Westward Ho(ly Cow)! Episode 4: “Christmas Lights, Northern Style”

After a successful detour to South Dakota’s Badlands for bighorn sheep, we continued with our original itinerary north to Canora, Saskatchewan in search of the Aurora Borealis.

Saskatchewan: Land of Living Skies

The drive through the Dakotas is beautiful – reminiscent of the Palouse Region in the Pacific Northwest with miles of gentle, rolling hills.

South Dakota
North Dakota

And – an abundance of wildlife! On our drives both north and back south, we spied multiple deer, including a large buck that crossed the road directly in front of our car, an elk, a bighorn ram, two foxes, a herd of pronghorns, bald eagles, a golden eagle in aerial combat with a peregrine falcon, and dozens of ruffed grouse and pheasants running alongside the road.

white-tailed deer (buck)

The further north we drove, the more wintery it became but the roads were clear with no traffic.

Heart Butte Dam at Lake Tschida, North Dakota

We crossed the border at Northgate,

the US-Canadian border at Northgate

Entered Canada with no delay and were comfortably settled into our cozy Airbnb in Canora by late afternoon.

our home for the next month
“Mission Control”

Faustino’s home was perfect: warm and cozy with everything we needed for our stay. We could not have found a better, more convenient place for us and Oscar and Maddie! You can find his listing here (click on link to open a new tab): https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/48015023?adults=2&check_in=2023-08-01&check_out=2023-09-30&source_impression_id=p3_1672925397_HSQFHY5gOVgdcBS3

Welcome to Canada, O & M!

We took our time getting to know the charming little town. We went to the Ukrainian Catholic Church’s bake sale for cabbage rolls and to chat with the local ladies – who were amazed that we had driven all the way from Florida with our two pups!

Welcome to Canora sign, church bake sale, Ukrainian Catholic Church

We scouted out various dark sky locations for Northern Lights — should Lady Aurora decide to dance,

the perfect place to catch Lady Aurora dancing and a cool old truck to mark the spot!

And photographed the beautiful Christmas lights on Main Street.

downtown Main Street
King George Park

One morning we drove to the Whistle Stop, a small diner in Norquay. Over breakfast, we struck up a conversation with a local couple, Livia and Rick.

the Whistle Stop in Norquay and egg & cheese breakfast skillet

Livia insisted on hurrying home for some of her freshly baked skuffles – a type of Ukrainian cinnamon roll. “I’ll be right back,” she promised.

Livia with her home-made skuffles, Rick, & TG

Sure enough, ten minutes later she was back with a package of tiny, cinnamon-sugar deliciousness. OMG!

Livia’s skuffles

Another evening we enjoyed the annual Christmas Lights Festival in Sturgis, a small town to the north. Horse-drawn carriage rides …

carriage rides through the snow and twinkling lights

Hot cocoa …

free hot cocoa

A warm fire …

bonfire

And beautiful lights …

twinkling lights

It was ♪♪ beginning to look a lot like Christmas! ♪♪

selfie at the Sturgis Christmas Lights Festival

Clouds continued to blanket all of Canada, and thus far our Northern Lights quest was unsuccessful. Who could have predicted so many nights of overcast skies?!? 

100% overcast every night

But we are not ones to sit around and mope. We quickly shifted gears and focused our attention on the 90ft grain elevators that stand guard over every town. 

Invermay

Historically, Saskatchewan’s economy was based on agriculture, producing a significant percentage of Canada’s wheat and other grains.  Grain elevators were iconic symbols of Saskatchewan and synonymous with the province’s agricultural roots. By 1960, the number of these “prairie sentinels” had peaked at close to 3000.

Kelvington

But as farmers moved to steel silos, the wooden elevators became obsolete and expensive to maintain. They are now a dying breed; it is estimated that 10-20 are lost every year to demolition, fires, or natural disasters, and only about 300 remain standing. 

Gorlitz

We wanted to capture a little of this history before it is gone forever. TG plotted multiple routes and we spent days driving from town to town, photographing the vintage towers,

TG at Pelly

Along with cool old barns, beautiful churches,

St Peter & Paul Catholic Church, Kuroki

And interesting buildings.

“Welcome to the …” (Springside)

One day we drove east into Manitoba to photograph the Inglis National Historic Site, the last complete row of vintage grain elevators in Canada, and a rare survivor of the long rows that once dominated the prairie towns.

the Inglis row

The Inglis row was built between 1922 and 1941, Manitoba’s golden age of elevators. The buildings have been preserved in their original positions and restored to original condition.

Inglis

On another snowy day, TG plotted a route that ended up with too many roads that had not been plowed. I had more luck shooting wildlife photos than he did with the grain elevators!

red fox dashing through the snow

After back-tracking twice we finally arrived at the grain elevator in Waldron.

Waldron

As we snapped away a man asked what we were doing and then invited us into his home for a cup of coffee. Our hearts — and our toes — were warmed by an hour of delightful conversation in Don and Virginia’s kitchen!

TG, Virginia, and Don

You can view all of our “prairie sentinel” photos here:

preeceville elevator -2755
hover on photo to arrow through the set or click on any photo to open a new tab in Flickr

While we waited for conditions to improve, we found other interesting things to photograph. Light pillars happen on cold winter nights when there are ice crystals in the air. Lights that point straight down reflect off the snow on the ground, and the reflected light lights up the crystals.

Light pillars from the corner of Charter and George Street, Canora

Sun dogs, or parhelions, are formed by ice crystals suspended in clouds that drift in the air at lower levels. These ice crystals act as a prism, bending the light rays that pass through them.

a sun dog in Nut Mountain (around 9:30am)

And we were pleasantly surprised by all the wildlife we saw while out and about!

coyote in a field

Although I would not recommend traveling to Canada in the dead of winter just for the wildlife, we regularly spied moose, foxes, coyote, deer, and many species of birds while out on our photo safaris.

You can view all of our wildlife photos here:

Saskatchewan Wildlife
hover on photo to arrow through the set or click on any photo to open a new tab in Flickr

And we celebrated Christmas dinner at Lynn’s, a little Chinese restaurant in Sturgis … because nothing says “Christmas” like veggie chow mein! We actually made Lynn’s a regular stop for reasonable and good food!

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

But this trip was all about capturing the Northern Lights. Our friend Janet lived in Alaska for 28 years and she had warned us that there were many winters when they never saw any lights. So, we came to Canora with high – but realistic – hopes and agreed that even one good night would make the drive worth it.  The night of Dec 22 looked promising.  The skies were finally clear, the solar wind speeds had picked up, and the BZ numbers were dropping – all indications of increased aurora activity.

the night of Dec 22 was looking good!

Sure enough, our “Aurora Alert” app chimed around midnight.  We bundled up and headed out to our dark-sky spot. We could see the shimmering lights before we even got out of the car, and they grew more brilliant as we watched.

Dec 22, 2022

Despite the -15° temps and 20mph wind, it was everything we could have hoped for.  We both stood in awe, hearts caught in our throats as we watched Lady Aurora’s beautiful dance for the first time.

Dec 22, 2022

The next night she danced again, and we were there to capture her.

Dec 23, 2022
Dec 23, 2022

She appeared for a third night on Christmas Eve. The Christmas Lights (northern style) we had hoped to see!

December 24, 2022 (20-image pano)
“Stars don’t beg the world for attention: their beauty forces us to look up.” (Matshona Dhliwayo)

December 29 gave us a relatively weak night, but if it had been our only sighting, we would have been thrilled.

December 29, 2022

The Space Weather Prediction Center issued a G1 geomagnetic storm watch for the night of January 3, 2023. Without getting too technical this meant that, if the skies were clear, we were sure to see a show. Although we were heading back to North Dakota the following morning, we drove out to our dark sky spot at midnight.

January 4, 2023 (1:30am)

Lady Aurora’s dance was the best thus far, and two hours in the cold passed quickly.

30-second timelapse of 199 images shot over approximately one hour

She was still dancing when we returned home, and we captured a few more images above the house.

Aurora over Faustino’s Airbnb
33-image pano looking north from the corner of Charter and George Street

Capturing the Aurora is not easy. It is a ballet between the cold, the clouds, and the light. But nothing in the sky can compare to the beauty of what we saw on those five magical nights in Canora. As we watched the Lady dance, it felt at times like my very soul was being drawn out of my chest and into the stars.

“It is a ballet between the cold, the clouds, and the light” … And your camera settings!

You can view all of our “CanorAurora” photos here:

January 4, 2023
hover on photo to arrow through the set or click on any photo to open a new tab in Flickr

We traveled to Canada for the “Christmas Lights, Northern Style” but experienced so much more: historical grain elevators, wonderful wildlife, and beautiful, pristine landscapes. As we say au revoir, we cannot help but be enchanted by this Land of Living Skies.

Not every paradise is tropical

Coming soon: Westward Ho(ly Cow)! Episode 5: “Saw-Whet, Say What?!?”

TG & me with a little painted rock owl

Author: TG&jet

Nature photographers - wildlife, landscapes, underwater; travelers; bloggers

5 thoughts on “Westward Ho(ly Cow)! Episode 4: “Christmas Lights, Northern Style””

  1. I LOVE your intrepid spirit and journeys! Was very taken by your photos especially of the prairie sentinels, not to mention the fox in the snow and all the rest too! You guys are amazing!

    Liked by 1 person

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