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Chasing the Northern Lights

A trek through the Canadian Yukon to catch a glimpse of the aurora borealis

I’m infatuated with the northern lights, the mysterious glow that intermittently appears at the ends of our Earth. I have lived all my life in sunny California and until recently had never experienced the extreme beauty of the aurora borealis. But when I first saw the lights in Iceland early in 2015, I was hooked. 

My travel mate and I were shocked and amazed at what we saw in the frigid winter skies above Iceland’s Westfjords. We were in complete elation as a very strong aura storm decimated our sense of reality. A month later I found myself in Fairbanks, Alaska bundled up on a dome road – a high elevation road the travels along the spine of large hills – catching an alien looking aurora storm invade the last frontier, again in complete disbelief.  

photo of the aurora over a northern landscapephoto by James StudarusThe aurora borealis in Fairbanks, Alaska.

I soon decided to seek out a new, more involved adventure and chose to head up to the Canada’s expansive Yukon. There's a remote park called Tombstone Territorial Park in the region where the aurora occurs close to 65-degree north latitude, a good latitude at which to view the lights. I decided to trek this time, to haul my food, clothing, and shelter into the far north wilderness for eight days, searching for lights and beauty.

The aurora borealis is magnetically charged plasma shot out of the sun that hits our atmosphere and reacts with the magnetically charged poles. It is a bizarre phenomenon that somehow creates colors beyond belief in the night skies of our polar regions. But it isn’t always predictable or consistent. I equate trying to find the northern lights with 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. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association forecasts when the northern lights will most likely occur based on solar flaring. I discovered this information on my adventure to Iceland, and used it again for my trip to the Yukon. I knew the aurora was forecasted for a week straight in late August and early September, and planned my time in Tombstone according. The weather report looked promising – been checking constantly for the last 15 days – and the days were getting shorter and the night skies were growing longer, which would allow the aurora to take hold of the dark night sky.

photo of the aurora over a northern landscapephoto by James StudarusAfter first viewing the aurora borealis in Iceland, the author embarked on a series of trips to Fairbanks, Alaska; Tombstone Territorial Park in the Yukon; and Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories of Canada, pictured above.

I took a flight from my hometown of Santa Barbara to San Francisco, then caught a second flight to Vancouver and a third to Whitehorse in the Yukon. In Whitehouse, I scored some second hand bear spray by two Dutch travelers who identified me as having that ‘needs bear spray look,’ and then took a seven hour shuttle north to Dawson City. I met some interesting folks on the ride, 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. 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, made with a real toe

The next day I took a final shuttle for 2 hours up to Tombstone and the Grizzly Lake trailhead, where I set off into the vibrant fall color beauty of Tombstone Territorial Park on my quirky mission.  The first day offered 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 of the red, yellow, and green landscape of Tombstone. Quickly the mountains appeared, including a stunning view of the 7,100-foot Mount Monolith with its iconic finger peak.

As I set out on my multi day trek with the weight of the pack began digging into my waist, questions arose about why I was doing this. But I pressed on, tightening my hip belt, and eventually began to see Grizzly Lake, my destination for the 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, including a Tasmanian gentleman who was eating wild picked blueberries because his overzealous appetite caused him to decimate his weeks’ worth of food. We ended up talking about travels, life, and hiking in Tasmania.

photo a dramatic northern landscape, lake and mountainsphoto by James StudarusGrizzly Lake in Tombstone Territorial Park.

I laid down after dinner and sunset to get a little rest before the dark skies set in, excited about the possibility of the aurora dancing over the peaks of Grizzly Lake.  When I woke up, the northern lights had appeared with a strong green display that remind me of giant vertical light sabers flashing over the craggy spires of Tombstone Territorial Park. The rippling lake reflected some of the light, which added a beautiful affect. A handful of us stayed by the water and were treated to a stellar display. As I captured the lights with my camera, I was filled with excitement and joy, which was shared with the hollering international crowd of 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.

photo of the aurora over a northern landscapephoto by James StudarusThe northern lights display at Grizzly Lake resembled giant vertical light sabers.

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.  After a little sleep, I 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 had been clear and I was hoping for another spectacular show eve. I got in a post-sunset nap and woke up with the other backpackers, a few of whom had never experienced the northern lights. Their excitement was 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. 

The next day I set out on the trail again, hiking over and down a significant pass to another stunning lake. The views from the top of the pass made up for the struggle, and after a break at the top of the pass, I embarked on the more difficult and treacherous decent. I pushed on past Divide Lake, and finally stopped at Talus Lake after a full day of hiking, and treated myself to a dehydrated meal and some chocolate. Sometimes the most basic items are incredible treats in the wilderness. 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, but eventually deciding that the clouds had cast a damper on what had initially looked like promising aurora viewing, and decided to get some sleep.

The next day I went looking for a river spot to get some shots of Tombstone Mountain. The sunset was stunning, and I shared stories with a photographer as we snapped light rays fluidly draping over the fall landscape. The evening lights started slow that evening, and the cold air forced me into the tent early. But I was determined, and set my alarm for every half hour to check for the aurora. Sure enough, at 3:30 a.m., 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 why I'd taken three flights, long shuttle rides, and completed hours of hiking. It sounds absurd but those 45 minutes of aurora viewing were perfect. 

photo of the sunset in a flowery northern landscapephoto by James StudarusA sunset over the fall landscape in Tombstone Territorial Park.

I was still buzzing with excitement at sunrise and went for a long hike up the talus slopes to get a sweeping view of the entire Tombstone Valley. Clouds crept in, framing the entire scene. I took photos for hours with incredible views of the new day with light embracing the stunning valley. The rest of the day followed my new routine: breakfast, a cat nap, a hike to a new camp, followed by another nap, some more food, and a quick rest before darkness descended. When I awoke, I was ready to see the lights over a new landscape. The valley that Divide Lake sits in is extremely sheltered – as a result, the lake has a glassy, mirror-like surface. 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 danced 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. After gaining momentum for several hours the lights culminated with a swirling flash of energy mirrored by Divide Lake, the mountains silhouetted against the glowing sky. I was shocked at what my camera captured using a six-second exposure time.

photo of the aurora reflected in a still lakephoto by James StudarusThe northern lights reflected in Divide Lake, captured in a six-second exposure photo.

That night I didn’t have a care in the world. I was just amazed at my fortune, stunned that I was seeing a transformational display of northern lights in this magical and mystical setting, that 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. The next night offered yet another amazing performance.

I was starting to feel fatigued from the spotty sleep and long nights. I was weary but still exuberant. As I hiked back over the pass to Grizzly Lake for my final night, I reflected on the beauty and power of the experiences. As people on the trail asked how my week had been, I explained it had been life-changing. The aurora that night was dimmed by lingering clouds, but I had seen the northern lights seven straights nights; five of the nights were stunning displays that will last a lifetime. It was a transformative adventure; the northern lights performances made me feel more alive, settled, present, and motivated. I’ll be looking for my next trip to see the lights soon, but in the meantime I’ll be basking in this new-found glow. 

James Studarus
James Studarus is an adventurer, photojournalist and nonprofit accountant residing in Santa Barbara, CA. He has started to promote beautiful natural images to benefit environmental and social charities.

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