Bucket List Travel: Experiencing the Northern Lights in Canada’s Wild Yukon Territory
On the continuum of amazing, bucket list-worthy experiences, seeing the Northern Lights ranks high for just about any traveler. The magic and otherworldy mystique of the eerie Aurora Borealis is one of the most fascinating natural phenomena on earth.
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It’s no surprise that the farther north one goes, the better the chances for witnessing a truly spectacular display of the lights. Scandinavia, Alaska, and Canada all come to mind. So I reached out to the folks at Adventures.com — a premier provider of outdoor and adventure related tours throughout Canada.
Their Aurora Borealis trip in Whitehorse provides the best opportunity for viewing the lights in Canada’s stunning and wild Yukon territory. Whitehorse is among the northernmost cities in Canada and, over the past few decades has become a hub of adventure and outdoor activity. In their words:
Enjoy the beauty and mystery of the aurora borealis on this tour to view the northern lights in and around the city of Whitehorse, Yukon. To the north an eerie, sulfurous-green sheen begins to ripple into the night sky. It arcs itself into an ebb and flow, slowly growing, then suddenly bursts across the full expanse of the night sky waving and dancing as if it were happy. It’s the spectacular and mystical Northern Lights and viewings such as the one above are common in the Yukon.
For less than $500 CAD, the 3-day/2-night tour includes:
Roundtrip airport transfer
2-night hotel stay in Whitehorse
Guided trip out to see the Northern Lights each night
Hot drinks and snacks during the Lights viewing
A guided city tour of Whitehorse
Other optional tours are available (for additional cost), depending on the season. In winter, guests can choose dogsledding, icefishing, snowmobiling, and snowshoeing. In fall, there are opportunities for hiking, hot spring tours, and trips to a local wildlife preserve.
The journey starts at a budget hotel in downtown Whitehorse. For me, it was at the appropriately named Best Western Gold Rush Inn, complete with kitchy, stereotypical Canadian decor (think: mooseheads, a lifesize “mountie” statue, and copious cartoony photos of gold prospectors).
I spent the daylight hours in Whitehorse taking the guided city tour and dogsledding a frozen river bed about thirty minutes outside the city. The city tour is a basic, two-hour journey through downtown Whitehorse with a local guide who’s lived there for decades. He regaled my group with tales of the city’s gold rush past and how it’s influenced Whitehorse’s modern culture. While it’s a rather remote city, it still offers a surprising number of amenities (there are two Starbucks in town for example!).
While the dogsledding tour is not included in the package price, it’s more than worth the additional cost. Whether you’ve sledded before or not, getting out on a frozen river in a remote town in Canada’s Yukon is an altogether special experience. You can also find snowmobile clothing brands that have items that will be perfect for all winter sports, including dogsledding.
But of course the real “get” for this trip was chasing the Northern Lights. I say “chasing” because they can be far more elusive than you might expect. It’s not a matter of simply showing up in a particular field at a certain time to watch the show. It turns out there’s a lot more patience involved. The first step of course is actually finding the right spot. As I mentioned before, the farther north you go, the better your chances. Hence why Whitehorse is an ideal destination for Aurora viewing.
The nighttime portion of the tour starts with a bus pickup at your hotel just after nine o’clock. Dozens of travelers from around the world pack the caravan to make the half-hour journey outside the city and away from Whitehorse’s (albeit minimal) light pollution. The bus winds along a highway outside of town before darting off the pavement and down a snowy access road to the viewing huts. Inside each hut is a wood stove — thankfully, already well stoked — and copious snacks.
Outside, a fire pit roars and eventually s’mores are prepared for a dozen guests waiting patiently for the lights to appear. Dozens more grab one of the provided tripods and head to the open field nearby to setup their cameras for the perfect Aurora picture. Then we wait.
The weather in this part of Canada is largely unpredictable and constantly changing. Even the immense power of the meteorological supercomputers that track the weather in this part of the world can really only provide best guesses as to when the optimal viewing period is for the lights.
As it turns out, both film and digital cameras are far more adept at capturing the northern lights than is the human eye. Most of those photos you’ve seen of the lights are a product of long exposure, sometimes thirty seconds or more.
My first night was spent alternating between 10-minute increments of: standing outside behind my tripod trying not to freeze to death, then running inside for yet another hot chocolate and a fistful of pretzels. And in the end, I saw very little. I went back to the Best Western feeling a little disappointed, but hopeful for night #2.
Of course, nature doesn’t rush for anyone. And, for those who’ve been on safari or wilderness treks, a large part of the fun is the chase.
Night #2: I board the bus again and head out into the dark Yukon wilderness. I’m somehow even more patient than the night before. I skip the snacks and hot drinks and stay focused on the sky outside. An hour goes by. Nothing.
Then another. A faint green haze skips across the sky — I’m barely able to capture it on film.
Another hour, then two. I’m maintaining my patience. It’s my last night in the Yukon and I just know I’m going to witness it. I am not leaving Canada until I’ve seen my first Northern Lights!
Our bus has returned and idles on the access road, waiting to bring us back to Whitehorse. It’s after two o’clock in the morning. We’ve been out here for almost five hours. Some of the more impatient travelers in my group have begun to board.
Then it happens. The clouds suddenly begin to burn off as though on cue. And the sky and stars are visible in the most brilliant way. I begin clicking away: one long exposure after another. Everyone still waiting outside grows still.