The cabin :: Whitehorse, Canada

The cabin :: Whitehorse, Canada

Last March, we decided it was time to pack up and leave Vancouver — such is the life of opportunists and world travelers always looking ahead to the next stop. But before we left we were surprised with one late-season, last-minute opportunity to see the Northern Lights — a big item yet to be checked off our bucket lists. Forecasts predicted the Lights would be active over the coming weekend due to a coronal hole and resulting solar wind entering earth’s atmosphere. Yay, science!

We did what any ardent Northern Lights chasers would do: we booked a last-minute flight and a tiny remote cabin in the Yukon Territory. Two days later, we were fastening our seat belts for a long weekend in the middle of nowhere, in search of the Unicorn of the Sky (Jay’s name for the Northern Lights).

“Nowhere” doesn’t do it justice. The flight to Whitehorse was full of spectacular mountain views and the town itself is pretty cool. Whitehorse has managed to hang onto some of it’s vintage charm, blended with indigenous art and a new community center, interspersed with a few little shops and cafes.

The best thing about the weekend was our one-bedroom cabin on the 80-acre ranch of a Renaissance outdoorsman. He milled the wood and built the cabin himself with a fantastic front porch and firepit facing directly north to the horizon where we hoped to see the elusive green glow of the Aurora. The cabin had no running water but the luxurious outhouse was far better than some bathrooms, and the efficient heat and fast WiFi made the whole outpost perfect for our weekend camp. Located 45 minutes outside Whitehorse, the sky was plenty dark for our adventure in light.

Whitehorse, Canada

Whitehorse, Canada

On the afternoon we arrived, we explored the vicinity of our cabin and discovered other myriad things the Renaissance outdoorsman had built including a handful of additional cabins, an enormous solar array to power the site, and the “Boyleville Saloon” just beyond his backyard (closed for the season, but probably host to some really fun parties).

To the east of his home, he had a large yard and housing for a team of 30 sled dogs, and his wife tipped us off that he’d be taking some of them out for an “afternoon run” around 4:30 p.m. (Fun fact: You probably don’t know this, but I wrote the introduction to a sold-out coffee table book about Iditarod sled dogs called Born To Run by Albert Lewis.) Seeing these dogs here in person, from behind the fence (they are VERY enthusiastic creatures), was an unexpected treat.

All hooked up and harnessed to run, OFF THEY WENT barking madly and racing for the hills. They didn’t return until 50 kilometers and one frozen river crossing later, in full darkness at 10:00 p.m. that evening.

That same evening was the first time we saw the Northern Lights. I was using three websites to track the activity. The Lights had been extremely active over Scandanavia but by the time they reached western Canada, they had calmed to a sleepy Level 2 — nothing too special, but still a fuzzy green glow above the distant mountains to the north of us along with a blob of light above us that was so subtle I mistook it for a cloud until I realized it was shifting in all directions. We ducked in and out of the cabin until 3:00 a.m. that morning, checking to see if the Lights were becoming more active. The forecast predicted better activity during the following two evenings so eventually we gave in and slept.

The next day, we took a walk around the property to a bluff near the cabin. We could see all the way to the next mountains with a flat expanse of land in between and a few stands of trees like ribbons running north to south. With the lingering snow, branches not yet budding for spring, and the frozen Yukon River in the distance, the sparse landscape had the look and feel of The Revenant — minus the grizzly bear (hopefully sleeping).

That night, Jay succumbed to the primal need to make fire in the wilderness and built a glowing pyramid in the firepit out front. We alternated between the warm cabin and the fireside heat until the wood ran out around 9:00 p.m. At 10:00 p.m., Jay took a look out the front door exclaiming, “The band’s here!” That ethereal green band was getting brighter as darkness finally arrived. But Aurora activity again remained low and steady throughout our gaze until 2:00 a.m. in the morning. It was easy to see and enjoy with our eyes but not so easy to photograph with a camera.

On Sunday, our last full day in Whitehorse, we made the most of it. We drove out to walk on the frozen Yukon River and then went for an evening soak in the local hot springs — a community gathering spot with two large pools at different temperatures.

We returned to the cabin and checked the Aurora forecasts, knowing the conditions were right for increased activity. A coronal hole in the sun was releasing solar wind that was striking the atmosphere with high-level intensity as the earth rotated through it. Activity had again been elevated over Scandanavia but tonight it had continued over eastern Canada, too. We knew that if we were lucky we might catch the tail end of the show.

We were drinking wine, making dinner, waiting for the sunlight to completely disappear from the western sky. And then … it happened. The band’s here! Brighter and greener than ever. GET THE CAMERA!

First attempt at shooting the Northern Lights

First attempt at shooting the Northern Lights

I was excited, frantic, running around trying to get my camera attached to the cold tripod I had staged on the front porch. Jay was turning off all the lights and, with less and less light to work with, my camera wouldn’t focus on anything. I switched to manual but the scene was so dark through the viewfinder and I was so filled with glee that both IT and I could not focus. FAIL. More attempts, more failures, but pretty nonetheless! I finally had to stop, take a deep breath, and make Jay be my focal point (holding up a lighter like he was at a Northern Lights concert) to bring the full depth of field into focus. With a few experimental exposures, I finally got it dialed, and captured a shooting star in the process.

The Northern Lights :: Whitehorse, Canada

The Northern Lights :: Whitehorse, Canada

 

The Northern Lights :: Whitehorse, Canada

The Northern Lights :: Whitehorse, Canada

The most memorable part of the following two hours was something I could barely capture with the camera. The green band continued to glow, but long fingers of light started to descend from above us down to the horizon. When those disappeared, more fingers would extend from the horizon up into the sky. Sometimes three, four and five at a time would reach down or up, shift left or right … and be gone. THIS was the solar wind blowing through the atmosphere right in front of us. MAGIC!

Here was a moment to put down the camera and watch the science and beauty of the Northern Lights as two tiny human beings in an infinite galaxy. As fellow blogger Ron Mitchell often says, “Thank you, Abundant Universe.” We have seen the Lights and they are divine.

The Northern Lights :: Whitehorse, Canada

The Northern Lights :: Whitehorse, Canada

 

The Northern Lights :: Whitehorse, Canada

The Northern Lights :: Whitehorse, Canada

 

32 comments

  1. My biggest worry about being somewhere in view of the Northern Lights is being totally unable to snap a decent photo! Funny thing is that I’m not obsessed with photographing things in general and am OK with my mental memory a lot of the time, but something like this, maybe a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, would make me want to capture it properly for posterity.

    Beyond the lights, I’m sure you can imagine my infatuation with that cabin! What a great farewell trip as you prepared to leave Canada, too (I’m eager to hear what exactly you are up to if you plan to let us in on that someday!). A number of your posts about cabins in Canada have grabbed me, and I still have those places on my radar even though you are now lolling in the sun much farther south!

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    1. Lex! Great to hear from you! I was definitely feeling the pressure of trying to photograph the Northern Lights, but they’re so cool I expect we’ll be seeing (or trying to see) them for the rest of our lives. Realizing that took the pressure off a little bit and made it easier to put down the camera and just take it in. You would have loved that little cabin — so charming and quiet. Just the bare necessities with a few cool surprises like the tabletop cut into the porch railing and the little fox that trotted through the front yard. Heaven! And yes, we’re much farther south now in the Mexican heat. Formulating a post about the transition but distracted by tacos and cenotes. ๐Ÿ™‚ Hope you’re doing well! Jay was asking who you were (based on past comments on my posts) and I was telling him that it’s like you and I are traveling in parallel universes — same paths but never crossing, as recently as Denver a couple of weeks ago! Crazy! Someday we’ll meet! And I can’t wait!

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    1. Thanks, Alison! Yes, the Yukon was a real treat and wonderful last trip before leaving Canada. We’re in Mexico now. Are you back yet? I need to catch up on my reading. Hope you’re having/had a great trip, and you and Don are either reunited or looking forward to that very soon! xo, K.

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  2. So many layers to this experience – the dogs and the Yukon life always grab my attention, in TV shows such as Life Below Zero, Alaskan Frontier, etc The saloon looks great! The outhouse splendor – the cabin where you stayed. The intense almost emerald Green of the lights…..
    It must be the Scandinavian in me! I love this post!

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  3. Spectacular photos! What an experience to have gone all the way to Whitehorse and seen that display! This Canadian has seen only a few vague glimpses of the northern lights on hot summer nights. I’ve also never ventured west of my home province of Ontario but we are finally heading to Vancouver and Whistler in a few weeks. Nothing like your adventures but super excited to see a bit of west coast living and scenery.

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    1. Hey! Thank you! Really cool that you’ve seen the lights on summer nights vs. winter! Great that you’re headed west! What will you be doing in Vancouver and Whistler? Don’t miss the Granville Market and walking on the seawall. Take a taxi to the Stanley Park Teahouse for afternoon cocktails, then head outside across the street and down to the left — there are stairs to the seawall and you can walk (again to the left) all the way back to Denman Street (use Cactus Club restaurant as a landmark). It’s a beautiful walk on a clear afternoon/evening, or especially at sunset. And if you’re in Whistler, the Peak to Peak (chairlifts and tram) experience is really cool, with beautiful views and moderate hiking. Hope you have a great trip!! We may be headed to France in August!

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      1. Thanks a million for the tips! We’ll be mostly hanging out in Vancouver so will have lots of time to follow your advice and go to Stanley Park for tea. I’ve also heard from another friend about the Whistler Peak to Peak experience which we’ll definitely make time for. Keep us posted about France — I’m sure you’re well connected but happy to share any tips if it’s in our area (Haute Savoie).

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      1. We lived in Anchorage, but were able to explore a few other parts of the state. Never made it the Arctic Wildlife Refuge which would be a dream for me, too. I hope we both make it one of these days. ๐Ÿ˜Š

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  4. A wonderful post Kelly; amazing photographs. Thanks for sharing your adventure. We clearly need to make the journey ourselves. Hopefully you will return to Vancouver someday; in the meantime Bon Voyage and I look forward to reading all about your future adventures on compassandcamera. Warm wishes…Andrew

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    1. Hey! Thanks, Andrew! You never know…we might be back someday. In the meantime, we’re eating tacos and swimming around in Tulum, Mexico. Formulating a post about the transition. It’s our first stop on a *potentially* nomadic rest of the year. We’ll see! Hope you’re enjoying the start of summer! Thanks again!

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  5. My biggest worry if I go on an aurora-hunting trip is probably not on whether or not I will see the northern (or southern) lights, because I obviously can’t control the nature, but it’s rather on if I can get my camera work properly. This was such an exciting read, Kelly! First the cool cabin, then the sled dogs, and to top them all the unicorn of the sky itself! By the way, you make us so curious now about where your life adventure will take you next — back to Asia perhaps?

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    1. Bama! Agreed! Getting your camera to shoot the lights isn’t easy! But give yourself a few nights and some clear weather and you’ll work it out, no problem. Happy to hear you enjoyed the post. It was such a cool weekend. We’re currently in Tulum, Mexico. I’m formulating a post about the transition but I kind of have writer’s block!! Ugh! Or maybe I ate too many tacos or chips & salsa?! Ha ha! Anyway, I’ll get through it. I went to the Tulum ruins last week and thought of you. They’re a 20 minute bike ride from where we’re staying. So cool. Such a beautiful site overlooking the ocean. You would love it! Mayan culture is amazing. Looking forward to reading and learning more about it. As for Asia… it’s possible. I would go back in a heartbeat. Feels like home there. Depends on budget and timing but we’ll see!

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      1. You know, since last year I have been seriously thinking of going to Mexico. It might not happen too soon, but I hope the chance will come within the next few years. Tulum, Chichen Itza, Uxmal, Palenque and Teotihuacan are among the places I most want to visit.

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      2. I think you would really enjoy it here and find all the rich culture (and food!) you love to explore. I find it very interesting to compare and contrast the historic ruins of Asia with these here in central America (Tikal is another great site you should see in Guatemala). In two weeks we’re hoping to return to Chichen Itza and then see Coba and Ek Balam (for the first time), as well as the city of Valladolid. These are the main sites in our vicinity but there are so many smaller ones, too. Reminds me a bit of Bagan in that way. We’re debating about returning in August to see Mexico City and Oaxaca. Anyway — whenever you visit, give yourself plenty of time!!

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      3. Please write about them because some of your posts have inspired me to go to the places you’ve been. In fact, the countries I’m going to visit this October and next April are those you went to when you were still living in Asia.

        I will surely spend as much time as I can afford when I go to Mexico one day!

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      4. Hint: I’m going to the Land of the Thunder Dragon in October, and I’m thinking of going to the only GCC country without skyscrapers in April. ๐Ÿ˜‰

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  6. Absolutely beautiful, Kelly. Living in Alaska for a few years, I was treated to several displays. But my first time I ever saw them I was actually a child growing up in California in the foothills of the Sierra’s when, for some reason, they dipped all the way down and paid a visit. A couple of years ago, I was at a resort outside of Fairbanks staying at a lodge with a number of Asians who kept me awake tromping up and down the stairs even though there was no display. I later learned that they didn’t want to miss it because they believed their children would be incredibly lucky if they were conceived on a night when the Northern Lights were shining.
    Also, I liked the shot of the wine on the porch. ๐Ÿ™‚ Now that is a civilized way to appreciate the Aurora Borealis! โ€“Curt

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    1. Wow, Curt! So cool that you saw the Northern Lights near the Sierras! That’s a rare occasion, to say the least. Pretty funny about the superstition of conceiving during the lights. I guess I shouldn’t call it a superstition — very possible that those lights are lucky! I sure felt lucky. And the wine was the finishing touch! ๐Ÿ™‚

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      1. “And the wine was the finishing touch!” Looks like you and your husband know how to do it right! ๐Ÿ™‚
        It was certainly the only time I ever saw them so far south, Kelly. โ€“Curt

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  7. I am SO glad you were able to capture and share them Kelly, as I fear I may never see them first-hand. I know exactly how you felt trying to shoot in the pitch black and how frustrating it can be. Like you, eventually we capture what we want but it’s an exasperating experience. Happy you found time to simply sit and enjoy the show!! Abundant universe indeed.

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