In Canada, A Photographer Finds Herself at the Mercy of Nature

The writer and photographer Louise Coghill explores a cold, remote stretch of the country, where hazards include polar bears and frozen eyelashes, and cloudy skies and falling snow a true test of endurance.

Article by Louise Coghill

Travel canada_1The aurora borealis lights up the night sky.

“No need to go to the other side of the world,” my neighbour’s text message says, followed by a few laughing emojis and a link to a news article about a spectacular aurora that just appeared outside my home town, Perth. My neighbour is 16,000 kilometres away because I’ve just flown to Manitoba, Canada, for a seven-night northern lights photography tour with Frontiers North Adventures. My Instagram feed is full of aurora images taken by photographers at the northern and southern edges of the world, and I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve come all this way and I still won’t witness one or, worse, photograph one.

As I touch down in Churchill, an isolated town on the Hudson Bay, about 1,000 kilometres north of Winnipeg, a break in the cloud reveals the frozen tundra below. Outside, it’s a balmy minus 17 degrees Celsius, much warmer than expected due to the heavy cloud cover. I waddle off the plane in my insulated gear and unzip my jacket so I don’t work up a sweat. Churchill is one of the best places on Earth to see the northern lights, but we need a cold, clear night and, unfortunately, the weather app on my phone tells me the clouds will hang around for my entire trip. 

“Don’t worry, the weather can change in a moment up here,” Ward Cameron, my tour guide, reassures me the following day before I climb the ladder onto the company’s towering Tundra Buggy (its 1.7-metre-high wheels allow for easier manoeuvring over the rough terrain ahead). I’m one of 12 aspiring aurora-watchers, an eclectic mix of photographers with DSLR cameras and empty-nesters armed with the latest camera phones. We’ve come to Churchill because the northern lights occur here more than 300 nights a year and, because of where it lies within the Auroral Oval, the lights fill the skies rather than just dancing along the horizon, as they did in Perth.

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A work by the Spanish artist Dulk, one of many murals around Churchill from the SeaWalls project.

We slowly make our way onto the ice, away from the lights of town, where hopefully I’ll get the shot I’ve come here for. As a professional photographer, the relationship I have with my camera
is complicated. The ritual of taking a
photo holds intrinsic value for me; looking through the viewfinder and seeing details in the landscape that my naked eye would miss gives me a deeper connection to a place. However, with the rise of social media and my own career, I’ve come to place an extrinsic value on my photography. Delivering exceptional photos has become intertwined with my enjoyment of a once-in-a-lifetime trip such as this, making it contingent on favourable weather conditions. It’s not enough to witness the aurora borealis; I feel I must capture it flawlessly. 

We pull up to Thanadelthur Lounge, our hide-out for the night. The “lounge” is actually a converted Tundra Buggy equipped with more comfortable seating, good heating and a spot to charge our camera batteries, plus a viewing platform for those who would rather not wander the tundra below. Mike Gere, Frontiers North’s resident photographer, explains the mythologies and science of the aurora borealis before giving us tips for capturing it. He tells us that the Inuit people refer to the lights as aksarnirq (“ball player”) because, according to one legend, they are the souls of the departed playing soccer with a walrus skull. For the local Cree nation, he says, they symbolise ancestral spirits communicating with those on Earth. Across cultures, countless stories abound, but the lights are typically viewed as a sacred spiritual phenomenon, connecting the living with deep time, ancient ancestors and divine entities. 

The scientific explanation is just as enchanting. As Gere explains, bursts of energised particles from the sun, including electrons that travel at speeds of up to 800 kilometres per second via a solar wind, reach the Earth’s magnetic field where they collide with oxygen and nitrogen, generating a flowing, mystical light about 100 to 1,000 kilometres above us. But even now, despite all my reading and continuous learning, the intricacies of this process remain as foreign to me as a walrus skull in the sky. To my mind, the aurora is a visual manifestation of the magnetic bond between our planet and the sun; like the ancient legends, I see it as a connection to something grander than my own existence. 

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An airport hangar has been converted into a polar bear holding facility, which safeguards bears that wander into town until they can be released.

We walk onto the tundra despite the falling snow and heavy cloud cover. As an Australian — the only Australian in a group of Americans — I have never experienced this kind of cold before. I’m still navigating the best glove and sock combination to ensure my extremities are comfortable and
I want to test my camera in the extreme cold. Jim Baldwin, tonight’s driver and polar bear spotter, stays close as we explore the area, a rifle slung over his back. But we finally concede to the weather and head back to town, tired and with empty memory cards.

The days pass by, the skies remain cloudy and my anxiety grows. But still I find much to love about Churchill. I take my camera for walks through the snowy streets, photographing the colourful murals of the SeaWalls project, which came about in 2017 after severe weather washed away parts of the railway. There are no roads into Churchill, so rail is a key part of the supply chain and, without it, the cost of living soared. To highlight the plight of the town, which had gone 18 months without rail and seemed to have been forgotten by the rest of the country, the Manitoban artist Kal Barteski arranged for 18 international muralists to create works throughout the streets. Since then, the tracks have been fixed but permafrost in the region continues to melt, an effect of our warming world, and the railway remains vulnerable. 

As part of the tour, we go dog sledding in the boreal forest and, donning snowshoes and ignoring my freezing eyelashes, I also navigate the snowy terrain on foot, spotting the small footprints of a teeming arctic ecosystem. One afternoon, I wind up at the Arctic Trading Company, where the store’s owner, Penny Rawlings, lets me wander into the workshop to watch local artisans sew moccasins using the unimaginably soft fur of arctic foxes. While fur is something I would usually struggle with, in Churchill I forget my moral concerns; fur has been an integral part of life for as long as people have been living here and it provides valuable income to indigenous communities. My memory cards fill up, but they’re still missing the thing I came here for.

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Dan’s Diner offers a multi-course culinary experience on the tundra.

On day four, I know it’s going to happen. It’s our final aurora tour and while the sky is clear, there are clouds brewing in the distance. My face is pressed to the window as the Tundra Buggy crawls onto the ice. Last night we saw a few wisps, but it was hardly the show this town is famous for.
My camera battery is full and I have extras charged because the cold drains the power. I slot in a new memory card and head into the snow, searching for the right composition before the lights appear.

These days, a photo of the aurora isn’t enough. Millions of shots have been taken before mine. In an oversaturated online world, there’s pressure to capture something in a way that will stop someone scrolling. I’m harried as I try to find a good foreground, sensing that the celestial show is about to start. It’s almost like I can feel those energised particles hurtling towards me. I keep looking up as I play with my camera settings and hop from foot to foot in an attempt to keep the blood circulating in my boots, which are a size too small. It’s late and I would be tired if not for the invigorating cold and anticipation. 

It starts slowly. No-one is sure if it’s really an aurora — it could just be cloud — but we use our light-sensitive camera sensors to check. A green tinge appears on my LCD screen. It’s beginning. We whoop excitedly but for me and the other avid photographers, the clock is ticking. We must capture it. Phone cameras are fogging up. The settings I’d decided on in my earlier research aren’t working properly because I hadn’t taken the full moon into account. The cold air seems to be creating an artefact on someone else’s sensor. But we rush to get our photos because there’s no way of knowing if the aurora will last for five minutes or 50. I can see a streak of green moving across the sky, but it’s faint compared with the view from my camera’s sensor, and I end up taking in the divine spectacle on my three-inch camera screen. I snap away, photo after photo, consumed by a hunger to preserve this moment —to immortalise it — until the light finally fades away.

Gere asks if I will be in one of his photos. I joke that the second I leave my camera the aurora will return, more vivid than I’d seen it, but I navigate the thick snow, climbing to the top of a hill for a good composition. And sure enough, the lights reappear, much brighter than before. I’m disappointed to be without my camera but until Gere releases me, I am free to view the show with my naked eye. And so I finally see it as it has been seen for thousands of years. I watch the light snake across the sky, weaving back and forth to an interstellar tune. Without the light of my camera screen, my eyes become more sensitive and the aurora appears more intense. While I feel slightly nervous, as if I owe my camera these photos, I appreciate this moment of being present.

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The Tundra Buggy crosses a frozen Churchill River.
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Jim Baldwin battles frosty conditions in the Tundra Buggy.

When I return to Perth, I make my way through the images. I am thankful for every photograph, appreciating the memories they hold of this spectacular trip. And yet, weeks later, I am reminded of the sacrifice they entail. At a concert, I watched as a front-row fan exploded with excitement at hearing a favourite song; instinctively, he pulled out his phone and proceeded to film the entire performance. It reminded me of my own recent fan-girl experience. Why is it that, in these pinnacle moments of our lives, we choose to step outside them? In our pursuit to preserve them for our future self, we inadvertently detach ourselves from the experience and diminish our ability to recall it later. 

As I edit my photos, I repeatedly relive the exhilarating moment of watching the sky come to life, a reminder of the smallness of my existence and the magnetic connection between the sun and the Earth. And yet the memory that remains clearest in my mind is the one I didn’t capture.

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our eleventh edition, Page 74 of T Australia with the headline: “Melting Pot”