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Yukon Aurora Workshops

Learning to shoot the Aurora - Filling your soul

Story by Neil Zeller July 15th, 2015

Bucket list checkmark

Once you have seen the Aurora Borealis defeat the fulll moon, then you’ve REALLY seen them. On the final night of my first Yukon Aurora workshop in Feb, 2015, the aurora came out so bright, fast and powerful that we all ended up in a primal state of awer and wonder. To the point of whooping, hollering and running around with our cameras. ‘Look over here!’, yelled one participant. ‘Oh my god’, said another in hushed tones while sitting in the snow not knowing what part of the sky to focus on.

My first workshop was, by all accounts, a rousing success and achievement for everyone. Read on, my friends, to hear about the last trip, and consider coming on the next ones. Feb 26-19, 2016 is sold out, but Nov 18-21 2016 and Feb 24-27 2017 are ready for your registration! 

Ask me any questions at all about this trip, I am happy to help. Now, please read on to hear about last February’s amazing experience.

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From Calgary and Edmonton to Whitehorse.

So. on a hunch, I make sure to book everyone on the right side of the plane. Leaving on a 7pm flight from Calgary, and a 8pm from Edmonton, if there happens to be an Aurora show, we sure as heck aren’t going to miss the opportunity to photograph them from the plane. I have a little class in the airport before we board so everyone has the tools to capture the lights. Turns out it was a good call. We had an impressive show for the last hour of the flight.

As for the flight itself; Have you ever flown on Air North? In my fairly extensive flying history, they are the best airline around. The friendly service, amaizng flight staff, and the food! How often do you hear about how great airline food is? On the way up we were treated to an incredible plate of charcuterie. It was really piled up on the plate! The trip home had a choice of hot sandwiches and homemade (still warm) cookies!

Arriving in Whitehorse to partly cloudy skies that first night was a bit of a letdown, but our accommodations made the clouds a lot more palatable. the cabins at Sundog Retreat are first class. Modern, warm and fully stocked with all the comforts of home (including a premade dish of breakfast burritos for everyone for the next morning so we filled our belly’s before heading into town for groceries. The other thing that happened, is our gracious host gave us the keys to the resorts suburban to more easily zip out to the aurora viewing cabins to test the skies. I am pretty sure he doesn’t want that advertised, but it is a testament to how incredible they were for our entire trip. We spent some time around the fire that first night, out at the viewing cabins, enjoying roasted marshmallows, cookies, tea and hot chocolate, until the clouds and sleepiness chased us home to our cabins.

Calgary Airport
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Whitehorse Tour

We started our morning very relaxed, taking in our surroundings up at the Resort. the Resort is a short 25 minute drive North of Whitehorse. We were picked up by our hosts and taken into town for a wonderful city tour. We learned a greta amount about the city, the area and the entire territory. Did you know that Whitehorse has 27,000 residents, and the rest of the Yukon territory only has another 4000 people total?! Talk about secluded and peaceful! Whitehorse has the amenities and features of a much larger city, with folks who are gracious, kind and helpful!

After our tour, we were dropped off for our rental suburban and took to the streets and highways to explore the area on our own. Our meals were on our own and to our own devices, and by consensus we chose to eat out for most of the trip as opposed to cooking our own meals in our cabins. On our way back to Sundog, we stopped and bought a large takeout meal of chicken and all the fixens along with other provisions for our stay. We headed back to the retreat for supper and hot tubs before the start of our Aurora viewing night.

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Diffused Aurora, Night two

We were all rested up and ready for the Aurora. We arrived to the viewing cabins around 8pm and got the fire going, made some toasty drinks and set up our cameras. I had one of my cameras happily shooting away at the sky when I first noticed the faint green glow at around 8:45. For the next four hours the Aurora punched their way through the high hazy skies for a show that, up until now, had been the best I had experienced. The nearly full moon wasn’t even a match for the lights on this night. I spent much of my time with the class participants, working on settings, focus and composition, to help them make the most of this incredibly special night. It was high fives and smiles from ear to ear all night long. It was well past 1am when we packed it in for the night, as the lights dimmed to a subdued, diffused cast in the sky.

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Day of learning - day of fun

It was a slow start to the next morning, followed by individual photo editing classes, hot-tubbing and naps. We hadn’t planned on a visit to the Yukon Wildlife Preserve until we were convinced we needed to go by the folks at Sundog. They arranged a private tour for us. What a great decision. From the bird rehabilitation centre to the vast natural enclosures for the animals, it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life and I was so glad we decided to go. After our extensive tour we drove a short distance down the road to the rustic and awesome Takhini Hot Springs for a relaxing warm up. From that point we heading into town for some supper and then back to the Retreat to get ready for viewing. I had been watching the Aurora forecasts all day and was so unbelievably excited for the night. I couldn’t wait until dark.
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Primal scenes - Tribal screams

We ran, we screamed, we danced, we stared, we paused, we hugged. We wondered out loud. We check with each other, just to make sure we were seeing all of this, that we weren’t missing a moment. We arrived at 8pm to the viewing cabins, and it was only moments later that the show started. And for the next nine hours the lights never went out. I still can’t describe the night better than I can in photography terms.

It was like this: I was shooting the Northern Lights with my autofocus turned on, at ISO 100 to 800, F-8 and between 0.5 and 3 seconds of shutter speed. If you have ever photographed the night skies, you know these are ridiculously fast settings. It was all I could do to make images as the scenes were all over the sky and constantly changing.

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The timelapse video

I made this video from parts of those magical nine hours of shooting the Aurora.

I will never forget this experience

Thanks to Sundog Retreat, Air North, Whitehorse Yukon, and especially the participants who came on this first workshop. This was truly a memory for a lifetime. It filled my heart and soul, and I draw strength from the trip when I am feeling down. It truly was a transformative time.

This link is a radio interview that CBC Whitehorse invited us in for while we were there. Workshop participant Penny joined me.

Here a couple comments from other participants:

“Hi Neil, The aurora at Whitehorse Yukon was amazing. Wing and I enjoyed it very much. It touched our heart and soul and it worth a million just to be there seeing and feeling it. Thank you so much for being such an excellent tour guide. You are the best. Thank you again. Wennie and Wing “

“This trip was amazing. 100% agreed Air North is the best airline! The accommodations are great, the first breakfast (mmmm mmmm), a viewing cabin full of maple cookies (mmmm), on and of course the teacher was super great. I‘m so glad we did this trip - Jackie”

Click here for the November trip
Click here for the February Trip

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Footnote: Thank you to Martin at for the connections to halp make these trips happen.
Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada