Chasing Caribou and the Northern Lights

by Robert Berdan
Sept 19, 2010 


caribou silhoutte and the aurora by Robert Berdan ©

Composite image of Caribou silhoutte and Northern Lights

The tundra in Canada's North West Territories is an extreme environment, but you don't have to be an explorer or an athlete to visit and appreciate its beauty. The tundra is generally devoid of trees except for dwarf birch, willow, occasional black spruce, and a carpet of lichens and moss -  it's anything but barren.  In autumn the tundra becomes a nature photographers paradise as it turns into a kodachrome of colour. On autumn evenings the northern lights, also called aurora borealis, lights up the sky. The green and red rays dance and can sometimes be bright enough to cast a shadow. And if this isn't enough, in certain locations barren-ground caribou begin their long migration southward an event equal to the great migration of wildebeest in Africa. The caribou migration paths have been formed over thousands of years and if you are in their path you can experience this amazing yearly event.

Sunflower with sunglasses in Yellowknife by Robert Berdan ©

Welcome to Yellowknife - one of the communal gardens

Group visiting the Aurora max exhibit in Yellowknife by Robert Berdan ©

Our group visiting with James Pugsley at the Aurora Max Exhibit in Yellowknife

For the past few years I have been leading a small group of photographers onto the tundra in partnership with Peterson's Point Lake Lodge located about 250 Km north of Yellowknife. The lodge was initially created for hunting and fishing and is located along the migration route of the Bathhurst caribou herd. Members of a herd are based on their calving grounds.  Recent surveys suggest that several caribou herds have plummeted in numbers for unknown reasons and this year the Environment Minister Michael Mittenberger put a freeze on the caribou hunt in the North West Territories, however hunting is still allowed in the adjacent Nunavut territory. As outfitters scramble to find alternative sources of revenue, Peterson's Point Lake Lodge started offering photography workshops on the tundra. These workshops cater to all level of photographers and start in Yellowknife.

Photographers on Esker in Esker Bay off Point Laker, North West Territories by Robert Berdan ©

On September 5-11,  I met with a small group of amateur photographers in Yellowknife where we spent two days photographing local attractions including giant mine, the scenic Ingraham trail, and Cameron Falls. We also sampled the local cuisine at historic sites like the Wildcat cafe and met with veteran aurora photographer James Pugsley who operates the Astronomy North web site ( that provides local aurora forecasts.

Small lake adjacent to the Ingraham trail outside Yellowinife by Robert Berdan ©

Ponds and lakes nestled along side the Ingraham Trail outside Yellowknife

Tributary to Cameraon Falls outside Yellowknife by Robert Berdan

Photographers line up to take photos of a tributary to Cameron Falls

Each clear night we headed out to a dark site along the Ingraham trail to photograph the aurora. Yellowknife is one of the best places in the world to view and photograph the aurora as it sits directly under the auroral oval (between 57-65° North in Canada).  In Yellowknife there are over 240 potential aurora viewing nights per year, compared to 90 in Edmonton and only 20 in Calgary. The best time to view the aurora is usually between 11:00 pm and 2:00 am on a dark clear night. Photographing the aurora can be done with any digital single lens reflex camera and a tripod, though it helps to have a good wide angle lens (24-35 mm) with a maximum aperture of F2.8 or better. The aurora also has an eleven year cycle that is correlated with the number of sun spots. We are currently entering solar cycle 24 and scientists predict the next solar max will occur around May 2013 when the number of sun spots peak resulting in the most active aurora during the cycle.

Aurora reflecting off small pond at Peterson Point Lake Lodge by Robert Berdan ©

 After two days of photography in Yellowknife our group flew 250 Km further north on a Twin Otter landing on Point Lake which forms part of the historic exploration route of Sir John Franklin  in 1819 as he searched for the Northwest Passage.  There are no other lodges on the 71 km long lake. 

Air Tindi Twin Otter landing on Point Lake, NWT by Robert Berdan ©

Twin Otter landing on Point Lake

During landing we saw a herd of caribou next to the lodge. We could barely believe our good fortune and as soon as we unloaded our gear we hiked a short distance over to the caribou. We walked along a beach behind a large esker that hid us from the view of the caribou. 

Cluster of caribou near Peterson's Point Lake lodge cabins by Robert Berdan ©

Small part of the caribou herd waiting for us near the lodge.

We climbed the esker tucked behind some shrubs and started taking pictures. The sun lit the caribou from behind creating a rim of light around the animals and the backlighting ignited the colours of the tundra. After several hours, our backs sore from crouching, we finally stood up and headed back to the cabins having taken all the caribou shots we wanted. The caribou backed off a bit, but they did not run away and most of them stayed close by so we could watch them from the cabin for several more hours. Next morning most of them had moved on.

Backlighting on caribou near Peterson's Point Lake Lodge by Robert Berdan ©

We found fresh grizzly bear and wolf tracks down on the beach, a reminder to us to be cautious when heading out to the outhouse in the dark. Our cook saw a white wolf in camp early one morning. The next few days we traveled by a small power boat and hiked to different locations around Point Lake. At one location in Esker Bay, we watched as two white wolves chased caribou down an esker and into another valley - a good reason to always have binoculars with you.  Above us we watched as flocks of Canada Geese and Tundra swans flew south in V formation.  On the trip back we found a lone caribou on a small island. After seeing us it decided to swim back to shore. When it reached the shore I could see the wounds on its hind legs suggesting it had been chased by a wolf. We also spotted a grizzly sow and cub far off on the tundra before we headed home for dinner.

Swimming caribou in Point Lake by Robert Berdan ©

Food at the lodge was first class and included: lasagna, fresh lake trout, turkey and moose. On one of our morning excursions we fished for lake trout which was then served to us as a shore lunch.  In the evenings after dinner we scanned the horizon for wildlife and when it got dark we viewed slide presentations on photography or reviewed our own images. Around 11 pm we checked the skies for the aurora. Each morning we checked the sunrise and if the conditions were good we would photograph directly in front of our cabins until breakfast.  On the one wet day we focused on macro-photography and explored the diversity of lichens and moss around camp. One commonly found lichen called Tripe served as survival food during the Franklin expedition. We certainly ate much better than the Franklin expedition members did - many of which died of starvation.

Frank Wood proudly holds a laketrout by Robert Berdan ©

Frank Wood catches a medium sized Lake Trout

From a photographers point of view there are several reasons to visit the tundra in autumn. First, mosquitoes and black flies are minimal at this time of year and anyone that has visited in mid summer can attest this makes almost anything you do on the tundra more comfortable. Second, the aurora tends to be more frequent and active during the autumn and spring equinoxes.  I prefer viewing the aurora in September while the lakes are unfrozen and often reflect the light of the aurora.  The aurora can also be viewed in summer from about August 15th onward, but in early summer it simply does not get dark enough to see them well.  Third, in autumn the evening and daytime temperatures are generally still comfortable ranging from about 10-22°C during the day. Fourth, wildlife seem more active and plentiful and their fur looks its best as the animals prepare for winter. Finally, vegetation takes on the brilliant red and yellow colours that rival that of maple trees in Canada's eastern provinces.

Sonia takes aim with her camera over Esker Bay, NWT by Robert Berdan ©

What makes the barrens awesome is its shear size and the large number of small lakes.  You can only appreciate this when flying over it.  Standing  on the barrens, the hills run off in all directions without a single road, fence, or telephone pole visible.  It feels like stepping back in time. Cell phones are useless and you will want to leave them behind anyway and concentrate on the raw beauty before you. There are two main ways to travel in the barrens, one is with a boat along the waterways and the other is by foot. The tundra around Point lake is made  of rounded hills dotted with small lakes, large boulders, eskers, carpets of lichen and moss with small shrubs, and numerous bogs. Regular hiking boots are not recommended as you will get wet feet. Hiking comfortably on the tundra requires knee high, preferably insulated, rubber boats. Some areas on the tundra are sandy and these usually consist of eskers. 

Discarded caribou antlers near Peterson's Point Lake Lodge by Robert Berdan ©

Caribou antlers with Peterson's Point Lake Lodge visible in the Distance

Eskers are relics of the ice age that formed as sediments were deposited by rivers flowing through tunnels in and under the glaciers when they melted. These long narrow steep sided ridges of gravel and sand can be between 10 to 50 meters high and they seem to wander across the landscape in an arbitrary fashion. The sides are often covered in reindeer lichen, willow and bear berry patches.  Hiking along the top of an esker allowed us to see great distances. 

Hiking along the top of an Esker in Esker Bay. In the foreground are bearbeary leaves and diggings by a Grizzly Bear
probably trying to dig out an Arctic ground squirrel (SikSik).

The wonders of the tundra don't end when the sun goes down, but rather a new phenomena starts - the aurora. 

Aurora over cabin at Peterson's Point Lake Lodge by Robert Berdan ©

Each clear night we would check the skies for signs of the aurora and on two of the nights the aurora performed for us. Our last night was the best as we watched the aurora dance from 11:00 pm until about 2:30 am. The aurora occurs between 80 to 500 Km high up in our atmosphere called the Ionosphere. The light comes from excited oxygen and nitrogen atoms when bombarded by electrons and protons that make up the solar wind. The most common colour observed for the Aurora is green, but it can include purple and red when the energy levels are particularly high. Some folks have reported hearing sounds during the aurora, but we were not able to hear anything as we watched in eerie silence. The milky way was visible and the north star was almost directly above us. We saw numerous shooting stars that were captured by taking time lapse pictures of the sky. The aurora is one of Natures most spectacular shows and each display is different.

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Time Lapse movie of Aurora over our cabin on Point Lake Lodge - note the shooting stars.

If you plan to visit the tundra by way of Yellowknife, there are two main ways to get there, you can drive or fly - most folks will probably choose to fly as its faster. I usually drive the 1800 km route from Calgary so I can bring all my camera gear and photograph some of the spectacular scenery along the route including Alexandra and Louise Falls. 

Bison along highway sticks his tongue out - by Robert Berdan ©

One of the Bison along the road to Yellowknife gives me his approval to photograph him

Bison, black bears and moose are often seen along the road north of Fort Providence and the road is paved all the way to Yellowknife. The road is not without its long monotonous stretches, but I welcome the time to think and free myself of phone calls and text messages. There is a ferry crossing over the Alexander Mackenzie river that takes about 15 minutes and a bridge is being built though it looks as if it will take a couple of more years to complete. If you want to view and photograph the aurora you need not go any further than Yellowknife, but if you want to experience the tundra in all its glory and see the caribou migration you will need to visit the tundra in autumn and be sure to bring your camera.

Female and two Caribou bulls near Peterson's Point Lake Lodge ©

Female and two Caribou bulls near Peterson's Point Lake Lodge

Red Bearberry and dward Birch in Esker bay by Robert Berdan ą

Red Bearberry and dwarf Birch in Esker Bay

View Slide Show of 156 Images from 2010 Photography Workshop by Robert Berdan © (29 MB)


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Virtual Reality Movie of the Tundra - Drag your mouse left or right

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