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Sunday, March 2, 2014

Chasing the Northern Lights

Last week, I spent several days in the coldest temperatures I have ever experienced.

I have never enjoyed cold weather; actually, that is a real understatement. I hate being cold. So why in the world did I sign up for a week-long trip to Churchill, Canada, just 480 miles south of the Arctic Circle? That is a question that crossed my mind more than once as I braved temperatures that reached -34 degrees F, with a wind chill of -68 degrees F.

Churchill is the polar bear capital of the world, but that's not what took me to that little village of 813 hardy souls. The polar bears head out onto the ice in October or November, so there were no bears to be found. The purpose of this trip to the frozen north was to have the opportunity to view and photograph the aurora borealis, or northern lights.

Unfortunately, the northern lights were missing in action most nights. Our first night, we waited until nearly 1 a.m. under a cloudless sky. The wind had died down, so it was tolerable to be outside for a while.  It was a perfect night to photograph the aurora. We had use of a heated workshop to warm up in and to take a break. The stars that night were amazing, including the Big Dipper. The aurora did make a brief appearance as a thin band of clouds. To the naked eye, it seemed like nothing more than clouds. Fortunately, my camera was able to detect the colors of the aurora.

The next night, the winds were howling. Although members of my group went outside to set up tripods, we soon realized the folly of that action, as the wind blew them over very quickly. So tripods, with cameras attached, waited in an enclosed but unheated porch. When I did go outside to take pictures, I had to hold on to my tripod. The aurora that night again appeared as bands of clouds, but this time they were bigger and lasted longer than the night before. And we had use of an 'aurora dome' with comfortable chairs and couches to escape the biting wind.

Our last opportunity to look for the aurora never happened, as the area was enveloped in ice fog, blowing snow and raging winds. Aside from poor visibility, it was simply too dangerous to be outside and for our driver to be on the roads. If we had been involved in an accident or slid off the road out of town, there would have been no one to rescue us, and no AAA. Freezing to death was a real possibility.

Despite my extreme dislike of cold, I did enjoy myself. We went on a 1-mile dog sled ride, and we tried our hand at curling (fun, but not easy). We visited the local Eskimo Museum, toured the community center that provides safe indoor recreational activities as well as housing the hospital and is attached to the K-12 school, and had a presentation by a Parks Canada archeologist. We also paid a brief visit to a couple of long-haired Icelandic horses.

I also proved to myself that I can endure extremely cold temperatures, and I learned what 'cold' truly means. I complained only once, when I was outside in a biting wind watching people construct an igloo. My right hand was painfully cold, and our guide had to leave for a few long minutes with the van. The cold we experienced wasn't merely an inconvenience; it can kill very quickly. Frostbite is a real danger as well.

The company with which I traveled, Natural Habitat Adventures, provided a warm parka, boots and mittens. I stayed pretty comfortable with four layers on top and three on the bottom, two pairs of socks, glove liners and mittens, a balaklava that protected my face and neck, and a hat and hood. I also had a hand warmer in each glove and a foot warmer in each boot.

I was fortunate to travel with a wonderful group of people, all of them great companions with whom to share the challenges of sub-arctic travel. Everyone got along well, and there was not a whiner or difficult person in the bunch. This was important because we spent 16 hours/day together on some days. We collectively kept an eye on the weather, especially the wind chill, and questioned our wonderful guide Annie about the highly inaccurate aurora forecast. Because of the blizzard conditions that nearly postponed our arrival in Churchill from Winnipeg on an airline ironically named Calm Air, and that almost delayed our return flight to Winnipeg days later, we christened ourselves Team Blizzard.

We were joined in Churchill by a local photographer who provided invaluable advice and assistance with the challenging task of photographing the aurora in sub-zero conditions. He recommended the best camera settings to use and even helped with my new tripod as I struggled to set it up and secure my camera with frozen fingers the first night on aurora watch. I learned about the all-important steps to protect my camera, from keeping the batteries warm to placing the camera in a plastic bag before taking it into a heated area after exposure to the cold (to prevent condensation on the lens and inside the camera). This trip also stoked my desire to improve my photography skills, especially under difficult conditions.

Now I am happy to be home where temperatures are more than 120 degrees F warmer than in Churchill! But Churchill isn't finished with me just yet. I am going back in the early winter of 2015 on a polar bear observation trip. I hope it won't be quite so cold earlier in the winter, and maybe I will get another opportunity to photograph the elusive aurora.