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Aurora over the Cloudy Range

Aurora over the Cloudy Range, Tombstone Territorial Park, Yukon Territory, Canada

Aurora over the Cloudy Range, Tombstone Territorial Park, Yukon Territory, Canada

In March 2015, my friend Gordon Maclean and I flew from Denver to Dawson City, Yukon Territory, then charted a helicopter and flew to Talus Lake, at 64° north, in Tombstone Territorial Park. We had come to photograph the aurora. I had chosen Tombstone Territorial Park because of its location deep in the northern auroral zone. Auroras are most commonly seen within the northern and southern auroral zones, which are doughnut-shaped regions of the Earth roughly centered on the magnetic poles. According to Neil Davis, a geophysicist who spent much of his career studying the aurora, the odds of seeing the aurora on a clear, dark night if you are standing in the center of an auroral zone are 100 percent. Tombstone Territorial Park is only 65 miles south of a line through the center of the northern auroral zone, so the odds of seeing the northern lights on a clear, dark night exceed 90 percent.

For six nights in a row we were blessed with mostly clear skies. Every day we explored the valley of the Tombstone River, looking for good vantage points. Every night we shot the aurora until the wee hours of the morning. On our first night the temperature plunged to -27° F, but the succeeding nights were comparatively mild, with low temperatures in the single digits. On our fifth day we snowshoed about 750 vertical feet above our camp to a bench overlooking the valley below. We found a perfect place to set up our cameras atop a huge, flat-topped boulder some 20 feet across. We christened it “Ptarmigan Rock” because a lone ptarmigan was perched serenely at its foot when we arrived. The Tombstone Range, which forms the southern wall of the valley of the Tombstone River, looks like a miniature version of Patagonia, but the peaks forming the northern wall, called the Cloudy Range, are far more gentle. From Ptarmigan Rock we had a perfect view looking northeast over the headwaters of the Tombstone River toward the inviting peaks of the Cloudy Range. The graceful aurora captured here was so bright it illuminated the snowy peaks with a green glow as it pulsed and ebbed over the arctic landscape.

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