When my work project scheduled a trip to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory in February, I had mixed feelings. Isn’t this place so cold that people die? What is it, -100 degrees in the winter? My client assured me that people do live there, it’s not -100, maybe -10 C, and “there’s nothing better than watching the Northern Lights from a hot tub with a beverage of your choice.”
Now there’s a Bucket List item I can get excited about. For weeks, I research how I can get pictures (besides stealing them off the internet and pretending that they are mine). Apparently, iPhones and small point and click cameras don’t work. All the bloggers say you need the big SLR (or DSLR) camera and a tripod. Undeterred, I practice long exposures with my iPhone and Cannon Powershot (point and click) preparing for my Northern Lights photo safari.
Upon arrival, I sign up for a Northern Lights tour with Northerntales. The tour company runs tours from 10 PM to 2 AM from the Best Western hotel in Whitehorse and has excellent TripAdvisor reviews. Since the tours are late, I schedule my tour for my last night (after all, I can’s show up at the client site sleep deprived).
Tonight is the night. I show up in the Best Western lobby and wait. Soon, others begin to arrive and I feel under-dressed. Everyone has boots, nylon pants (covering real pants), knit hats, and fuzzy parkas. They carry backpacks of stuff. I’m wearing jeans, running shoes, and have four layers on top (I do have a down parka — I’m not that lame). I don’t have a backpack and am unsure what else I could bring.
We bus north, up the Great Alaskan Highway, for about 30 minutes. It’s dark and I can’t see anything, but I still look up expecting to see something. At one point, we turn toward Dawson — the only place further north than Whitehorse. Then suddenly the bus slows, pulls to the side of the road, and cuts through some trees in the forest. We bounce along a one-lane, snow covered dirt path for about five minutes before we stop at a large open field.
The quick orientation takes us to the burning fire, warming hut (snacks and hot drinks), and stack of tripods. In the first hour, everyone is outside forming a skirmish line of tripods armed with expensive cameras.
Then we wait.
And wait. And wait.
Apparently Northern Lights viewing is like whale watching. You know they’re out there, but you can force the whales to jump out of the water. For an hour, I stand in the cold staring at the dark sky hoping the haze clears. For a brief moment, I am excited as the clouds break and the beautiful starlit sky opens up. I see a shooting star and become a constellation tour guide to a South African couple (it’s a northern/southern hemisphere thing). Then the haze returns.
Discouraged, I walk back to the warming hut and find my fellow adventurers watching our guide make Maple Taffy. It’s an Canadian thing where you boil maple syrup (to reduce it), then pour it over fresh snow. As the heated syrup cools, you roll it on a stick to make a lollipop. It’s good and sweet. The picture shows our guide making some for us. I guess waiting for the Lights is a common thing.
After finishing my Taffy, I walk back out side. It’s 12:45, the haze is clearing and the show is beginning. It starts with a long green arch stretching from the east to the west like a
glowing rainbow of a single color. The warming hut is now empty, the skirmish line is filled, and the chatter grows louder.
I experiment with my iPhone camera and Cannon Powershot. The bloggers are right, I’m taking pictures of a blackness. After about 20 photos of black squares, I give up. The good news is that the guides are taking pictures for us. I hop in line for my souvenir photo (really photos since I wasn’t busy trying to take pictures).
For the next hour and a half, I watch the heavens open up with the Northern Lights slowly transforming from one configuration to another. The photos below are taken by the guides with their DSLR camera, but I claim them as my own since this is my adventure.
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
The heavens have spoken.