Photographing in the Far North during the summer is a great advantage because of the extended amount of time you get to spend with that long shadow-casting, low-hanging, sweet, warm light at sunrise and sunset. Mid-August to early September is my favorite time. Autumn colors start early there, mosquitoes and black flies will be on a serious decline, weather is generally more moderate, and the sun can hang near that horizon for an hour or more before finally setting. But that’s not all—the sun can then underlight any lingering clouds and turn the sky crimson for another 15 to 20 minutes of magic. Wait, there’s more! Because the nights start to get darker this time of year, chances for seeing and photographing the Northern Lights greatly increase. Sweet! If you plan a trip here, the most important thing to bring is patience. Roads are few, communities are tiny and distantly scattered, and weather is king. It dictates the schedule. Give your trip extra days to deal with delays, regardless of season. July, August and the first week of September are traditionally the best good-weather times, but severe storms can come up rapidly at any time of year.
Nahanni National Park, Northwest Territories You can’t drive to Nahanni, but if you choose to make a road trip, it’s 250 miles from Enterprise to Fort Simpson. From there, you can charter a floatplane into Nahanni. A floatplane can also be chartered from Fort Liard or Yellowknife, NWT, Fort Nelson or Muncho Lake in British Columbia, or Watson Lake in the Yukon.
One reason Nahanni is a national park is the scenic mountains and canyons that frame the Nahanni River system. The best reason to visit is to canoe and photograph the South Nahanni River. It’s a big, powerful river, but with an experienced guide, almost anyone can canoe or raft it. Most chartered trips are about one to two weeks long. The best time to go is mid-August to the beginning of September, when water levels aren’t as high and the weather is generally better (less rain). The many photographic points of interest along the river include Pulpit Rock, the Sand Blowouts, the Rabbitkettle tufa mounds and four canyons along the river’s length. With names like Funeral Range, Headless Range, Deadmen Valley and Broken Skull River, your photo captions can sound real cool, too! Northwest Territories: www.spectacularnwt.com.
You can reach Churchill by plane, train or boat, but not by car. Fly in from Winnipeg, Manitoba, or drive north from Winnipeg (468 miles) to Thompson and take the 12-hour train ride from there. This open landscape is primarily tundra, dwarf shrubs and glacially polished Canadian Shield region that’s dotted with colorful lichens. For landscape photography, the beginning of July is a good time to visit. The wildflowers will be at their peak and there should still be small icebergs in the harbor, which are great to photograph when stranded at low tide. July and August are prime time for Beluga whales. Churchill is also the self-proclaimed polar bear capital of the world. From October to November, thousands of visitors arrive to see and photograph the bears that congregate there waiting for Hudson Bay to freeze over. There are organized tours to Cape Churchill using specially designed all-terrain buggies. Book early for this popular seasonal event. The Northern Lights are also likely to appear at this time of year. Shoot with an extreme wide-angle lens at the largest sharp aperture you can get and bump up the ISO. Travel Manitoba (Churchill): www.travelmanitoba.com.
Wood Buffalo National Park, Alberta/NWT Border
A 200-mile drive east from Enterprise and Twin Falls Gorge takes you to Fort Smith on the northern edge of this park. Wood Buffalo is Canada’s largest park at 17,300 square miles (a bit larger than Switzerland). A must-see spot here is the Salt Plains—remnants of the ocean that once covered the area.
The Grosbeak Lake salt flats are my favorite landscape location in the park. They’re 15 miles south of Fort Smith off the Pine Lake Road and are part of the Salt River Loop Trail. It’s a short two-mile hike from the trailhead and opens up onto a large dried and cracked salt flat dotted with hundreds of small "erratics" boulders deposited by an ancient glacier.
The best time to go is in August to the end of September, when there’s a good chance for fall colors, less biting insects and great weather.
Clyde River, Baffin Island, Nunavut
This is the most northerly location covered here and the most difficult to reach. But depending on what you’re looking for, that could be part of its appeal. It would be best to first fly to Ottawa, then to Iqaluit (three hours), then to the tiny community of Clyde River (two hours).
The photographic highlights of this region are the dramatic inlets, fjords and sheer cliffs that tower all along the eastern coast of Baffin Island. The most accessible is Clyde Inlet. The scenic star of this region is Sam Ford Fjord (the name alone should make you want to go there). Its entrance is a full day’s boat ride from Clyde River—only doable in good weather, as you have to cross open ocean to get there. The convergence of mountains and the immensity of the sheer rock faces in the middle of this fjord can rival any CG-3D virtual landscape out there!
The best time to visit is in July and August. Weather is better in July, but you won’t get much low light in the 24-hour daylight. Another option is to go in mid-spring by dog team or snowmobile. I’d recommend the dog team because it’s more photogenic. This trip has been popular with couples who then get engaged under the Northern Lights—very romantic, but it’ll cost you. The best time to go dogsledding, photographically, is April, when there are better odds for clear skies.
Athabasca Sand Dunes Wilderness Provincial Park, Northern Saskatchewan
This spot is on the south shore of Lake Athabasca in the remote northwestern corner of Saskatchewan. It can’t be reached by vehicle, but that’s probably a good thing, because one of the photographic highlights of this area is seeing the sand-chocked William River from the air. The chaotic flow of this river mixed with one massive, slightly submerged sandbar creates a small delta of magical, Mandelbrot-looking, fractal patterns.
This one dune field (remnants of an ancient glacial lake bed) is more than 37 square miles in size and is right in the middle of boreal forest country. Wind is an almost constant here, and you know how unpleasant the combination of wind, sand and camera gear can be.
The only access is either by floatplane (Fort Smith, NWT, or Saskatoon and Stony Rapids, Saskatchewan) or by canoe through an adventure charter company. There are no facilities in this remote park.
|Power Power Power
Electricity is the Achilles heel to almost all of the technology we use today. I’m good for one week with a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II, two fully charged spare batteries, an Epson P-4000 (80 GB) storage viewer and one extra fully charged battery for it. I also take a Canon 580EX flash, a headlamp and an iPod with a Belkin backup battery pack. I use the iPod to listen to music and audio books while burning downtime or waiting out bad weather.
Cape Dorset, Baffin Island, Nunavut
This location is on the southwestern tip of Baffin Island and is an 80-minute flight from Iqaluit. The town of Cape Dorset is considered the Inuit art capital of Canada and is famous for carvings and Inuit prints.
You’re well above tree line here; the landscape is slightly mountainous and wide open. There are several ancient Inuit and Thule sites within a day’s boat ride of Cape Dorset. To the west is Inukshuk Point, a spectacular spot with one of the largest concentrations of inukshuit (plural of inukshuk, a stone structure, often in the shape of a human) in the Arctic. A short distance to the east of Cape Dorset is Andrew Gordon Bay with areas of beautifully marbled, glacially polished, continental shield. There are also two unique historical sites that are photogenic. One site has dozens of tiny inukshuit, called ulagutit, which were used to herd wild caribou toward waiting hunters. The other is the site of an old burial ground with a hauntingly beautiful tupqujaq—a large inukshuk-like structure in the shape of a doorway.
Almost all travel here is done by powerboat, and the best time to travel is in July and August.
The Dempster Highway, Yukon Territory
This gravel highway runs 460 miles from just before Dawson City, Yukon, to the Mackenzie Delta in the Northwest Territories. It’s the only highway in Canada to cross the Arctic Circle (at mile 252). Early autumn is the prime time photographically (mid-August to early September). Willow, bearberry and blueberry bushes pour autumn colors like spilled cans of paint down the almost treeless mountain slopes and open tundra. Grizzly bears are also attracted to the berry bushes this time of year—that’s a photo tip and a warning. My favorite location is Tombstone Valley, between miles 44 and 47, where the valley frames Tombstone Mountain to the west.
There are only two spots for gas and repairs, the Eagle Plains Hotel, mile 229, and Fort McPherson, mile 342. Take a good spare tire (or two) and an extra gas can. And be prepared when you travel this road—it could be many, many long hours before you see another vehicle or the long, lonely face of the weary grader operator.
Tourism Yukon: http://travelyukon.com/en
Alexandra Falls, NWT
This is the most accessible of the locations covered here—a major highway cruises by these falls less than a half mile away. Alexandra Falls are part of the Twin Falls Gorge Territorial Park, which is 665 miles north of Edmonton, Alberta. If you want to see the north of Canada and can’t afford the more remote locations and enjoy driving, this trip is for you. You can tie it into a much grander trip that gains you access to Wood Buffalo National Park or Athabasca Sand Dunes to the east, Nahanni National Park to the west or as far north as the Dempster Highway in the Yukon.
The park’s highlight is the peat-colored Hay River, which plunges dramatically over Alexandra Falls, then Louise Falls farther downstream. This accessible spot includes camping, picnicking, a wheelchair outlook and the nearby little settlement of Enterprise, where you can get gas and diesel.
Photographically, the best time to travel is from late August to late September—great fall color, less biting insects and the Hay River is lower, allowing closer access to the falls.
Northwest Territories: www.spectacularnwt.com.