Yellowknife to Point Lake to Photograph the Aurora and Caribou

By Dr. Robert Berdan
September 22, 2012

Caribou migrate on the tundra by Robert Berdan ©


Caribou migrate on the tundra near Point Lake, NWT


August 27 to Sept. 14 I spent photographing the Aurora, caribou and the fiery red tundra for the third time. On this trip, my good friend and fellow pro-nature photographer Hälle Flygare joined me. Halle is a seasoned professional photographer that has photographed just about everything except the Aurora. We drove from Calgary to Highlevel, AB then from there to Yellowknife, an 1800 km trip taking us two days. Along the way we photographed a moose, a black bear and several bison.


Bison by Robert Berdan ©


Bison are common along the highway north of Providence, NWT


Once we arrived in Yellowknife we headed for Prelude Territorial park for a week of camping. We arrived a week before I was to lead a photo-trip to Peterson's Point lake lodge located about 250 km north of Yellowknife. During the first week of our trip the fall colours were just beginning to appear and the unusually warm weather meant we had to deal with a few blackflies. As it cooled off in the eveningf the blackflies disappeared as we began to set up our cameras around 10 pm while waiting for the Aurora to make an appearance. The first few days the aurora was dimmed by the full moon, but it after a few days the real light show began. The aurora is one of the most amazing natural phenomena I have ever photographed and its patterns are always different.


Aurora over Prelude Lake by Robert Berdan ©


Aurora over Prelude Territorial Park with the full moon on the right. The moon was so bright we could see our shadows. September 7, 2012. 10.5 mm f/2.8 fish-eye lens, Nikon 5100 camera, ISO 800.


When we arrived on Friday September 7 we were approaching the full moon phase which meant the bright moon light would drown out some of the aurora. This year, however we are approaching solar max, a time when the sun harbours the maximum number of sunspots. Solar max is expected to reach its peak in the Spring of 2013. On our first few days of photography we had clear skies and only a faint aurora - faint for Yellowknife that is, but a few days later we enjoyed photographing some amazing aurora substorms - see below. I was hoping to photograph some red aurora on this trip, but for the most part the aurora was green and violet with an occasional red glow appearing at the bottom of some bands.


Sequence of Aurora photographs Yellowinife, NWT by Robert Berdan ©


Series of sequential aurora images showing how brilliant and dynamic the aurora was at Prelude lake.


Aurora over Ingraham Trail, NWT by Robert Berdan ©


Alongside the Ingraham trail looking North - almost the entire sky was filled with green pulsating light. 10.5 mm f/2.8 lens, Nikon 5100 camera set at ISO 1600.


Aurora over Ingraham Trail outside Yellowinife by Robert Berdan ©


Another photo of the Aurora from the same spot as above showing how dynamic the Aurora can be and there is also some violet light appearing in some of the Aurora bands. The Big dipper is also faintly visible just right of the center of the picture.


Aurora borealis over Pontoon lake, NWT by Robert Berdan ©

Aurora reflected off Pontoon lake which located about 30 km outside of Yellowknife - this photograph was taken from a pullout beside the Ingraham trail and faces south west. 24 mm f/1.4 lens, Canon 5D Mark II, ISO 800, 6 seconds.



During the daytime, Hälle and I would drive along the Ingraham trail searching for wildlife such as grouse, black bears, foxes, eagles and beaver. Beside one of the first lakes along the Ingraham trail there is a prominent beaver hut visible from the road. I had noticed this hut before on earlier trips because someone had stuck a small Canadian flag in the top of the mound, but I had never seen any beavers nearby. Shown below, is one of the beavers that we saw dragging branches onto the hut one morning. We sat beside the road and watched as two beavers worked away dragging branches onto the hut.


Beaver on hut with Canadian flag by Robert Berdan ©


A patriotic Canadian beaver?


Beaver with warning tail flap by Robert Berdan ©


Beaver lifting his tail in order to wack the water and warn his mate of danger -"there are photographers nearby watch out".


Halle Flygare aka Sweedish beaver by Robert Berdan ©


Swedish Beaver? Hälle decides to investigate how beavers cut the trees and in doing so manages to bite off a few wood chips - I have to admit I tried some wood chips too, but I prefer potatoes :-)


We had regular visits to our campground by three different foxes, 2 red foxes and one cross fox. The red foxes posed for us as they hunted for scraps around the picnic tables. The cross fox captured a small rodent near our campground though it was too dark to photograph. We also had a slew of visitors drop by our camp from Yellowknife and friends from across the country and we made many new friends that were camping nearby. In the evenings, park manager,Bruce Davidson would drop by bringing us some wood and seeing how our photography was progressing. Bruce has worked at the park for over a dozen years and is one of the best park hosts I know.


Halle Flygare and red fox by Robert Berdan ©


Hälle Flygare sits down to photograph the daily ritual of red foxes that came to visit our camp usually in the early morning and again in the early evening.


Red fox in Prelude Territorial park by Robert Berdan ©


Red fox that came to visit us one morning (70-200 mm f/4 Canon lens)


Cross fox along the Ingraham trail by Robert Berdan ©


Cross fox (300 mm + 1.5X teleconverter, Nikon 300) - photographed along the Ingraham trail near Giant Mine.


Red fox by Robert Berdan ©


Red fox Prelude Territorial park. We found several unoccupied fox dens nearby our campsite.


After a week of photography at Prelude, on September 5th we met the rest of the photographers and artists that were joining us on the trip to Point lake. We toured the city, hiked to Cameron falls and spent two nights photographing the Aurora near Yellowinife out on the Ingraham trail. On the second night we photographed a spectacular aurora display at Pontoon lake (for tips on Aurora photography ee previous articles or pick up a copy of Outdoor Photography Canada the Fall\Winter issue that should be in stores by the end of the month - see below).


Aurora and campers Prelude Territorial Park by Robert Berdan ©


Campers on the rocky overlook of Prelude lake enjoy the Aurora in front of their campsite.


Aurora over tent by Robert Berdan ©


Tent and aurora Prelude Territorial Park.


Groundscape - branches, mosse and lichen over granite by Robert Berdan ©


Groundscape with old tree branches, moss and lichen on granite. 16-35 mm Lens, Canon 5 D II.


On September 7 we flew aboard an Air Tindi Beaver up to Point Lake Lodge. The next day the Point lake was calm so we took to the boats and headed to Esker Bay. Along the way we spotted Caribou along the shoreline. Once we arrived in the bay we hiked along the ridge of an ancient Esker while looking for Caribou and interesting landscapes. We spotted a large grizzly bear from the boats on the way back that was just out of range of most of our lenses. The following day we traveled further east by boat to Outpost 1, an emergency shelter in a protected bay with high cliffs. We explored the cliffs and found a grizzly den, without the bear inside, and numerous wolf and bear tracks on the beach. On coming home, our guide Egan Wuth, spotted a white wolf travelling along the shoreline. Wolves are curious animals, but keep their distance and when they stop they often do so behind a bush making it difficult to focus on them. We also spotted several small herds of caribou, but they were spooky and took off when they heard our boat motor. Other photographers in the group managed to get close to some caribou and were even able to photograph the caribou swimming across the lake.


White wolf on the tundra by Robert Berdan ©


White wolf spotted by our guide, Egan Wuth. This wolf was walking near the shoreline of Point Lake but kept his distance often stopping behind a small bush. I switched to manual focus to prevent the camera lens from focusing on the bush in the foreground (300 mm f/2.8 + 1.5X teleconverter on Nikon D300, 1\1600 sec hand held).


Whit wolf on the tundra by Robert Berdan ©


Tundra wolf - image tightly cropped to enlarge image, taken with 300 mm + 1.5X teleconverter and Nikon D300 from our boat. f/4.8 1\1000 sec, ISO 400.


Caribou on tundra by Robert Berdan ©


Bull caribou - it was a cloudy overcast day with some drizzle when I captured this bull with my camera.


Bearberry leaves, tundra and Caribou skull in front of Point Lake Lodge by Robert Berdan ©


Bearberry leaves and Caribou skull in front of Point lake Lodge.


Cliffs along Point lake by Robert Berdan ©


Cliffs along Point lake are often coated with orange lichen (Xanthoria) and we also found a Peregrine falcon nest.



Peregrine Falcon nest on the rock ledge - some of the photographers were able to get shots of the bird leaving the nest.


During the evenings we often sat outside our cabins waiting for the Aurora to begin. The earliest we saw the Aurora start was about 9:30 pm and it put on a pretty good show until the wee hours of the morning. One night my friend Halle and I went to sleep around 12 midnight convinced the Aurora show was only going to be meager only to be awakened that we better come outside. There was an aurora-substorm that was fantastic, after one and half hours, Halle decided that was enough and headed to bed and asked not to be awaken. About half hour later the Aurora became even more amazing - so we awoke Halle again who didn't complain when he saw the spectacle it was. I grabbed my 10.5 mm f/2.8 fisheye lens in an attempt to photograph as much of the sky as possible. Some of us were even out early next morning to photograph the sunrise after goind to bed around 3 am!


Halle Flygare resting on esker by Robert Berdan ©


Photographer Hälle Flygare takes a break to enjoy the view of the tundra from atop of an esker in Esker Bay, Point Lake.


Group of photographers on the tundra by Robert Berdan ©


Group of photographers and guides taking a lunch break on top of an esker in Esker Bay.


Pond on the tundra by Robert Berdan ©


Small pond surrounded by dwarf willow and birch. Around the edges we could see thousands of caribou tracks.


Caribou by Robert Berdan ©


Caribou feeding on the tundra -there was soft overcast light and drizzle. 300 mm + 1.5 X teleconverter on Nikon D300


Early next morning we were up to photograph the sunrise and what a sunrise it was. Several of us crowded around a caribou skull we had placed into the lake ( an idea borrowed from my friend Wayne Lynch who came along last year ). The sun created a pink "aurora-like" glow over the lake as began another day on the tundra.


Nigel Fearon silhoutte in front of sunrise at Point Lake by Robert Berdan ©


Pro photographer Nigel Fearon sets up his tripod at sunrise on Point Lake.


Caribou skull and antlers in lake at sunrise by Robert Berdan ©


Caribou skull in Point Lake at sunrise


 Point Lake at sunrise by Robert Berdan ©


The sun reflected off the low lying clouds forming a soft red aurora-like light over Point Lake.


Clouds over Point lake, NWT by Robert Berdan ©


Moody sky over Point Lake foretold of a change in weather that would keep us an extra couple of days at the lodge.


The one problem with staying up very late and getting up very early is that you need a lot of coffee to keep going during the day. We divided the group into three, those that wanted to wander slowly over the tundra and those that wanted to explore deeper into the tundra and those that wanted to spend time photographing macro shots near the cabins. On one of the hikes we saw another white wolf and a wolverine, but they were out or range to get a good photograph. On September 10 our plane was scheduled to pick us up, but strong winds prevented the plane from landing so we spent an extra two days waiting for conditions to improve so the Air Tindi beaver could land on the lake. A few caribou ventured near the cabins and we watched hordes of geese fly south over the cabins. The tundra is a beautiful place in the Autumn and every time we thought there were no animals to be seen a bear, wolverine or wolf would appear.


Aurora over Point Lake lodge by Robert Berdan ©


Aurora over our cabins on Point Lake (10.5 mm Fisheye lens, Nikon 5100 ISO 1600, 10 seconds exposure.


Aurora over lake, Point Lake Lodge by Robert Berdan ©


Aurora behind the cabins at Point Lake (24 mm f/1.4 lens, exposure 6 seconds Canon 5D Mark II ISO 800)


Aurora over pond, Point lake, NWT by Robert Berdan ©


Aurora reflecting off pond behind Peterson's Point Lake Lodge. 10.5 mm f/2.8 lens, Nikon 5100.


Moiund of red bearberry, Point Lake, NWT by Robert Berdan ©


Mound of bearberry leaves forms intense red colour. 70-200 mm F4, Canon 5D.


Photographers and guides at Point lake 2012 by Robert Berdan ©


2012 group of photographers and guides at Point Lake waiting to be picked up by the Air Tindi beaver in the background. From left to right: Robert Berdan, Hälle Flygare, Chuck, Tracy Breitrach, Dan Purcell, Amanda Peterson, Kerry Little, George Kimel, Margaret Peterson, Nigel Fearon, Egan Wuth and Suzanne Southon. Not in the picture was Chad Peterson our lead guide at Peterson's Point lake lodge. Taken with 17-55 mm lens, F8, Nikon 5100.


Camera equipment I brought along included: Nikon D300, Nikon 5100, and Canon 5D camera bodies, Nikon 300 mm f/2.8, 1.5 and 2X teleconverters, 17-55 mm f/2.8, 60 mm f2.8 macro lens and 10.5 mm f/2.8 fisheye lens, Canon 24 mm f/1.4, 70-200mm f4 lenses and two carbon fiber tripods. 100 GB of compact flash, 6 Canon camera batteries and 6 Nikon camera batteries. A Canon Timer Remote Controller TC-80N for time lapse photography and a laptop computer to check my images and provide slide presentations in the evening.


stars and moon over Point Lake NWT by Robert Berdan


Moonrise over Point Lake one of the best dark sites I have ever seen - stars can be seen right down to the horizon even in the presence of an almost full moon. Shortly after taking this photo the Aurora made an appearance.


Caribou antlers in front of Point Lake Lodge by Robert Berdan ©


Rack of Caribou antlers in front of Point Lake lodge


Three caribou "amigos" on the tundra by Robert Berdan ©


Three amigos on the tundra


For anyone considering visiting Yellowknife or further on the tundra in Autumn I recommend bringing a wide angle zoom lens with a fast aperture (e.g. f/2.8 16-35 mm lens) for landsapes and the aurora, a macro lens for closeups and telephoto lens e.g. (70-300 mm or longer focal length lens for wildlife). A tripod is a must if you want to photograph the Aurora and be sure to check out astronomynorth.com web site before you head out to photograph the Aurora if you are near Yellowknife. You can even watch the Aurora live on the astronomynorth web site via Aurora Max camera part of the University of Calgary research project lead by Dr. Eric Donovan.



Aurora and cabin at Pontoon lake 24 mm f/1.4 lens, Canon 5D Mark II, ISO 800, 6 seconds.


Just published - September 21, 2012 "How to Photograph the Northern Lights - The Dance of the Spirits " by Robert Berdan in Outdoor Photography Canada Magazine Fall/Winter 2012 issue. Photographs were taken during our 2011 photography trip. The Canadian Magazine is available at most stores that sell photography magazines across Canada e.g. Chapters etc. RB



Outdoor photography Canada cover issue Fall\Winter 2012

Fall\Winter issue 2012 - should be vailalbe in magazines stores by the end of the month
Features Amanda Peterson on the cover pointing at the Aurora beside a tent taken at Pontoon Lake, 2011.


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