THE SUMMER AURORA DREAM
Let me break your heart right from the start here. Unfortunately, if you're planning to be here in the second half of May, June, or July, you really, really aren't likely to see the aurora because of our long daylight hours through the summer months.
Aurora season in Yellowknife is August to April. These are our safe zones. I've seen the aurora as early as the 22nd of July, and as late as the 11th of May - but it's a good idea to keep your visits from anytime in August all the way through to the first few days of May if your main focus is the northern lights.
Warm, longer northern days make it more likely to combine the sunset and subsequently gorgeous twilight skies with the northern lights all in one. If you've ever dreamt of seeing the aurora dance while witnessing a lightning storm in the distance, this is the time of year for you. Reflections of the northern lights off the water will take your breath away before things begin to freeze up in November. We'll leave the parkas inside for these few months, but carry ample mosquito repellent for August and perhaps a few days in September.
While there's certainly no question these months can bring us some challenging conditions, it's what being north of 60º is all about. These months will provide some of the greatest payoffs in terms of your experience. November and early December may mean longer drives chasing for the aurora in the way of searching out clear skies, but we'll find music you enjoy, and conversation that's inspiring while you stretch out and keep warm in my Transit. This to me, is what aurora chasing is all about, these are the nights that thrill me the most. And for those evenings where we may see the temperature drop to -40ºC, we'll keep you warm bundled up in Canada Goose gear, or inside the vehicle if you prefer - where you can take in the aurora through the wrap-around windows. There's nothing like being here in winter.
Ahhh, March 21st, the first day of spring. Rejuvenation, rebirth, everything's blooming, all that stuff. Except March in Yellowknife has seen -35ºC, there's still ice on the lakes in May, and the winds aren't exactly 'warm' just yet, which makes spring in up here a little different. What isn't all that different is the way the days lengthen so quickly. Sunset stretches later into each evening, bringing back the possibility to view the aurora under a deep twilight coloured sky. Then, there's the excitement I personally feel this time of year - knowing the aurora is closing in on it's final days before giving way to bright summer nights where this far north, we won't see the lights back in the sky again until August.
WAXING CRESCENTS, WANING GIBBOUS', FULL MOONS, NEW MOONS
Each moon phase is going to give you a very unique experience, and while a full, or nearly full moon will become a significant source of light pollution - especially on a frozen lake covered in snow - it can make a faint aurora seem harder to see, but you are still going to see the aurora during those near full moon phases. I promise you it doesn't disappear. So while the moon doesn't directly affect the aurora borealis itself, it will have a strong influence on your experience - never better or worse, just different.
Some of my favourite nights here are when the moon rise or moon set is halfway through the night (around midnight, since we typically leave for tour somewhere around 21:00 and return around 3:00), and you really get to experience both having the moon in the sky but also the darkness of just pure starlight. When we get into a photography mindset, it's really something spectacular to me. As moon begins come close to kissing the horizon, our beautifully quirky trees will cast long shadows across untouched snow on frozen lakes, and the moonlight will be very gentle and warm.
During a crescent moon, half moon, or full moon - you'll certainly be able to take notice of the way it can illuminate our beautiful landscapes, and provide absolutely unique aurora portrait opportunities here.
If you're a stargazer, then a new moon is the phase for you. Before the aurora floods us with light pollution you'd be crazy to complain about, we'll have the milky way towering over our heads along with a galaxy or two we'll be able to spot through some astronomy binoculars.
LET'S TALK COLOUR
What you can expect to see, to enjoy, and how it compares to the photographs that flood the internet.
A BREATHTAKING EXPERIENCE
You're on the verge of booking your flight up into one of the most beautiful parts of Canada, you know you want to get into the countryside in a quiet, cosy environment (...no bias here), and you've wanted to see the northern lights for as long as you can remember, or for as long as hipster Instagram travel accounts have been posting oversaturated photos of the someone camping on a mountain peak underneath neon greens filling the sky, but what can you really expect? Is it as breathtaking in person as it looks in all the photos you've seen?
IT'S A TRICKY THING TO EXPLAIN, SO YES AND NO, AND HERE'S WHY
Many of the great cameras today, partly because of the longer exposures required to photograph a night sky, are more sensitive to colour in dark environments than our eyes are. A faint-to-the-eye aurora can be quickly translated into more intense colours than we're able to perceive them as. This is of course true of the northern lights, and all night scenes, because of the way our eyes work with cones and rods. The cones are responsible for much of the colour we perceive during the day in brighter environments, but are much less sensitive to general brightness than the rods are. So in dark environments, our rods, being so much more sensitive to light, allow us to continue to perceive, albeit with significantly less sensitivity specifically to colour. Our rods also have far less sensitivity to long-wavelength light, which is why headlamps, iPhone star gazing apps etc. use the colour red - to help preserve our night vision - which takes somewhere in the range of 30 - 45 minutes to fully achieve.
It’s a lot to take in all at once, eye know.
COLOURING IN THE DETAILS
What all this means, is as you witness the aurora, especially as you're getting used to what to look for, your eyes will usually pick up the brightness of the colour green much more easily than it will the deeper magentas. All the colours of the aurora are visible to us, but everyone perceives differently and will have very unique experiences.
So to speak from my personal experience, there have been nights I've seen some reds. Purples and pinks; weekly, and green of course almost nightly. The northern lights can become so bright, they'll light up an entire landscape to the point, where on a moonless night, you'll be able to read a book under them. Just don't expect to see the atomic greens and neon pinks some tourism agencies like to push into print.