few nights quickly returned, reinforcing the wisdom of getting back to the warmth and comfort of the Lempher's home.

Annie Lake Road

While there were dozens of places I could have chosen to spend the last few precious evenings, after just one night to recover from the trip north, on Friday 23rd March I headed out to Annie Lake, my favourite I think of the photographic locations I've explored. It's also an easy one hour drive from homebase here at Shallow Bay.

The conjunction between Venus and Jupiter has been a big part of the sky show here, particularly with the aurora missing in action for the last week. I was a bit late leaving home and was still scouting the road a little more on the drive in, so missed sunset but kept all the cameras running after that. Some early signs of aurora were promising, but it turned out to be quite diffuse for most of the evening and not very photogenic. At 2am I eventually pulled the plug again and drove home.

Over the weekend, I spent a lot of time getting my files in order and working intensively on my Shooting Stars eBook. The layout and design being done by my friend Naomi Creek back home was nearing completion, setting me up for a tight finish to launch that while packing up all my gear here in the final few days (Update: Shooting Stars is now available!).

The next clear night was Monday 26th March. I decided to head to Annie Lake *again* for what I figured would be my last night out on location. While the days were pushing above freezing, both nights at Annie Lake dropped to around -18C, but I was finding it pretty easy to enjoy being out in those kind of conditions, especially when the wind died down. On the Friday I had scouted out some pockets of ice that were sufficiently clear of snow that I might get some auroral glow reflected in them and so that was my focus for this last night. But again, despite a small amount of activity early on, the aurora never really got going and the sequences I captured look interesting but certainly not amazing.

I waited patiently that second night, but eventually I knew that I had to head for home, and there was not much chance of anything happening anyway. So I packed it all up again and headed for home about 2:50am. As I was driving north towards home, I kept an eye on the faint auroral glow. Then at 3:30am, halfway home and while driving through the brights lights of Whitehorse, the aurora went nuts. I couldn't believe it.. either that I could see it through the glare of the highway streetlights or the sheer timing of it. A week of nothing, then it does this 30 minutes after I've packed up and mentally finished my time in the Yukon!

I got home and threw some timelapse equipment together but it wasn't very successful. Later the next day, after meeting some new friends in town and still very short of sleep I downloaded images from my fisheye patrol camera which has been running at home at Shallow Bay almost every night that I've been in the Yukon (even when I was away on the road).

Above you can see how the night panned out. At 2:45am when I had chosen to pack up and head home, the aurora was quiet like it had been for the week - Boring! At 3:23am it was hardly doing much more. Then two minutes later..Bam! That's aurora for you. Two minutes later it had stopped over-saturating the camera and the colours came through:


Farewell to the Yukon

Now all that remains is to pack up all my gear, freight much of it home and carry the rest on to Scotland where I am truly looking forward to seeing Kaz again on the 11th April. That will be six days after our third wedding anniversary and the third one we have spent apart!

For making everything about this trip possible, I have to say a special thanks to Florian and Andrea Lemphers. A connection through friends of friends of friends meant I was no more than a stranger when they offered me lodgings at their beautiful house on Shallow Bay thirty minutes north of Whitehorse. They are at the perfect latitude for the aurora, in a setting on the lake surrounded by mountains, under beautiful dark skies but close enough to town for parts and accessories as needed. And the immeasurable benefit of a vehicle with which I've travelled most of the roads in the Yukon. (I share a special bond with that Toyota Tacoma now, of the type that forms with the provider of a place to sleep and shelter while travelling the Yukon in winter and sleeping at -30C). I have enjoyed getting to know Florian and Andrea and the story of their once young family moving around communities a good deal further north and also about their political activism on a number of fronts during their time in Whitehorse. The world could use more people with their values and generous and adventurous spirit. Thankyou for what you have made possible for me!

Comments

Reply to comment | Phil Hart

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I truly appreciate
your efforts and I will be waiting for your
further write ups thanks once again.

Meeting Phil and his Northern Lights Journey

I'm so thankful for Florian and Andrea too. Through them I was able to get to know Phil and have him come to our Photography Club to share his love of the Aurora. He is a fine young man who I will always be grateful for getting to know and for sharing his LOVE of the Aurora. Cameras are a fastenating tool that can lead you into journies you don't expect. Buy his book! You will learn so much more about your camera. Thank you Phil and safe travelling! Your friend forever, Faye

From Cheechako to Sourdough

It has been our distinct pleasure to have Phil staying at our home for the past 9 weeks. To say that we have enjoyed his stay is a gross understatement. His thoughtfulness; willingness to help out; his amazing photographic skills; and his spirit of adventure have been a joy to us. His Mom and Dad have every right to burst out bragging about him!

Phil arrived at Shallow Bay as a Cheechako and he's leaving as a true Sourdough, having well earned the title by spending several extremely cold and unpleasant nights "camping" out in the drafty, leaky back of our old Toyota truck. As well, he can now step outside at 20 below with aplomb, sometimes without gloves, hat, scarf, down jacket, or leggings. That is a Sourdough!

From now on, whenever we see "the lights" we shall always think of Phil and that's a priceless gift from him to us.

The Yukon can cast a spell on one's soul that beckons you back. If you hear this call Phil, please come back with your ever-so-supportive wife to see the incredible beauty that lies under the snows of winter and the dark of the long nights.

Everyone should buy Phil's E-book "Shooting Stars" ~ it is excellent. An extremely well thought out, helpful, educational guide for anyone interested in photography.

We bid you a fond farewell from Shallow Bay and wish you every happiness and success.

Florian and Andrea Lemphers
Shallow Bay, Yukon