Chasing the Northern Lights from Above and Below

Seal River Heritage Lodge - Chasing the Northern Lights from Above and Below-8696
Seal River Heritage Lodge under the glow of the Aurora borealis

On a recent trip to Manitoba and the Yukon in Canada, I saw the Aurora borealis, also known as the Northern Lights, from two very different vantage points: On the ground at a remote fly in lodge on Hudson Bay (home of many a polar bear), and from the air with the inaugural flight of Air North’s Aurora 360 – Flight to the Lights.

Here’s what happened…  

From Below: Churchill Wild’s Seal River Heritage Lodge, Manitoba

It’s the Aurora! Wake up!

Rob, one of the guides from Churchill Wild, was down the hall knocking feverishly on guests’ doors.

Wake up!

I fumbled for my phone, not sure if I was dreaming. It was 2:39 a.m.

C’mon, get up! Northern lights!

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It took me a minute to pull myself out of my haze. It was the first night of a four-day, polar bear photographic walking safari at Seal River Heritage Lodge (more on that in a subsequent post), and I was completely disoriented. I’d asked to be woken up if the lights appeared, but for some reason I just thought it wouldn’t happen on the first night. Silly me.

Still in a fog, I pulled on my boots, threw my parka over my pajamas and headed towards the back of the compound. By the time I arrived the other guests were already outside gawking.

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My breath caught and I was instantly awake. Against an onyx sky and a sea of brilliant stars, light green peaks shot up from the horizon. Adrenaline coursed through me. I’d wanted to see the Aurora for years. Though the display wasn’t as dynamic as I’d hoped, I knew the lights could change (or disappear) from one minute to the next.  I couldn’t go back to bed, I had to take pictures.

Ten minutes later, I was suited up, camera in hand, and standing with a few other brave souls (the temperature was way below zero) atop the lodge’s viewing tower. From this perspective we could see over the fenced-in compound (best way to keep big bears out), as well as the tundra beyond, and further north, the Kia-sized blocks of ice that defined the shore of Hudson Bay upon which the lodge stood.

The sky was exploding with color, transformed by neon green lights that morphed every few minutes, or appeared in places they’d been absent moments before. Sometimes they were faint and feathery, other times they were opaque tornado-like swirls or giant slashes across the heavens tinged with red. The stars were so bright, I mistook Mars for a plane.  Over and over again, I clicked the shutter and ogled the night sky. But after an hour and a half, my fingertips numb and a full day ahead, I had to go back to bed. But I was all smiles, my first sighting was exactly as I had imagined.

From Above: Air North’s Inaugural Aurora-360 Flight to the Lights, Yukon 

Photo: Neil Zeller

We boarded the private charter just before midnight, without the security or the usual rigmarole required before a commercial flight. I took my seat (1 C on the aisle), and a jolt of excitement passed through me, the kind you get when you’re part of something being done for the first time. Soon, the inaugural flight of Air North’s Aurora 360 (in collaboration with The Yukon Astronomical Society and the Yukon government) from Whitehorse would be underway—the first of its kind in North America and third in the world. We were going to chase the northern lights at 36,000 feet, and if lucky, bask in their eerie green glow.

From the start, none of the usual flying conventions applied, and that was half the fun. We walked around, congregated where we wanted, even chatted with the pilot and co-pilot who kept their post 9/11 sanctuary open to our curious gazes and litany of questions. Passengers were a mixture of aurora enthusiasts and friends of Air North who paid nearly $1000 for the 3.5-hour adventure, as well as I and other journalists from around the world. In total we numbered 91.

Photo: Neil Zeller

As soon as we took off, the passengers given window seats were impatiently scanning the sky. For those of us on the aisle (the middle seats were left empty), we did our best to peek around the heads of our comrades glued to the glass. Though we all knew it was possible we wouldn’t see the lights (natural phenomenons have a way of thwarting expectations) no one dared suggest we’d come up empty. We all believed it was a case of not if but when we would see the Aurora borealis.

Our flight plan took us in giant circle over the planet’s North Magnetic pole through the auroral oval, where the lights are the strongest. We began at Whitehorse in the Yukon, then flew northeast to Fort Simpson, north to Fort Good Hope, then west to Eagle Plains before turning south towards home.

Flying high above the clouds, we didn’t worry about visual obstructions. If the northern lights appeared, we’d see them, and more important, we’d see them at eye level which was the key to this adventure.

Photo: Neil Zeller

Fifteen minutes after takeoff, the lights were turned off in the cabin and a hazy emerald glow could be seen on the left side of the plane. Everyone grabbed for their cameras, though many realized too late smartphones don’t have the technology to capture the aurora. Only a camera with the ability to take a long exposure and a lens that can let in enough light will work. But shooting a long exposure (a shutter speed of 3-10 seconds)on a moving plane isn’t easy.

Missy Follwell, my seat mate with the window, a kind, silver-haired woman from Whitehorse who recently piloted her first solo flight, was underwhelmed. She’d seen more spectacular northern lights on a recent flight from Vancouver. Trying to see around her, I could make out the gentlest of wisps streaking through the night sky. “It’ll get better,” I promised. Hoping I was right.

Me and my glowing Aurora 360 Cocktail.
Me and my glowing Aurora 360 Cocktail

Inside the plane, the party was on. The mood was festive and at times raucous, bolstered by the complimentary Aurora 360s, a souped-up gin & tonic illuminated with plastic LED ice-cubes with a green glow. Two women (two of several who were celebrating a friend’s birthday), wearing blinking reindeer antlers stood in a line next to our seats waiting to visit the cockpit. The pilots’ view was the most coveted. The aurora floated in front of the plane like a ghostly force field, and everyone wanted to see it.  Passengers spent most of the flight crowding around our seats waiting for their turn.

Missy switched with me throughout the flight and over time we saw the lights morph in strength and shape. At first, they were rippled streaks that ran parallel to the plane. Later, they looked like vertical shafts of green fire shooting up into the stratosphere. By the end of the flight they were faded again. Sometimes the Aurora seemed so close it looked as if it came from the tip of the wing. Unfortunately for the people sitting on the right side of the plane there wasn’t much of a show until the last 15 minutes of the flight.

By 3:30am, the flight had come to an end along with the Aurora. It had been a good night. It was time to go home.

What are the Northern Lights?

According to Canada’s northern Lights center, the Northern Lights are “collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth’s atmosphere.” In the north, they’re called Aurora borealis, and in the south, they’re Aurora australis.

Many cultural groups have legends about the lights. In medieval times, the occurrences of auroral displays were seen as harbingers of war or famine. The Maori of New Zealand shared a belief with many northern people of Europe and North America that the lights were reflections from torches or campfires.

The Menominee Indians of Wisconsin believed that the lights indicated the location of manabai’wok (giants) who were the spirits of great hunters and fishermen. The Inuit of Alaska believed that the lights were the spirits of the animals they hunted: the seals, salmon, deer and beluga whales. Other aboriginal peoples believed that the lights were the spirits of their people.

Photographing the Northern Lights on the ground

Photographing the northern lights isn’t difficult, it just requires the proper gear and a little patience.

  • a tripod to keep the camera steady.
  • a camera that allows you to control the shutter speed. [Depending on the conditions I set the shutter speed between 10-25 seconds for the images in the Seal River story]
  • a fast wide-angle lens, ideally a f2.8. [I used a 16-35mm, f2.8 on loan via the Canon Professional Services program]
  • An ISO speed of at least 1600. [Depending on the conditions you may need to bump that up bit.]
  • Manual focus set at infinity. Don’t expect autofocus to work in this circumstance, the edges of the aurora are not distinct enough to focus on.
  • Use the live view to focus manually if you have something in the foreground you want in the composition.
  • Set your drive to a 2 second delay so the camera is perfectly still when the shutter is released.

Photographing the Northern Lights in the air

I found it extremely difficult to steady my camera long enough for a long exposure to work on the plane. All my pictures were varying levels of blurry. I’m sure that with some practice and experimentation I would get better, I just didn’t have the time. The reflections from the window and the glowing drinks everyone drank also made the process more challenging.

I was a guest of Travel Manitoba and Tourism Yukon, neither reviewed or approved this story.  

Chasing the Northern Lights from Above and Below

35 thoughts on “Chasing the Northern Lights from Above and Below

  1. Kate Korte says:

    Your photos from the flight made my jaw drop, I’ve seen northern lights in Alberta but nothing like that. Truly spectacular, thank you for sharing!

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Thank you. They weren’t my shots but I’m really glad you liked them. The ones above are, but those are from the ground. I found it too difficult to keep my camera still on the moving plane. LOL

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      It was pretty neat. It was the first flight of its kind in North America. They plan on offering it again in 2018, I believe.

  2. Melissa G. Theil says:

    Thanks, Susan, what wonderful Northern Lights! I also thank you for your info about how to dress warmly. I followed your advice for my upcoming Feb. Montana trip . I know I will be warm, thanks to you.

  3. Natashya Newman says:

    Wow! Those lights are absolutely amazing! Ethereal and transcendent…. And breathtaking. Thank you for sharing your pictures and memories!

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      I still haven’t been to Iceland. I really need to go. I bet seeing the Northern Lights over some of those incredible natural landscapes would be amazing. The flat land of the tundra was ok but didn’t make for a great foreground. 🙂

  4. Stephen Gill says:

    Hello Susan I couldn’t keep away,I was watching some movie in the last week and there was a scene on the great Northern Lights what a coincidence eh,maybe a kin Spirit thing
    Love in Him
    STEPHEN Gill

  5. Angelyn (TheLifeofPie58) says:

    Wow!!!!! What a cool experience! A definite bucket lister for me! Thanks for sharing the details and the fab images! I know anyone wanting to photograph the lights appreciates your suggestions on camera settings and camera equipment! Thanks!!!!

  6. K.M. Sutton says:

    This post left me speechless in the most epic bone chilling way! I have always wanted to see the Northern Lights and your recap described it so vividly to me! Not to mention your pictures are stunning! What an amazing experience! Thank you for sharing this with all of us and letting us experience a little bit of it! 🙂 <3

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