Wide Awake Thanks to the Northern Lights

the northern lights, auora borealis, outsdie of Chruchill, Mantioba, Canada

I couldn’t sleep; in fact I was wide awake. Alive. I guess you can say the lights kept me up. After my first night I even wondered if the Northern Lights, my first views of the Aurora Borealis, were just a dream, but after a second night of embracing the arctic air, the vibrant, dancing lights were more real than ever. I witnessed something magical.  I witnessed it twice and I couldn’t sleep a wink.

craig and Cathy from Travel Manitoba in Churchill, Manitoba viewing the Norther Lights

photo: Dan Harper Photography

It was well past 5am and I still needed to talk about my experience and learn about the culture in this part of the world.  I was not alone.  The Tundra Buggy driver was with me along with two true locals from the Canadian Arctic. They locals lived even further north on the island Gjoa Haven and for one of them this was the furthest south he had ever traveled in his twenty four years. His furthest south was my furthest north and we were both in Churchill, Manitoba.

Churchill, Manitoba

When people learned I was heading to Churchill, Manitoba everyone asked about polar bears. Did I encounter any?  No, none apart from the countless art, artifacts and souvenirs. This wasn’t polar bear season. That season is in the fall prior to the freezing-over of Hudson Bay.

Shopping in Churchill, Manitoba

a polar bear hug?

Even without polar bears, or thankfully without them too close, there is plenty to do during the day. Adventure can be found in dog-sledding, snowshoeing through the Boreal Forest (essentially the arctic tree line), visiting the local research center, and the town has a museum. Actually, just walking a few blocks outside in the wicked wintery wonderland proved to be an adventure at times.

As much as I enjoyed my days, the nights were why I wanted to come to this part of Canada. Churchill is one of the largest settlements (although still under 1,000 people) close to the Arctic Circle and is a perfect place to view the Aurora Borealis. Yes, the Northern Lights. Thankfully, I did see them.

Night 1 – Frontiers North Tundra Buggy

Although bitterly cold, (-20s C) the weather conditions were strangely perfect.  With nearly no moon, little wind-chill and a clear sky we had ideal viewing conditions – now all we needed was the solar flare activity to cooperate. The plan with Frontiers North (the arctic adventure tour company) was to head out in the Tundra Buggy.  This huge “truck” is specifically designed for the challenging terrain and also provided a high viewing platform, especially useful during polar bear season.

Inside, with two fireplaces, the comfortable “chesterfield” couches made warming up a joy while taking a break from standing out in the cold, watching (and photographing) the lights. Down the center of the buggy, long tables were set with full-spreads of wine, cheese, meets and coffee with Amarula for us to indulge. This definitely made for a luxurious experience in this part of the world, but the lights were the show. What an amazing show too.  Yes, we did see them; we did indeed.

Northern Lights, the Auora Borealis outside of Churchill, Manitoba, Canada with Frontiers North

people setting up and taking photos, the light show just began

Northern Lights, the Auora Borealis outside of Churchill, Manitoba, Canada with Frontiers North Tundra Buggy

i wanted to capture the tundra buggy with the Lights...

Northern Lights, the Auora Borealis outside of Churchill, Manitoba, Canada with Frontiers North

the show continued for hours... lucky us.

In fact, just prior to leaving at 2am on the first night we saw them dance. Often you see time lapse movies of the Northern Lights when it seems as if the lights are dancing fast, but you need to realize because of distance and darkness those images are exposed at about 10-20 seconds and then sped up. The dance you see is multiple images in real time of minutes, not instant. So, when you really see them dance instantly… it is camera down and watch. It’s wonderful.

Although I wanted some great images, truthfully, I didn’t care how my images looked, the final moment of seeing the dancing lights will remain with me forever. It warmed up my soul and I didn’t even feel the cold, rather I felt connected to something magical and a warmth associate with such a connection.

Night 3 – Taking the Vans

Northern Lights, the Auora Borealis outside of Churchill, Manitoba, Canada with Frontiers North

again, we were lucky and lights began

Northern Lights, the Auora Borealis outside of Churchill, Manitoba, Canada with Frontiers North

I even captured other colors, a little purple

Northern Lights, the Auora Borealis outside of Churchill, Manitoba, Canada with Frontiers North

this almost seemed like waves across the sky

Our second night was a complete white-out.  A storm swept in, offering zero visibility and -40 degrees temperatures.  Of course we were disappointed, but it made us realize how fortunate we were the prior night. Also, it did give us a chance to review our photographs and prepare for a second chance at images. Still, more than anything else, I just wanted to see the Aurora Borealis again. We all did.

On the third night, again the weather wasn’t perfect, so the decision was made to take vans instead of the Tundra Buggy. Disappointed because this translated into less space, no fireplace, no refreshments and no bathroom. But no matter, it was about the Northern Lights and all would be right with the world if we saw even a glimpse.

As an improved photographer and better prepared, even if the temperature was (-40s C) brutally cold which might dampen spirits once darkness descended and the Northern Lights began just before 10pm, everyone seemed to warm up. I know I did.

Northern Lights, the Auora Borealis outside of Churchill, Manitoba, Canada with Frontiers North

sometimes the green was so bright...

Northern Lights, the Auora Borealis outside of Churchill, Manitoba, Canada with Frontiers North

the Northern Lights, the Auora Borealis, from Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

It was another success and I am not just talking about the images.

Adventure Travel Mindset Tip

In some ways you can view a trip to see the Northern Lights in Churchill as an Arctic Adventure, a photography trip since I learned more about my camera’s limits (and mine), or view it as many travelers do – a “bucket list” trip. (It was one of my top 5 adventures for 2013). Now returned (and warmed up) I know it was more. Much more.

I am still up, or awake, from those nights. Even two months later the memories and feelings are at the surface. I don’t think the lights will ever truly fade. Dan Harper, a professional photographer on the tour with us said he shed a tear when he saw the lights. I did too. I shed many. It was that magical and if this was not on my bucket list, I might have waited or maybe never made it my priority. Today, it’s one of those adventures I’ll always talk about. Forever.

Trips like this that remind me, waiting or postponing things you truly want to see, do, or enjoy is exactly not the way I plan to spend my days. So, now that I am wide awake thanks to the Northern Lights,  I plan to do them all and infinitely more.

the northern lights, the auora borealis, from churchill, manitoba, canada with Frontiers North

Yes, I plan to stay adventurous, Craig

Also, a special thanks to Frontiers North and Travel Manitoba for providing passage for me to witness this life changing adventure. This post is part of the Adventure Mindset Special Series.

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  • http://twitter.com/mrsoaroundworld Ana Silva O’Reilly

    Absolutely beautiful and stunning. Need to get there one day! Thanks for this, Craig!

    • http://www.stayadventurous.com/ craig zabransky

      Anna, it was one of the most amazing adventures I’ve experienced… and seeing the lights, just incredible. If it’s on your list… make it happen. If it’s not, put it on your list. stay adventurous, Craig

  • ycardozo

    Gorgous shots. And thanks for setting up o Solar Mio. What a fantastic way for us to all keep in touch.

    • http://www.stayadventurous.com/ craig zabransky

      Thanks Yvette coming from a Getty Photographer, well that just made my day. Also, make sure you thank Amanda too for O Solar Mio… she really did the heavy lifting…Stay adventurous, Craig

  • Maria

    There’s no way I’d be able to sleep. Thanks for the great photos… as always!

    • http://www.stayadventurous.com/ craig zabransky

      Maria, I still think about the lights, truly an incredible moment. Stay adventurous, Craig

  • Mary J. McCoy-Dressel

    So many times I’ve looked at your photos, read your story that goes with it, and said, I’m speechless. Well, now I know the true meaning of speechless. I saw the northern lights late one night here in Michigan, but they were only white dancing waves in the sky, but went on for hours, and to me that was awesome. To see it like you did, is breathtaking. I feel your awe.

    • http://www.stayadventurous.com/ craig zabransky

      Mary, thank you… not just for this comment, but all your comments… I am so glad I can leave a reader “speechless” … when watching the lights, I think everyone was just that speechless…. It is a must see.

      stay adventurous, Craig

  • http://www.GQtrippin.com/ Kieu – GQ trippin

    This is so amazing! Definitely high high HIGH on my list. I can’t wait to witness this for myself one day. Incredible.

    • http://www.stayadventurous.com/ craig zabransky

      I recommend you put it near the TOP. It truly is that incredible. Stay adventurous, Craig

  • http://traveldestinationbucketlist.com/ Anita Mac

    I nearly died when you told me you were going to see the Northern Lights – your description is everything I would imagine the experience to be and then some! I hope to follow in your footsteps…it looks beyond amazing! As you know, the Northern Lights are definitely on my bucket list!

    • http://www.stayadventurous.com/ craig zabransky

      Anita, it is beyond amazing, words and photos can not do it justice… it truly is a MUST see. stay adventurous, Craig

  • Lazy Travelers

    this is beautiful but ALSO very much like the dark mark, no?

    …harry potter, anyone?

    ok then, carry on.

    • http://www.stayadventurous.com/ craig zabransky

      perhaps, but I never felt more like I was in the world of Harry Potter than when I attended Fringe Fest in Edinburgh… heck, Harry Potter was even created in the city. stay adventurous, Craig

  • http://travelingted.com/ Traveling Ted

    Beautiful pictures. I love the way you captured the shimmering colors. Too bad no one got a picture of the northern lights reflecting off the tears. That would be cool.

    • http://www.stayadventurous.com/ craig zabransky

      Ted, that photo would be beyond incredible… if you ever find it, please let me know… it would probably bring another tear to my eye… stay adventurous, Craig

  • Maryann

    I watched the Northern Lights many years ago in Barrow, Alaska. It was an awesome experience and one I will never forget. Your pictures are a beautiful reminder of that time and also bought tears to my eyes. Great article.

    • http://www.stayadventurous.com/ craig zabransky

      Yes, it is awesome indeed. So glad you had an opportunity to see them too…. and thanks for sharing your tears… they truly are that impressive. stay adventurous, Craig

  • lola

    wow! the pictures are SO PRETTY. i would love to see the Northern Lights some day. love your hat 😉

    • http://www.stayadventurous.com/ craig zabransky

      thanks Lola… and thanks for noticing the hat too… picked that up in China on the great wall when I thought I knew what cold was… This trip changed that definition, but it was SO worth it. stay adventurous, Craig

  • Cathy Senecal

    I see you can do more than eat onion soup. You can write and shoot too! Great photos and piece Craig!

    • http://www.stayadventurous.com/ craig zabransky

      Thanks Cathy… and what a pleasure the entire experience was… who knew – Manitoba. And I can’t tell you how many people ask me about it when I wear my fleece too….

      And as for the soup, of course, you know I needed to post a photo of one of the bowls too… http://www.stayadventurous.com/2013/04/sunset-churchill-manitoba/

      stay adventurous, Craig

  • CaptainandClark

    AHHHHHHHHHHH! You lucky, lucky guy. We want to see the Northern Lights so bad. Your pictures are stunning. This might be my favorite post of yours of all time.

    • http://www.stayadventurous.com/ craig zabransky

      C&C, it is a MUST see… Simply Amazing… and glad you liked the post… my best you say… well thank you kindly. stay adventurous, Craig

  • http://twitter.com/TheWrldWanderer The World Wanderer

    LOVE this!!!! I remember being jealous of this trip of yours when we talked about it at the NY Times Travel Show, but now I’m even more envious. These photos are beautiful, and I’m sure they barely do it justice. Amazing, just amazing…

    • http://www.stayadventurous.com/ craig zabransky

      Exactly… Amazing, just amazing is correct. … it is truly a must see. And I the biggest limitation form the images is from the scope of the lights… my camera could only take a portion of the sky, at times it was across the entire sky… again, simply amazing. stay adventurous, Craig

  • Raul (@ilivetotravel)

    Wow, great photos! I like the one showing the back of the bus. So what settings did you have to use to get those pix of the lights? I would likely be that amateur photographer presented with a challenge seeing those lights!

    • http://www.stayadventurous.com/ craig zabransky

      Raul, the settings often changed and I often adjusted the ISO and the Exposure time from image to image…I started about one down from the max on my ISO, so only 800 in my dSLR, and with a 10 second exposure… I often upped the exposure to 12-15 seconds and even went with a 1600 ISO at times. The lights are changing, so for the best images you need to be too…

      I plan to write a post about “tips” or more likely advice when photographing the Northern Lights, as they are difficult to capture and it’s pretty extreme conditions…

      Stay photographing, Craig

  • http://twitter.com/Butterflydiary Charu Suri

    Lovely photos! I suspect it’s a long exposure, yes?

    • http://www.stayadventurous.com/ craig zabransky

      Thanks. Yes, I thought I’d use 30 seconds, but we were lucky the lights were “bright” and the sky clear…. I don’t believe any photo in this collection is over 20 seconds and most under 15 seconds. stay photographing, Craig

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  • http://narmadhaa.com/ Narmadhaa

    Thank you, again, for sharing this on #SpiritChat, Craig. Loved the photos of course, and also the sincere emotion in the narrative. I could sense that the elation overtook your fingers.

    • http://www.stayadventurous.com/ craig zabransky

      Thanks so much for not just reading, but also commenting… truly appreciate it and happy to hear you felt my emotion… it was even enjoyable for me to re-read it… stay emotional, Craig

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