Nature · Night time · Photography · Travel

Chasing northern lights in Edmonton

If I had a bucket list, seeing the mystical Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights would probably have been on it. As I’m more of a “fly by the seat of your pants” kind of guy though, I’ve never kept a list of things I’d love to see.

But since I arrived in Edmonton, the Northern Lights have been on the figurative horizon. Then a few days ago my friend Russell told me that there would be a good chance of seeing them this Wednesday (yesterday). His wife Helen confirmed it after checking the Aurora watch website she follows.

On Wednesday morning at some ungodly hour, when only truckers and madmen should be awake, she received an alert email to say there was an 80% chance of seeing the lights exactly then. As none of us are truckers or madmen, we were safely tucked in our beds, and missed it.

And then came last night. I regularly checked from the balcony door throughout the evening but saw nothing. But Helen was more patient. At around 11pm she casually wandered back to the living room to announce that the Northern Lights were out. In this bright city, with way too many lights to see the Aurora, I shot this handheld:

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“Let’s go,” said Russell, excitedly. “Helen, get the child!”

And so we sprung into action. Helen grabbed her baby and his bag of goodies and I grabbed mine – my DSLR, tripod, flashlight and all.

Bundled up against the cold, we drove east looking for a dark spot from which to shoot, all the while checking our “Aurora Watch” apps to confirm the chances of seeing something cool.

“Mine says there’s a 12% chance of seeing it,” said I. “Mine has 40%,” said Helen.

“We’ll believe yours then,” we all agreed. And see them we did, which was incredible, considering all the light pollution! At first they just looked like wispy clouds, but the longer we stood out there, the brighter they got. (I shot long exposures of 20-30 seconds each, at f/4 and ISO 400-800, for you technical types.)

After four spots, the show seemed to be over and so we drove home, stopping at the golden arches for a midnight snack. The baby was put to bed and Helen made us some mochas as we sat down to gush about the incredible spectacle and out midnight excitement!

But the night was not over. Another alert email came in and Helen told me I just had to go out to look for more Aurora. The two of them explained how to get to Rabbit Hill ski area south-west of the city, and off I drove (on my own this time.)

My midnight/morning adventure ended at about 5am when I embraced my pillow and duvet, but not before crossing off “Northern Lights” from my imaginary bucket list.

Driving in to Rabbit Hill ski area.
Driving in to Rabbit Hill ski area.
Down at Rabbit Hill
Down at Rabbit Hill
Looking north at Rabbit Hill
Looking north at Rabbit Hill
On the hill looking north
On the hill looking north
Road sign and Northern Lights
Road sign and Northern Lights
A bit later. The same Road sign
A bit later. The same Road sign
In a field with a flashlight
In a field with a flashlight
A Moravian church on the way home - the Northern Lights show almost at an end.
A Moravian church on the way home – the Northern Lights show almost at an end.

The Weather Network had this to say about seeing the Northern Lights this week: “A speedy stream of solar particles is washing past Earth this week, sparking off amazing displays of the Northern Lights in our night skies … Light pollution will be your bane for spotting the aurora, as urban lights will completely wash out the delicate colours splashed across the horizon. If you want to check out the action, it’s recommended that you get as far away from cities as possible. For most regions of Canada, this will be as easy as just heading north out of your community and keeping the city to your back when you watch.

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13 thoughts on “Chasing northern lights in Edmonton

  1. Wow nice shots! When I was a kid living in Mackenzie BC I just took the Northern Lights for granted but now that I am older, I think they are cool, we still see them here but a little better in Mackenzie I think. Also a little farther north than we are. Pretty Northern lights shots 🙂

  2. I have only once seen the Northern Lights, but at the time I was somewhere where there was a lot of light-pollution and the sky was half-cloudy. I envy you, and I love the shots!

    1. We had to look for them out of town, where there weren’t as many city lights… But no, one doesn’t have to chase them per se. That’s just playing with language.

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