Secret Spots to Watch the Northern Lights in British Columbia

By Ryan McKenzie

Where Can I see The Northern Lights in British Columbia?

Green and fuschia lights blaze across the night sky while millions of stars twinkle in the background. Time stands still while nature demonstrates just how feeble fireworks actually compare.

Photographers spend hours tweaking their camera settings through the coldest of nights in hopes of capturing that one perfect shot.

Aurora Borealis, more commonly called the Northern Lights, attracts travellers from around the world. However, it’s not unheard of for B.C. locals to have never seen them before.

So how does one increase the odds of admiring them? Step one is to locate yourself in the Northern Hemisphere (check!) and step two is to escape the light pollution of urban centres. The truly dedicated can download smartphone apps that notify users about impending solar storms. Don’t be surprised if your alarm goes off in the middle of the night…

To truly put a finger on where to stake out an evening show, we asked five B.C.-based photographers to share their experience capturing the Northern Lights. Not only have they divulged tips and shared these incredible images with us, they’ve also revealed their favourite spot to view the Northern Lights first hand.

Before you set off

Disclaimer

Hunting the Northern Lights is obviously an after-dark activity and often requires one to venture into remote spots. Some locations even require require a 4×4 to reach or tenting overnight in the outdoors.

While we encourage you to get out in the woods, if you’re heading off the grid proper planning is required, especially in winter. North Shore Rescue Society recently rescued stranded hikers on a sunset hike; if you’re chasing Aurora Borealis, you’ll be out well past sunset.

When heading off the grid, reliable communication is critical. The SPOT Gen3 can send emergency responders your GPS coordinates so that you can easily be located in an emergency. It can also let family and friends know you’re OK when you just want to check in. Better safe than sorry.

The Shores of Sakinaw Lake

Sunshine Coast

Jason Do Carmo

Photographer: Jason Do Carmo

My photo of the Northern Lights was taken on the shores of Sakinaw Lake. Sakinaw Lake is located about 40 kilometres north of Sechelt on the Sunshine Coast. Tucked among forests of towering Douglas fir and Sitka spruce, and surrounded by majestic Coast Mountains, it makes for a great place to capture the night sky.

I was invited to spend a weekend with family and friends at a family cabin. As it has become second nature to me, I packed up my camera for the trip; with vast beauty around the province of British Columbia there is always something to capture. Upon arrival we were caught in a huge thunderstorm and the weather did not look promising. Luckily, the second day we were there the weather cleared up and I was able to enjoy the breathtaking surroundings, and of course I managed to take some photographs. As night fell, millions of stars emerged through the dark, dense forest.

Around midnight, I glanced towards the lake. To my surprise a green glow at the north end of the lake was peaking over the horizon. Excitedly, I made my down the mossy path towards the lake; I set up my camera and captured this amazing moment.

Wells

Cariboo Regional District

Lynn Stevens of See What Eye See Photography

Photographer: Lynn Stevens of See What Eye See Photography

On this particular night, my phone rang and it was my sister-in-law Candice on the line. She said two words: “Northern Lights.” I responded back, “Ready in 5.”  This wasn’t the first time we had gone on one of these adventures; in fact, Candice and I have a history of going on Northern Lights adventures late at night.

We were heading towards Wells, B.C., a small town of about 250 people. Approximately 80 kilometres east of Quesnel, Wells is en route to the historic gold mining town of Barkerville.

As we travelled we were determined to find a spot that offered the best possible angle to shoot the night sky. We took a couple of roads that had potential, but this time I was looking for something a little different. I wanted to be able to capture not just the Northern Lights, but convey the sense of the peacefulness of the night overlooking the town. Hence the name of this image “As They Sleep, They Dance”.

We eventually found a local logging/mining road that would possibly serve as the perfect location. Turns out we had hit the jackpot.

Once we arrived we proceeded to set up our cameras and tripods. We took a few tester shots, searching for the right angle, the right camera settings, focusing-focusing-focusing and focusing some more. This part can be quite difficult when photographing at night, as there is not much to focus on. The trick I used in this particular situation is very time consuming but works well: I focus the lens to infinity then move the focus ring back just a hair each time until I capture the image. Throughout this process, each image takes up to 30 seconds to compose.

Luckily for us it was a mild winter night so the temperature was manageable, and we had hot chocolate just in case. Our adventure kicked off around 11:30 p.m. and once we were done it was pushing 2:30 a.m. After almost 3 hours of shooting we left our post and took with us the satisfaction of scouting the jackpot spot overlooking the town.

Not only did we find an amazing place to capture this natural phenomenon, we walked away with incredible photos to share with everyone who peacefully sleeping slept through it.

Porteau Cove

Sea-to-Sky

Image Via: Karina Mikertumova & Amir Hariri – Vanexus Photography

Photographer: Karina Mikertumova & Amir Hariri of Vanexus Photography

We follow a few different Aurora alert accounts on social media and we always get multiple warnings ahead of a potential Northern Lights display. It was nearly 1 a.m. when we got an email alert for a strong Aurora storm that would potentially reach 7 kp. We quickly raced up to Porteau Cove not knowing what to expect and hoping that we hadn’t miss the entire event.

We had not been able to get to a proper location with low light pollution in our previous attempts and were starting to give up hope of capturing the Northern Lights unless we travelled to northern B.C. We did our usual test shots and decided to film a time-lapse at the same time. We used a Nikon D750 with a Nikon 20mm f/1.8 lens and our shots were taken at f/2 and were exposed for 25 seconds.

Doing a time-lapse has a few advantages. We were able to capture as many photographs as possible without missing any shooting stars, and it allowed us to create star trails by stacking all the photos in post-processing. We started our time-lapse and for the first hour we could see a faint green colour showing in the photos. Suddenly, rays of purple light started to peak out from the corner of the sky and they continued to get bigger and brighter. We quickly started noticing the colours getting stronger and pulsing like waves through the sky. We could hear the audible gasps of the handful of other photographers who were also on the pier taking photos. This was the first time both of us were able to see the Northern Lights in person, let alone photograph them. We have had a chance to see them multiple times since that night, but this photograph and experience will always hold a special place for the two of us!

The Salmon Valley Church

Northern B.C.

Krist Foot

Photographer: Kris Foot

Meeep meeep meeeep, the alarm goes off and you think to yourself, is it really worth getting out of my warm, comfortable bed and traveling 100+ kilometres into the frigid air of the woods? For a dedicated night photographer the answer is a decisive yes. You quickly jump out of bed after receiving a notification from your Aurora Alert App: a solar storm is approaching. You dress in the warmest clothing possible to start your adventure and roll out the front door.

I’m getting my gear ready while the car warms up, checking for key items: camera, tripod, and fresh batteries. It also doesn’t hurt to bring some snacks and refreshments. (You always stay longer without the “I’m-hungry” excuse.) Exiting the house a wave of biting cold air washes over me. Thank goodness for my personalized face warmer, aka my beard. Backing out of driveway I’m already thinking about my favourite location to photograph the Northern Lights: Salmon Valley Church.

Heading north from Prince George on Hwy 97 you’ll find Salmon Valley Road. (Drive for about 20 minutes/40 kilometres and it’s on the right hand side after crossing the blue bridge.) Follow the road for approximately 5-10 minutes and you’ll find the church, obscured by the trees on the right hand side. If you reach the railroad tracks, you’ve gone a few hundred feet too far.

I’ve kept this location secret for over a year now and I’m very happy to first share with British Columbia Magazine. I’ve travelled there over 30 times to shoot the Milky Way, full moons, the Northern Lights, light paintings, and a scene I’ll never forge, the eerie fog.

Hudson’s Hope

Northern B.C.

Tim Viers

Photographer: Tim Viers

The banks of the Peace River near Hudson’s Hope B.C. offer a backdrop about as picturesque as they come. Often you’ll find them laden in a swirling mist and trees covered in frost, an effect created by a river that never freezes (even at -30ºC).

St. Patrick’s Day 2015 was my first real Aurora storm captured with a DSLR. I started up in the hills but soon found myself sitting on the banks of the Peace. I took hundreds of photos that night but this shot (above) caught my attention. I saw it from the corner of my eye and I barely turned my camera in time. As Rick Phillips says: “Make sure to look behind you.” By the end of the night, nearly 3 a.m., all I could do was lay still and watch in awe.




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Christine Ly

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