Hunting for the Northern Lights in Yellowknife
Seeing the Northern Lights. It's on everyone's bucket-list, isn't it? It's one of those awe-inspiring, once in a lifetime experiences. In March, I was lucky enough to see them in Yellowknife, which, as I mentioned in my guide to the city, is one of the best places in the world to see the Aurora.
Here is a little bit about our Aurora adventure up north, including the kind of tours you can do and the specific tour operators we used. If you're heading up to the NWT and hoping to see the Aurora, hopefully these recommendations and tips will help you. Enjoy!
Aurora Hunting with NorthStar Adventures
On our first night in Yellowknife, we bundled into a jeep wearing all of the layers we owned to go Aurora hunting with Northstar Adventures (I felt a little bit like Helen Hunt in Twister. Just saying). The tour begins at 9 and ends at around 1:30am (but you might stay longer if the lights are particularly active). During that time our guide, Chris, drove us out to remote frozen lakes with wide open views of the clear sky.
Even before the "Green Lady" appeared, it was an awe-inspiring sight. The lack of light pollution meant that the sky was alive with stars, shining more brightly than I'd ever seen them. We scanned the sky eagerly, hands poised on camera shutters. When it got too cold (at some points it was -35 degrees) we huddled back into the Jeep with hot chocolate and biscuits, fingers crossed that we'd be lucky enough to glimpse some green in the sky.
After a couple of hours, we were rewarded. What began as a subtle shimmering behind the trees became a series of elegant rays; emerald elves darting in and out of view as we watched. Flecks of pink and purple tinged the edges, and for a moment I was too dumbstruck to even take photos; I just craned my neck to watch, spellbound.
A quick note on photography: To get to best photos, it's a good idea to read up a little about your camera settings beforehand. If you're anything like me, you love a bit of auto; but shutter speed, aperture and ISO all suddenly become very important when you're trying to get a good shot of the lights. You'll also need a tripod. Keep in mind that sometimes the Aurora shows up brighter in a photo - your camera can act as a great indicator that the lights are about to appear, as they pick up things our eyes can't.
If that all sounds a bit like hard work, don't worry - North Star Adventures have a professional photographer to get some slick shots of you, and you'll get a certain number for free if you email them after the tour.
You can also rent gear such as Canada Goose parkas and snowboots from North Star - just let them know beforehand and they'll drop it off at your hotel.
You can also do this kind of "hunting" with Yellowknife Outdoor Adventures or Sean Dawson from Sean's Aurora Chasing and Guest House. We really wanted to do a tour with Sean, but he was all booked up - make a reservation in advance just in case!
If you'd prefer to kick back and take it easy with all the luxuries of a fire, heated seats and bathrooms, try Aurora Village. It's a cute little cluster of heated teepees set around a frozen lake in the middle of nowhere, giving you amazing views of the wide open skies and (hopefully) Aurora! The shuttle picks you up from any one of the main hotels and the journey to the village takes around 30 mins. There's a lodge and a restaurant there, but the main attractions are the tepees - the village is the ultimate in folksy, winter charm.
You arrive at around 9pm, and have until 12:45 when the bus comes back. During that time, you can chill out (or, more appropriately, warm up!) in the tepees which have real wood stoves, and drink hot chocolate. You can also sit out on the lake on folding chairs and wait for the lights, or go for a walk around the little hills that surround the village. There's a lovely atmosphere as everyone huddles together, eyes turned unexpectedly to the sky.
Unfortunately, we didn't see the lights while at the village - it was mainly cloudy and snowing. However, on the first night, we tumbled sleepily from the bus back at our hotel after waiting for the Aurora for 4 hours at the village. We then looked up to see the lights dancing right above our room window - which was surreal and lovely! The Aurora is her own boss, so bear in mind there's always the chance you won't see the lights. The best months to see the lights are between August and September, and then November-April.
Even if you don't though, heading to the village is a lovely experience. To entertain us while we waited, our guide even picked up her guitar and started singing to us in the tepee. We swayed along while enjoying tea by the fire as the snow melted from our coats. It was the ultimate cosy experience.
If it gets to 12:45 and you haven't seen the lights yet, you can opt to extend your stay by 1.5 hours for $25pp, or get the double extension for $50 which gives you an extra 3 hours.
All in all, seeing the lights was an amazing experience. I may have ticked it off the bucket-list, but I'm not done with them yet - I'd love to see them in Iceland, Norway or even Scotland.
Have you seen the Northern Lights, or visited Yellowknife? I'd love to know what you thought!