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NORTHERN LIGHTS THE HARD WAY


 

 

I’m infatuated with the northern lights, the mysterious glow that intermittently appear at the ends of our earth.  I have lived all my life in sunny California and had never experienced the extreme beauty as one approaches the Arctic Circle.  I am preparing for a new journey to hopefully capture the magical aurora borealis dancing over the mighty peaks of the Yukon. Having been to Iceland earlier in the year staring at the night skies, I felt the profound power of the aurora. This first experience had me hooked. My travel mate and I were shocked and amazed at what we saw in the frigid winter skies above the Westfjords.  We were in complete elation as a KP Index 7 (that means strong) storm decimated our sense of reality. A month later I found myself in Fairbanks, bundled up on a dome road catching an alien looking aurora storm invade the last frontier, again complete disbelief.  I seek out a new, more involved adventure and chose to head up to the glorious & expansive Yukon of Canada.  There’s a remote park called Tombstone Territorial Park in the region where the aurora occurs close to 65 degree north latitude.  I decided to travel to this spot to get a chance to experience the surreal explosions in the sky that defy logic, but this time I am going to trek. For eight days, I will haul my food, clothing and shelter into the far north wilderness searching for lights, beauty and whatever else ensues.

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The aurora borealis is magnetically charged plasma shot out of the sun that hits our atmosphere reacting with the magnetically charged poles. It is a bizarre phenomenon that somehow creates colors beyond belief in the night skies of our polar regions. I equate trying to find the northern lights as attempting to get a seat in a divine theater.  Sometimes the universe is kind and lets you in, sometimes you are at the wrong cloudy venue.  There is a way to peak into the future as NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association) has prediction forecasts when the northern lights will most likely occur.  I discovered this information on my adventure to Iceland and it opened my eyes to catching this ‘once in a lifetime’ phenomenon on multiple occasions. I knew the aurora was forecasted for a week straight and pinpointed those days as my trekking time in Tombstone.  So I took a flight from my hometown of Santa Barbara to San Francisco to Vancouver then to Whitehorse in the Yukon.  I had a day resting in anticipation of my eight days in the wild.  I’m an experienced backpacker having hiked around the tallest peaks of South America, Asia and North America; however I had never set up my tent under aurora skies.  My other trips had the comforts of heaters, restaurants & four wheels; this was going to be vastly different. After my 3 flights deep in the Yukon, I still needed to take 7 hour shuttle north to Dawson City spend the night there and then take one more multi hour shuttle up to Tombstone Territorial Park up the rough Dempster Highway. I scored some second hand bear spray by two Dutch travelers who identified me as having that ‘needs bear spray look’ while I wandered the streets of Whitehorse.

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The weather report looked promising as I have been checking constantly for the last 15 days.  This was fall season and nature’s colors become amplified under the magnificent peaks of the Yukon. The days are getting shorter and the night skies are growing longer allowing for the aurora to take hold of the dark night sky. I am toning down the amount of trekking in order to rest during the day so I have energy to watch the night skies with my camera. I had been successful my other opportunities earlier in the year that left a deep impression on me.  It was the most beautiful and bizarre experience as you find yourself in the morning with little sleep trying to explain magical colors in the sky that are essentially unexplainable.  The best explanations are the long exposure photos that capture some of the brilliance and celestial magnificence.

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With the aurora forecast matching late August early September, coupled with the vibrant fall color beauty of Tombstone Territorial Park, I embraced my quirky mission.  I shuttled up from Whitehorse to Dawson City on a 7 hour ride north meeting some interesting folks including an art student going to spend a year in Dawson City as well as a gentleman who worked for the Discovery Channel on a Yukon gold discovery show.  I enjoyed the scenery during the ride though it would not match what I would see at Tombstone Territorial Park.   Arriving in the Wild West feeling Dawson City was a treat.  This former gold rush town was the second largest city in Canada during its boom and now is a tourist destination boasting a casino, dance troupe and world famous frost bitten toe cocktail!  Dawson feels like you stepped back into the 1800’s.  I found it interesting that it is punishable to accidentally drink the shriveled frost bitten toe lingering at the bottom of your drink; yes it is a real frost bitten toe!  Anyway, I left humanity and its eccentricities to find Mother Nature’s bizarreness.  The next day I took a final shuttle for 2 hours up to Tombstone and the Grizzly Lake trailhead. From there I started my 8 day adventure into the rugged mountains.  It was a much more strenuous hike than anticipated as the trail ascended and hugged a ridgeline for close to seven hours. The scenery made up for it with magnificent views over the red, yellow and green landscape of Tombstone. Quickly the mountains appeared including a stunning view of Mount Monolith with its iconic finger peak. As I set out on my multi day trek, questions arose over why I am doing this as the weight of the pack began digging into my waist.  The strain on my hips over the rocky terrain and the daunting fact that I had a number more days of trekking put a reality on things. I pressed on tightening my hip belt and eventually began to see Grizzly Lake, my destination for my next two nights. I descended from the ridge and into camp and quickly set my tent up while putting my food in the bear storage area. I met some fascinating trekkers most of all was a Tasmanian gentleman who was eating wild picked blueberries because his overzealous appetite caused him to decimate his weeks’ worth of food.  So he collected what he could in the wild and others shared in classic mountain culture generosity.  We ended up talking about travels, life & hiking in Tasmania which has been on my radar.  I laid down after dinner and sunset to get a little rest before the dark skies set in and the possibility of the aurora dancing over the peaks of Grizzly Lake.  The northern lights did appear with a strong green display that remind me of giant vertical lightsabers flashing over the craggy spires of Tombstone Territorial Park. The rippling lake captured  some of the light which added a beautiful affect to a stunning evening. A handful of us stayed by the water and were treated to a stellar display. My camera was capturing the light and my excitement was more than obvious as the aurora brings out a vocal contagious joy. The hollering crowd was very international with Germans, Australians, Norwegian, Canadians and Americans, all of us hooting over the visual display.  There aren’t many places in the world where you can see the aurora framed by gigantic, beautiful peaks and pristine lakes. Most of us didn’t realize our fortunes as the aurora peaked earlier in the evening and continued long through the eve. I finally checked into my tent with sunrise looming knowing I’d taken some epic shots. The week had just begun but I was already impressed.  Got a little sleep and was ready for what the next day would bring which included an afternoon hike up and over a pass to the Twin Lake Overlook and the picturesque view of Mount Monolith. The afternoon skies have been clear and I was hoping for more of the same for the eve. I got my post sunset nap in and woke up for the night skies and again was accompanied by a multi-national crowd with a few who had never experienced the northern lights.  It is fun being with folks who have never seen the aurora before as the excitement is palpable and contagious.  The second night was solid but was not quite as strong or as long as the first. However I was happy to get more photos and experience Tombstone with clear skies.

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The next day, I needed to hike over and down a significant pass to another stunning lake.  I had a simple breakfast of oatmeal packed up my things and started charging up a large pass. The weight of my pack was obvious with still six days of food however the views from the top of the pass made up for the struggle.  I took some photos and shared a few laughs at the top with other hikers who were continuing deeper into the backcountry. The downhill was actually the most difficult part with a steep and treacherous first decent.  Slowly made my way down eventually making it to Divide Lake, essentially half way, where I considered having a night of rest.  I was tired but decided to continue onward to Talus Lake. It was a full day but I’m glad I continued onward and treated myself to a dehydrated meal and some chocolate. Sometimes the most basic items are incredible treats in the wilderness. I met more amazing folks including a professional photographer from Colorado and his wife that night. The clouds were setting in but the aurora was still viewable as the night crept onward.  Talus Lake had stellar views in all directions, west to the iconic to Tombstone Mountain, east to the picturesque Mount Monolith, north to the surrounding giant mountains and south to the most imposing peak.  I stayed up for a while eventually deciding that the clouds had cast a damper on what looked like promising aurora viewing. The next day I went looking for a river spot to get some shots of Tombstone Mountain. The sunset was stunning and shared a few stories with a photographer as we snapped light rays fluidly draping over the fall landscape. I got some rest that day and was hoping for another aurora display framed by the mountains. The evening started slow and the cold air forced me into the tent. But I was determined and set my alarm for every half hour, and sure enough at 3:30 in the morning I peeked my head out to see the aurora gaining momentum.  I called out to the other campers and pointed my camera to the sky.  The northern lights were stretching across the peaks creating incredible light over Mount Monolith and Talus Lake.  This was the reason why I’d taken 3 plane flights and 9 hours of shuttles and close to 14 hours of hiking. It sounds absurd but that 45 minutes of aurora made everything perfect.  I was still buzzing by sunrise and went for a long hike up the talus slopes to have a sweeping view of the entire Tombstone Valley with clouds creeping in, framing the entire scene.  I continued taking photos for the next few hours with incredible views of the new day with light embracing the stunning valley.  I eventually ate a little breakfast then took a cat nap, packed my stuff up and headed to Divide Lake to see what I could find there.  So far my shots at Grizzly Lake to Talus Laker were impressive.  The landscape, fall color and lakes were all so photogenic.  But add in the fact that the aurora appearing every night made it even more special.  I had a short hike to Divide Lake, took my afternoon nap, got some food in me, took another nap and then was ready to see the lights over a new landscape.  The valley that Divide Lake sits in is extremely sheltered, creating a glassy mirror reflection on the water.  My 11:45 p.m. alarm rang and I quickly noticed aurora activity. The light was shining through the fading sunset. I quickly got my tripod camera and warm clothes then hustled to the lake to see what the northern lights were going to do.  The aurora decided to dance all over the peaks reflecting in the motionless lake.  The other campers woke after hearing the commotion and we were elated to experience magic all night.  The aurora this evening was unrelenting, continuing to glow, grow and dance.  I shifted to different positions, getting to various backgrounds and reflective lake shots.  The lights continued to gain momentum and they culminated with a swirling flash of aurora energy that I caught mirrored by Divide Lake and silhouetted by the mountains.  I was shocked at what my camera captured. My timing was spot on to catch the peak of blast with my six second exposure.  I was up all night snapping and snapping, not having a care in the world.  I was just amazed at my fortune seeing a transformational display of northern lights in this magical and mystical setting.   I had been granted a golden ticket for this divine performance. The morning came and I still had not slept; I was delirious with visions of immense glowing skies, spectacular mountains and shimmering lakes.  It was an experience I could not accurately explain in words.  I had captured it on my camera to prove to the world that I had not dreamt the surreal displays. My camera had a glimpse of the heavenly and the excitement plus gratitude made sleep temporarily insignificant.  I was lively in the morning but then knocked out for most the afternoon, horizontal in my tent.  The following day, I was greeted by other campers thankful for the ‘strong aurora activity’ wake up calls and lights in the sky beyond imagination.  When I showed what I photographed there was disbelief and amazement.  That night at Divide Lake was transformed into a theater of magic; the evening had ended but its effects lingered.

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An exuberant youthful group of Norwegian, Canadian and Irish hikers arrived at Divide Lake with a birthday in the group.  They were up late having dinner when I woke from a nap with my 11:45 p.m. alarm. And once again the aurora was active I took my position by the lake and started shooting. I had always wanted to take a reflective aurora pic with the exact mirror Image happening. I was getting them and bunches while Norwegian Birthday songs echoed in the valley.  The northern lights were happening directly overhead as coronal holes burst above.  I tried to capture as much as I could and once again was up late. Another night of an amazing performance; I felt so fortunate seeing these displays.  It made everything in the universe feel at peace.  The past two nights were the best northern lights displays of the week and I wanted to be in no other place in the universe.

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There was one more night to go and I was starting to feel fatigued.  As one performance after another performance after another performance had left me weary but exuberant.  As I hiked back over the giant pass to Grizzly Lake, my week was coming to an end. My questioning mind at the start of the week with a heavy pack had transformed into a frame of mind of ‘this is exactly why I was supposed to be here’.  Multiple nights in a row were beautiful powerful experiences.  My pack had lightened and was more manageable. As people ask how my week had been, I explained it had been life-changing. Experiencing extreme beauty is nourishing for the spirit and healing for me.  I climbed back over the giant pass and down the big hills towards my final eve.  I ended up with the young energetic crew at the Twin Lakes Overlook to catch a final sunset bestowed with gorgeous puffy red tinted clouds.  Back at camp, I ate the last of my food and hoped for one more night of lights.  The aurora appeared but was dimmed by lingering clouds. I had seen the northern lights seven straights nights; five of the nights were stunning displays that will last with a lifetime.  This was a transformative adventure; the northern lights performances made me feel more alive, settled, present and motivated.  I’ll be looking for the next ticket soon but in the meantime I’ll be basking in this new found glow.

 

 

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