Jack Nichols Photography | Night sky and landscape photographer in Seattle, Washington | Seattle photographer
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Journal

Yellowknife

My interaction with Canada's border patrol began like any other. "Where are you heading?" he asked. "Yellowknife," I replied. There was a long pause from the border patrol agent.

"Really? Why?" he finally said.

A fair question, given that during February, Yellowknife is colder than a commercial freezer. But that didn't bother me. Lauren and I have been talking about going to Yellowknife for years, both to experience the aurora borealis and the North. Last year, the stars finally aligned, as Paul Zizka and Dave Brosha announced a night sky and aurora workshop for February 2016, and my schedule was clear. How could I say no?

With the border patrol agent satisfied that I was in fact not a terrorist and/or crazy, I was on my way. 

I really wasn't sure what to expect from Yellowknife. I've done a *ton* of traveling in my life, but this was a destination that actually had me nervous before the trip, mainly about the cold. What would -40C be like? Would my gear hold up? How many fingers would I lose? All reasonable questions, but I was pleasantly surprised at the warmth of both the weather and the people. 

Before I get to sharing pictures, I do want to say something about the people. I was really, really impressed by just how nice everyone was in Yellowknife. Yes, I know Canadians have a reputation for being nice in general, but even by Canadian standards everyone was amazing. It was one of the most surprising elements of the trip, and pleasantly so.

The evening I arrived in town, I met up with a couple of folks that were participating in the workshop for dinner and drinks. The next morning we decided to explore town at sunrise, starting on the Dettah Ice Road. The ice road is something else - it cuts across an inlet on Great Slave Lake to provide access to the town of Dettah from Yellowknife. In the winter, it takes about 10 minutes to drive there, but in the summer it's almost an hour around. The ice road itself is really beautiful, especially at sunrise.

We'd Rather Walk

Arctic Sunrise

After the sun rose, I turned my attention to the ice. Some really interesting patterns form in the ice and I had fun trying to capture them.

Eventually we moved from the ice road back into town to visit the ptarmigans. These birds are cute but fearless, which made us question their survival in an evolutionary sense. When I left the car, I put on my longest lens - a 70-200 - thinking I'd have to crop in for birds. I was surprised to have to zoom out - they came right up to us!

Not far from the ptarmigans is the Bush Pilots Monument, a short climb to the top of a small hill that provides a great overlook of the city. I went for a panorama.

Ice Patterns

Ptarmigan in a Snowstorm

Bush Pilots Monument

Later that day, about a dozen of us met up to go dogsledding! I had been once before in Canmore, but it was a fun treat to be able to dogsled in the North with Beck's Kennels. The experience was a little different than in Canmore - the Snowy Owl folks in Canmore spent a lot more time with us teaching us about the dogs, how to drive the sled, and so forth. In Yellowknife, they essentially turned us loose, which was fine since the dogs knew where to go. I preferred the experience in Canmore for sure, but the experience in Yellowknife was definitely still fun.

A Good Day to Ride

Confidence

Leaders

Puppies!

After returning from our run, I noticed that someone had found the puppies! They were 35 days old, and really, really cute.

With the dogsledding trip completed, it was now time for the workshop! The format was essentially lecture followed by field work, which worked really well. On the first night, the aurora activity was higher than normal, and a bunch of us were checking AuroraMax constantly. Eventually, Dave gave us the signal to get ready as the aurora was gearing up. Up to that point I'll admit I was on the edge of my seat and ready to go see the aurora! I think I went from the lecture room to my hotel room, changed, and was in the lobby in less than 5 minutes. :)

For our first night shooting, we went to the Yellowknife Boat Launch. The aurora started off subtle, but quickly picked up and grew really intense. If you have never had the pleasure of shooting aurora in these conditions, it's very fun and very hectic. I probably swapped lenses 15 times in an hour. I was amazed at how often I was using my 70-200 to isolate sections of the aurora with a subject - which is funny because I almost left it at home!

When the outburst came, I had my 70-200 on and tried to frame the tree with the intense colors behind. I'm sure I looked ridiculous during the outburst because I was literally running down the road to get into a different position. I set up closer to the mine buildings and managed to get lucky and capture a meteor with the aurora! Eventually the aurora subsided slightly, then picked up again. I had a wider angle lens on and was fortunate to get a view of the aurora encircling the nearly full moon.

Air Strike

It's On

Outshine

I spent some time exploring the boat launch with Matt and grabbed my only self portrait of the evening with the boats. 

Captain

Later, Dave and Paul gave us an assignment to create something unique with a team. Kevin, Karen, and I tried a shot with the lantern Kevin had procured, but eventually settled on this tight crop of Kevin's face with ice on it. I think it makes him look a little evil. :)

Evil Kevin

Night one was in the bag. It was fun but exhausting. I think I finally went to bed around 3am as I was so amped up from seeing the aurora like that. It was amazing!

For night two, we went to Vee Lake, north of Yellowknife. This was my favorite location of the trip. The lake is beautiful and has a ton of potential. Although the aurora wasn't as strong as the night before, it was still beautiful and actually easier to shoot as it wasn't moving quite as fast. I decided to focus entirely on getting people in the shot. My first model was Matt.

Explosion in the Sky

Jesus Christ Pose

Shortly after I started to inject myself into the picture. I really wanted to get a levitation shot up on this hill, but it just didn't work out, mainly due to my body position. It wasn't for lack of trying though. A ton of thanks to Matt, Elena, and Liz (who is from Seattle, represent!) for helping me get aligned in the shot correctly,

For one of my favorite shots of the trip, Matt and I wandered away from the group and out into the middle of the lake. I wanted to go for a "man in the middle of the wilderness" type of shot and made this. I only wish the aurora were a little stronger, but I do like the subtle effect it provides.

Solitude

Our final night of the workshop was the most challenging. The aurora was only briefly visible, and otherwise we had thin clouds. It was fun and challenging to come up with something creative! We first went back out on the Dettah Ice Road. I tried doing a star trail/time stack shot, but it didn't come out due to bad focus (which was dumb of me - I *never* rely on autofocus at night, but did this time. Oops.) Instead I grabbed my crystal ball and had fun with the reflections.

Right before we were about to leave, the aurora came out, and I had actually just set up my tent, so I used it as a prop. This would be a terrible place to camp, but it makes for a cool picture. :)

Snow Globe

You Didn't Camp There

After a quick stop at Timmy's, we left the ice road and headed over to Long Lake. By this time the clouds were thickening up, but we nonetheless had fun. Before we left the hotel, we grabbed an ironing board and iron so we could do some extreme ironingKevin provided the steel wool materials, Matt spun, and Paul modeled. I love the result!

Satisfaction

The lake was a fun challenge because of the absence of stars. I grabbed Paul's yellow tent and set up another tent shot.

Later, I borrowed Paul's 15mm fisheye and played around with that. There was a bright moon halo which made for a really cool effect.

You Didn't Camp There Either

Conversation

Supervisor

And with that, the workshop was over. It was such a fun time - Dave and Paul are both amazing! I left both inspired to go try some more night shots (including in some new ways), and confident in my ability to get those shots. Everyone in the workshop was wonderful as well! I do wish we had an image critique session the next day, both to get feedback on the images from the last night, and to say goodbye to everyone. That said, the workshop was great and if you have the opportunity to do this with Paul and Dave, do it!

Although the workshop was over, my time in Yellowknife was not. The next day I explored a bit and managed to grab a nice shot at sunset at Vee Lake.

Vee Lake Sunset

That evening Lauren arrived in town! The plan was for her to tour around town and see the aurora a bit before our maternity shoot the next day. Sadly the clouds returned and we got skunked that night. 

The North

We spent the bulk of the next day doing our maternity shoot with Dave. I haven't seen all of the pictures yet, but the ones I have seen were amazing. Dave is really talented at what he does, and Lauren looked and felt comfortable and confident throughout. We did a three session shoot. The first was indoors at our hotel, and the second was outdoors in Yellowknife. 

For the third session, the idea was to get some night maternity shots with the aurora. The clouds had other ideas though, but Dave had a plan. It turns out he and Paul had someone in town build them an igloo (!!!) and so we headed out there to get some shots with it. I haven't seen the shots yet but from the back-of-camera view they looked hilarious and fun. :) 

Dave was nice enough to let me use the igloo for my own shots after we were done. Fortunately, the clouds parted for a moment and the aurora came out, which allowed me to get myself, an igloo, an inukshuk, the aurora, and the full moon in the same shot. I thought it was a great parting shot for the trip!

This trip was an amazing experience. I'm already trying to figure out when I can go back. :) A ton of thanks go out to Dave, Paul, and everyone at the workshop for making the experience so awesome!

Jack Nichols