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.
The drive through the Dakotas is beautiful – reminiscent of the Palouse Region in the Pacific Northwest with miles of gentle, rolling hills.
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.
The further north we drove, the more wintery it became but the roads were clear with no traffic.
We crossed the border at Northgate,
Entered Canada with no delay and were comfortably settled into our cozy Airbnb in Canora by late afternoon.
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
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!
We scouted out various dark sky locations for Northern Lights — should Lady Aurora decide to dance,
And photographed the beautiful Christmas lights on Main Street.
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.
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.
Sure enough, ten minutes later she was back with a package of tiny, cinnamon-sugar deliciousness. OMG!
Another evening we enjoyed the annual Christmas Lights Festival in Sturgis, a small town to the north. Horse-drawn carriage rides …
Hot cocoa …
A warm fire …
And beautiful lights …
It was ♪♪ beginning to look a lot like Christmas! ♪♪
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?!?
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.
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.
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.
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,
Along with cool old barns, beautiful churches,
And interesting buildings.
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 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.
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!
After back-tracking twice we finally arrived at the grain elevator in 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!
You can view all of our “prairie sentinel” photos here:
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.
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.
And we were pleasantly surprised by all the wildlife we saw while out and about!
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:
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!
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.
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.
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.
The next night she danced again, and we were there to capture her.
She appeared for a third night on Christmas Eve. The Christmas Lights (northern style) we had hoped to see!
December 29 gave us a relatively weak night, but if it had been our only sighting, we would have been thrilled.
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.
Lady Aurora’s dance was the best thus far, and two hours in the cold passed quickly.
She was still dancing when we returned home, and we captured a few more images above the house.
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.
You can view all of our “CanorAurora” photos here:
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.
Coming soon: Westward Ho(ly Cow)! Episode 5: “Saw-Whet, Say What?!?”