A few winters ago, I embarked on a journey to the north in the middle of February. Why, you might ask, would a person go to the edge of the Arctic in the middle of winter? The answer is simple. It is the absolute best — and darkest — time of year to stand in mouth-dropping awe under a gigantic sky swaying and twirling in the boldest jewel tones you will ever see.
This experience was made even more special as our group had the pleasure of experiencing the learning vacation, Winter Skies: Aurora and Astronomy, at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, a bona-fide remote research station. It was there that I met the friendliest American couple who volunteered their time so they could spend a few weeks under glowing skies.
Brian and Linda Friedmann, both retired, make the trek every year to Churchill from Massachusetts with a short stopover in Winnipeg. After talking to them for a few minutes, you get swept up by their sense of adventure. It’s refreshing to see a couple buck the tradition of flying south when the weather dips and instead high-tailing it north to gaze up at the heavens in wonder. Now, isn’t that a true Snow Bird?!
A couple of weeks ago, I caught up with Linda just as she was embarking on this year’s aurora adventure…
Welcome back, Linda and Brian! Can you tell us why, in your retirement years, you decide to fly north every February to volunteer at the CNSC?
I think we are both surprised that we have made a return trip every year for the aurora season. For me, it is the “lure of the north”. I put that in quotation marks because I had told Roger Woloshyn, the astronomer for the aurora weeks, that I had been unexpectedly drawn to the landscape of the tundra. He assured me this was the lure of the north that I was experiencing.
Churchill and the surrounding area is amazing in so many ways — polar bears in November, auroras in the night skies, beluga whales in the summertime, birds, wildflowers, geology, history, culture…. By staying in one place for an extended time, you become more than just an observer. You belong, even if it is in a small and temporary way. Not only do I get to stand under the most incredible auroras, but I get to share that experience with others who are seeing it for the first time. There is a special thrill in that.
Very few know how cool the CNSC is, can you tell us what it’s like to live in an actual northern research centre?
It has been an extraordinary experience for us. While our main responsibilities are to keeping the kitchen cleanup operating smoothly, the other very important and enjoyable aspect is talking with the many guests and helping to answer their questions. There are lectures many nights, and I attend as often as I can. I spent my life as an elementary school teacher, but never realized until recently just how much I love to learn more about the world.
What is it about the northern lights that keeps you coming back every year?
The lights indeed are pretty magical. I love the quiet of the dancing lights, I love the unexpected appearance of the lights, and as I said above, I do love sharing the experience with others who are experiencing it for the first time. For some groups, it is like church as everyone stares in quiet reverence. Other groups are boisterous and cheer when the lights appear. Both reactions warm my heart.
You have captured some stunning auroras, do you have a favourite shot?
I don’t think that I do have a favorite, but I have particularly enjoyed the photos Brian has taken with his fisheye lens. The fisheye makes it possible to see almost the whole sky, and suddenly you can really see and appreciate the beauty of the curtains of light.
In general, checking out your photos at the end of the night is like opening a treasure box. The camera is taking long exposures, and so more color is visible than we can see with the naked eye. You can also see the waves of light more clearly, and get a better sense of the big picture.
Can you share a tip or two on how to get the perfect shot?
Photographing the aurora is much more tricky than I thought it would be. The extreme cold and the dark make it quite the challenge. Most important is getting your camera focused (hopefully well in advance). With digital cameras, you get many chances to improve your photos because you get immediate feedback. Of course, there is also immediate access to photo editing, so we have quite an advantage over the days of film when it comes to aurora photography.
Besides being awed by auroras, what has been your most memorable moments in northern Manitoba? Winnipeg?
Some of my most memorable moments in Churchill have been on Hudson Bay. I never get enough opportunities to stand on the shore of the bay and gaze at the frozen frothy ocean. Partly, it’s just too cold to stay very long! I have to say that my other favorite activity is walking through the boreal forest. It is a winter wonderland out there for sure, and the trees give a break from the relentless winds. And then there is the sky — sun halos, sundogs, sun pillars, sunrises/sunsets with soft pink light on the horizon. I guess I have many memorable experiences.
What misconceptions do you think people have about northern Manitoba, and the north in general?”
For one thing, people think we are farther north than we actually are. People think I’m visiting the Arctic Circle when we’re only at 58 degrees north in Churchill. People are also very sure that they could never live in such a cold place.
How is Manitoba different from other places you’ve been to?
The most obvious answer is that it is the furthest north and the coldest. It has been very interesting to be immersed in the Canadian culture and mindset. Taking the train from Winnipeg to Churchill has also given us time to observe just how much there is to Manitoba! On a future trip to Manitoba, we hope to see more of the province by car.
Say it ain’t so, but you mentioned next year might be your last time visiting, what’s the one thing you will both cherish about your time here together?
Because of the length of our stays and the nature of our visits, we feel like we are part of the CNSC family. We consider many of the staff members to be our good friends — our northern family. When we leave, everyone comes to the train station to send us off. We keep in touch throughout the year. Even though we may not come for every aurora season, we will most certainly make more trips to Manitoba during other seasons. It’s a big place!
Lastly, is there anything you would want those who haven’t visited Manitoba to know?
Well, there is so much that I still don’t know. We have only visited during November, February, and March. I would love to come back during other seasons to see Manitoba. We have found the people to be friendly and welcoming. I know people joke about it, but we indeed have found Manitobans (Canadians in general) to be polite! The one thing about Manitoba that I think people need to know, is that you don’t need to be afraid of the cold in the winter! This might sound silly, but it seems to be a real fear to many folks I talk to. Yes, it is cold in Churchill, but people live there. You dress for it, and stay inside when you get cold.
UPDATE: Brian Friedmann sent us the following comments after this piece went live:
Echoing Linda’s sentiments I’d like to add a few. Firstly, I think of going up to CNSC for the aurora season as two aurora vacations in one – it’s fantastic to just watch them, especially when they are dancing, but it is so much fun to use your camera (one suitable for good shots, lots of info on the net) and tripod to get great pictures and timelapses: two different experiences, for sure.
Secondly, the people you meet in a diverse number of visiting groups, the staff, the cook and excellent food, the incredible museum in town, plus the wonderful young volunteers (who help keep us young) from around the world we have met and worked hard with over the years make the trip so memorable.
Sleeping in an igloo (available to some groups), Gypsy’s Bakery, a staff and volunteer picnic in -25C weather, learning so much about snow, and so much more. The vistas are vast and life in the Churchill area encompasses so much. And don’t be surprised to see us in 2017 at least for part of aurora time – and we hope to bring some friends with us (on the train, of course, which we love).
And soon we’ll have to come back to see Churchill without snow and cold, too.
You will find more of Brian and Linda’s gorgeous photos and fascinating stories on Linda’s blog, Dancing Lights in Churchill.