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Chasing the Northern Lights with Desk To Glory

May 02, 2018

As written by Richard and Ashley Giordano from Desk To Glory

10 days. What do you do with just over a week of vacation time? You could stay close to home or fly to a tropical island, but we’re suckers for a good old-fashioned road trip, especially when it allows us to check one big item off of our bucket list.  The aurora borealis (otherwise known as the Northern Lights) was our inspiration to head north and we knew that February is smack dab in the middle of the optimal viewing period.  Let’s go!

Sure… -30C temperatures, blowing snow, and icy roads would have been red flags for many, but this was the only time we had available and the Yukon was the destination we were drawn to.  Snow tires, 4wd, and heated seats were solutions for all of those “problems” so we temporarily traded our 1990 Toyota Pickup for a 2018 Tundra 4x4 TRD Sport and escaped sunny Vancouver in search of the northern lights.

It’s hard for us to get around the cliché that it’s about the journey and not the destination, especially when we’re spoiled in our newly borrowed truck and driving through the mountains. We made our way along a serpentine route through the Rocky Mountains, Jasper National Park, and explored just a few of the thousands of square kilometers of alpine wilderness available to us. Highlights were the powerful Athabasca Falls, majestic big horn sheep, and herds of elk.  Cheeky ravens made appearances any chance they got, always showing their best side to the camera.

Before long we were in Dawson Creek and the very beginning of the World Famous Alaska Highway.

Liard Hot Springs Provincial Park, established in 1957, comprises diverse plant life within the warm water swamp and boreal forest. Our only goal was to soak our road-weary bones in the hot springs, so we b-lined it to the first pool. The snow was falling, ambient temperature hovered around -8C, but the natural springs were a steaming 42C. Travelling in the off season has its advantages, and in this case we had the pools to ourselves aside from a few new friends.

During the Alaska Highway Project of 1942, Carl K. Lindley, an injured soldier from America, spent some time convalescing in Watson Lake. A light duty order for Lindley was to repair the local directional signposts. Once complete, he added the direction and distance to his hometown of Danville, Illinois. It didn’t take long for others to follow, and today there are well over 70,000 signs in the forest. We didn’t have a sign to add, so we slapped a sticker on a signpost and continued north.

Let’s be honest. The chances of seeing the northern lights are actually quite low. A special combination of climatic factors need to align in order for the wispy green lights to reveal themselves. Cold winter nights in the Yukon help provide some of those factors. Skies void of cloud cover, a viewing area away from city light pollution (which should be straightforward since only 35,000 people live in the Yukon Territory), adequate solar activity, and a new moon (or close to it) will increase the probability of seeing the aurora. We spent four days in a cabin just outside of Whitehorse, Yukon while we waited for the perfect conditions to appear.

During the days we had plenty of free time, so we decided we should attempt another first.  Dogsledding. You know when you say the “walk” word around your dog and he goes bananas?  Imagine that animated energy, but instead of taking one dog for a walk there are six dogs taking you for a walk.  We ventured along the Tahkini River, let the dogs run their hearts out, and we felt more Canadian than ever.

1 o’clock am and -16C. A perfect time to venture out into the cold Yukon night. Right? The Aurora Forecast website showed that we had a good chance of seeing some activity.  A little bit of online research gave us the idea to head out to Fish Lake Road, away from the city lights, with a clear view of the sky, so we bundled up and left the cozy log cabin. Excitement was high, but expectations were tempered.

We found the perfect spot and waited. To be honest, we didn’t see anything at first. An hour goes by, nothing. I decided to pull the camera out and take some long exposure photographs just to see if anything would be visible. A green haze appeared at the horizon, but only on camera! At least something was happening! Hopes were getting higher at this point and within 15 minutes thin green lights were twisting across the sky. It was like nothing we had seen before, and we whooped and yelled, jumping up and down in excitement. What a great way to end our trip up north.

We drove 3000km, from Vancouver to Whitehorse, saw the northern lights, ran our own dogsled team, saw elk, bison, moose, and bighorn sheep in the wild, and ventured farther north than we had ever been before, and all with a single week of vacation time. Was it worth it? You better believe it.