by Robert Berdan
Revised September 15, 2017
Yellowknife is one of the best places on the planet to view and photograph the aurora (northern lights). Prosperous lake outside of Yellowknife. Nikon D800 with 12-24 mm lens F 2.8, 10 seconds, ISO 1600.
Drive to Yellowknife from Calgary
At the end of each summer Peterson's Point Lake Lodge in the Northwest Territories offers an arctic adventure photography workshop which includes two days in Yellowknife and 5 days 350 Km north in a remote lodge on the Tundra . The lodge is located on the caribou migration route and also offers trophy Lake trout fishing. Guests have the opportunity to fish for lake trout and this year I caught a 20 pounder which I then released. We keep smaller fish under 15 pounds for eating. I provide assistance with photography for those that want it and nightly presentations on photographic techniques. I also provide a bit of history about the 1819-1822 Franklin expedition which passed through Point lake in search of the Northwest passage. Below are some photos I took during this workshop.
Aspens along the road to Yellowknife . I reduced the clarity of the image in Camera RAW to provide a glow around the leaves resulting in a surreal appearance.
Twenty pound Lake trout caught at Point Lake - it was released back into the water - photo by Roberto Serrini. The largest lake trout caught at Point lake so far is 58 pounds.
I left Calgary on Saturday, August 26 at 6:00 am with friend and fellow photographer Hälle Flygare. This was Hälle's second trip to Peterson's point lake lodge. The drive takes two days, we stayed the first night in High Level and reached Yellowknife on the second day around dinner time. The road is paved all the way and passes through boreal forest. Bison are common north of Fort Providence. There are also several spectacular waterfalls along the route - Alexandra falls, Louise falls and Lady Evelyn falls. I like to drive because I can take more camera equipment then I could on a plane and I also have a vehicle to drive around Yellowknife. I usually go a few days before the workshop begins so I can take pictures of the aurora and check out new locations. I visit Prelude Territorial park to meet with my friend Bruce Davidson who takes care of the park. Prelude park is an ideal location for photographing the aurora and includes wilderness trails rich in lichens and mushrooms.
Near Grande Prairie we spotted several thousand Greater white-fronted geese (Anser albifrons) resting in a field.
Bison are common along side the road north of Fort Providence
The first two days in Yellowknife we were guided by Bill Braden who shared his local knowledge of the town, the diamond mines and a new book he published on Aurora photography called Aurora UP! (see full reference below). We visited the museum to see a photo exhibit by Adam Hill, and also to get some information on the native culture of the area and learn about the history of the people living in the Yellowknife area. We hiked a short trail to Cameron Falls and took a boat trip into the bay to photograph the house boats, wildlife on the shoreline (eagles) and have a fish fry. While in Yellowknife we stayed at the Explorer Hotel- one of the best hotels in Yellowknife.
We were picked up at our hotel by Bill Braden and transported around Yellowknife.
Some of the many coloured house boats on Yellowknife Bay photographed from our boat.
We toured Yellowknife Bay and photographed wildlife (eagles) and stopped for a fish fry.
Immature eagle taking flight from a nest in Yellowknife Bay (70-200 mm lens Nikon D500)
Guests and fishing guides pose for a group shot after the fish fry. The fish was delicious.
Bill Braden photographing two of our guests Lubert and Andrea Stryer in front of Cameron Falls.
Cameron falls is about a 40 minute hike off the Ingraham Trail. Normally at this time of year many of the trees have turned colour, but this year it was exceptionally warm and the autumn colours were just starting.
Bill Braden our Yellowknife guide standing at the bottom of Cameron Falls.
Spruce Grouse (Falcipennis canadensis) are common along the trail to Cameron Falls, males have bright red eyebrows.
Group selfie after lunch along the Cameron river
Wolly bear caterpillars are common around Yellowknife. They are unique in that they live as a caterpillar for 14 years before they metamorphosize into a moth. During the winter their bodies are frozen solid and when they thaw go on living as if nothing happened. Many insects can cool down to below 0° C without their liquid contents turning to ice. Their blood contains a natural antifreeze ethylene glycol - the same chemical we use in our window wash in winter.
The first few days after arriving in Yellowknife I went out each evening to photograph the Aurora with my friend Hälle. The only tricky thing about aurora photography is focusing on the stars so they are pin pricks. I use Live view, zoom in 10X and make the stars as small as possible. Exposures of between 2-16 seconds, F2.8 at ISO 1600 are usually good. You can preview the images and adjust the exposure as necessary - see my Aurora e-book for more details. The aurora is often visible after about 10 pm and sometimes even earlier in the fall. The best time in my experience is around midnight though the aurora can sometimes puts on a show all night. Most of the time the aurora is a greenish colour, but when it is very active one can see other colours including purples and reds.
In brief the aurora is caused by plasma (electrons and protons) emanating from the sun and interacting with Nitrogen and Oxygen molecules 50-300 km above the earth. The intensity of the particles varies over a 11 year period which coincides with the number of sunspots which follow and approximate 11 year cycle - see above. Although the number of sunspots is going down in Cycle 24, other factors such as geomagnetic activity, alignment with the sun at the autumn and spring equinoxes also affects the intensity. The most important factor is being in the aurora oval approximately 57-65 degrees north. Yellowknife is at 62 °N and is the ideal location to view the aurora. Other factors such as clarity of the sky, phase of the moon can also influence the intensity of the aurora. To see the aurora forecast visit this web page I have prepared where you can sign up for aurora alerts. Diagram above courtesy of NASA/Marshall solar physics.
Aurora over prosperous lake showing purple colour. Exposure 10 Sec, F2.8, ISO 1600
Aurora Borealis over Prosperous lake showing some red light.
Aurora Borealis over Prosperous lake. Nikon D800, ISO 6400, 1 sec, 12-24 mm F2.8 lens.
Aurora Borealis over prosperous lake at 3 am took on a diffuse glow.
3:30 am the aurora covered most of the sky
Viewed from below an active curtain of an aurora oval appears to converge at the top of the night sky - corona.
Looking up at the corona at Prelude lake
Very active aurora looking directly up at the corona.
The aurora over prosperous lake photographed with a Nikon 10.5 mm F2.8 fish-eye lens shows the bands bending in the night sky.
Aurora and cabin over prosperous lake. Photographers use a red light so as not to affect their night vision.
Moon cutout with reflecting red head lamp and aurora photographer - Prosperous Lake, 10.5 mm fish-eye lens.
Aurora Borealis over Prosperous lake. I used a flash light to paint light onto the trees in the foreground.
Tipis at aurora village. The full moon is behind the clouds and the aurora is just starting.
About 11:30 pm clouds moved in and we called it a night around midnight.
Point Lake Lodge
On the third day in Yellowknife we flew with Air Tindi 350 km north of Yellowknife to Peterson's point lake lodge (shown below). Peterson's Point Lake Lodge (PPLL) is located on the south-west end of Point Lake where the taiga shield meets the southern arctic eco-zone.
Peterson's Point Lake Lodge
Cabins at the lodge are cozy and comfortable
After we settle at the lodge, there is a short meeting about safety and wild animals we might encounter. Wolf and Grizzly bear tracks are common.
Fresh Grizzly bear track photographed in Caribou Bay.
Three of our 4 guides that acted as protectors and wildlife spotters. Left: Anthony Santos, Egan Wuth and Right: Chuck Rockwell.
Our 4th guide nicknamed "Tundra Man" Bruce Weber sporting a beard.
Hike overlooking the cabins gives a bird's eye view of Point Lake and gives guests their first taste of hiking on the tundra. The tundra in places is wet and mushy and other places it's rocky with many hills.
On one hike we travelled by boat to Esker bay in order to climb up on an esker and walk along the top. Eskers are gravel remains from rivers formed under melting glaciers. They are relatively easy to walk along and provide good views into the valleys below.
Hiking on top of an Esker.
On top of the esker looking back at Point Lake one can see lakes, rivers and wildlife below.
On top of the esker one of our guests (Thomas Frank) spotted a white wolf.
White wolf photographed from atop the Esker with 500 mm F4 lens with a Nikon D500 camera.
On top of the esker looking west.
Hälle Flygare resting on the esker. Hälle has produced a new photo book on the Arctic - to view the contents and purchase the book view it here.
Group photo on top of an esker
Pirates Bay, Birth Day Point and Caribou Bay
A) Overlooking Pirates Bay Hälle Flygare in front and Lou Stryer in the background. B) Thomas Frank C) Rick McKelvery and John Reid. D) Guides Chuck Rockwell, Egan Wuth and Anthony Santos E) Bearberry leaves F) Overlooking Point lake G) Reindeer Lichen H) Gem studded Puffballs I) Fly Amanita mushroom (Aminita muscaria).
We found a wide variety of mushrooms, some of them grew out of the sand which was surprising. There was also a bright orange mushroom we found frequently growing in sand (see below). Caribou are known to eat some mushrooms. A few mushrooms were the size of a dinner plate. (Hebeloma crustuliniforme ? - poisonous).
Caribou bay looking east toward Point Lake. 12-24 mm Lens, Nikon D800 F11.
Tundra pond surrounded by dwarf birch, willow and bear berry. A few white spruce trees can be seen.
Pond at Birthday Point with red dwarf birch and white spruce.
Amanda Peterson with full camera regalia
Left: Norma French-Heslep carrying firewood and Right: Andrea Styer and Norma French-Heslep in blue. Norma was our cook and with assistance of Amanda Peterson provided delicious meals every day. I gained a few pounds on the trip what more can I say.
Roberto Serrini in heaven. The water is so clean and cold you can drink it by dipping your cup and if you are lucky or divine you can sometimes walk on it :-)
Fungi, Lichen, Plants and Wildlife
A) Moss Philonotis fontana? b) Large pancake sized mushroom c) mushroom surrounded by bear berry and D) dwarf birch leaves with granite covered in black tripe and map lichen E) Wolf lichen Letharia vulpina once used to poison foxes and wolves F) Wild rose buds G) Candelariella sp of lichen growing on wood H) Smooth cliff fern - there are 3 species of fern common on the tundra. I) Orange Milk Cap (Lactarius deliciosus) mushroom growing in sand on the tundra.
Cladonia pluerota - Red fruited pixie cup lichen
Arctoparmelia centrifuga - Concentric ring or Jewel lichen surrounded by Black tripe and map lichens.
Cladonia pleurota Red Fruited Pixe-cup Lichen (60 mm Macro lens Nikon D800).
Someone in the group said that looking at the ground made him think of Christmas. Red Bearberry and moss on granite.
Lily pads in pond along the Ingraham trail outside Yellowknife (70- 200 mm lens, F11 Nikon D500)
White fronted Geese (Anser albifrons) taking flight. 70-200 mm lens F5.6, Nikon D500.
American Pipit (Anthus rubescens) - they are known for pumping their tails up and down. Breeds in the Arctic tundra in the north, and alpine tundra in the Rockies. Photographed on the beach at Point Lake with a 500 mm F4 lens and Nikon D500 camera.
Harris's sparrow (Zonotrichia querula) in front of the lodge. Breeds in scrub-tundra along Canadian taiga-tundra timberline. Call is a sharp week, song a series of 2-4 whistles on the same pitch.
Northern Shrike (Lanius excubitor) in front of the lodge (DM) . This bird breeds in sub-Arctic coniferous forests across Canada. It swoops down on prey, such as rodents, small birds and insects, which it impales on thorns or pointed branches.
Full moon rising on the tundra at Point Lake (composite DM)
Self portrait at sunrise, Point Lake, NT.
Left: Hälle Flygare with friendly wolverine Right: Roberto Serrini with wolverine on his shoulders. This wolverine was so friendly you could pick him up and pet him ;-)
Female caribou swimming with young caribou behind (not visible in picture). John Reid was able to get good photos of the two caribou climbing up on the bank and shaking the water off. We kept our distance while the caribou was swimming to minimize stress on the animals.
Caribou photo from 2015 Arctic Adventure trip - these caribou passed by our cabins. To see caribou from previous trips see my caribou gallery or links to previous articles below.
Air Tindi float plane coming in to pick us up and transport us back to Yellowknife.
From Left to Right: Robert Berdan , Hälle Flygare, Egun Wuth, Rick McKelvery, John Reid, Roberto Serrini, Lubert Stryer, Andrea Stryer, Norma French-Heslep, Thomas Frank, Amanda Peterson, Chuck Rockwell, Anthony Santos, Bruce Weber and Chad Peterson. We thank everyone for joining us.
Camera Gear to bring to an Arctic Adventure
1. Tripod - essential for aurora photography
2. Fast F2.8 wide angle lens for landscapes and aurora and a teleophoto lens 200 mm or bigger for wildlife
3. Macro lens for lichen and mushrooms.
4. Binoculars to spot wildlife
5 Extra batteries, lots of memory storage
This was my 7th trip to the tundra and there is always new things to see and photograph I am grateful for the opportunity.
Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Margaret Peterson at the helm for organizing the workshop and taking care of the details and allowing Halle and myself to stay at her cabin for a few days. Amanda Peterson for cooking and guiding and Chad Peterson for lodge maintenance. Our guides, Egan Wuth, Anthony Santos, Bruce Weber and Chuck Rockwell for protecting us on the tundra and spotting wildlife. Norma for cooking fantastic meals and Murray for allowing us to photograph the aurora at his place near Yellowknife. Bill Braden for his insights during the walking tours and sharing his new Aurora book. Also to our guests who made this trip possible. Finally Bruce Davidson at Prelude park for always making me feel welcome.
We are now booking for 2018 - If you are interested in joining us next summer to photograph the aurora, caribou and colourful tundra see the workshop section of this web site or visit Peterson's web site. If you would like to see pictures from previous trips click on the links below. RB
For Peterson's Guests and Guides ONLY - Download PDF with People Pictures (116 MB) - 70 images suitable for printing - Password protected - contact me for password if you did not find it in your email. You will need the Free Adobe Acrobat reader to view - you can download here. You can right click and save the file to your Desktop, or if you click on the link it will open in your browser if you have Acrobat installed - you can then save the file. If you have any problems contact me for help.
Links to previous Arctic Adventures Articles
Arctic Adventure 2015
Arctic Adventure 2014
Arctic Adventure 2013
Arctic Adventure 2012
Arctic Adventure 2011
Arctic Adventure 2010
Virtual Tour of the Northwest Territories
What to bring to an Arctic Adventure Workshop
Aurora Borealis Gallery Showing my Favourite Pictures
For information about our Arctic Adventure Workshop see the Workshop page - we take 10 folks per year
Peterson's Point Lake Lodge web site
Roberto Serrini's web site www.robertoserrini.com
Bill Braden's web site www.billbradenphoto.com - purchase his new book called Aurora UP!
Hälle Flygare's web site - www.natureinwildplaces.com
Naturalist's Guide to the Arctic - book by E.C. Pielo - available at Amazon.ca
Lichens of North America by IM Brodo et al. Comprehensive book on Lichens available at Amazon.
Common Mushrooms of the Northwest by J. Duane Sept available at Amazon.
Robert Berdan is a professional nature photographer living in Calgary, AB specializing in nature, wildlife and science photography. Robert offers photo guiding and private instruction in all aspects of nature photography and Adobe Photoshop training.
Email at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Web site: www.canadiannaturephotographer.com
Phone: MST 9am -7 pm (403) 247-2457.
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