Mark Jinks shares how to navigate northern landscapes and capture the aurora borealis
Mark Jinks’ first visit to the Salt Plains of Wood Buffalo National Park in Northeast Alberta stands out clearly in his memory.
“You go down a gravel road and it just opens up to this vast plain,” Jinks recalls. “You see all these pockets that look like little lakes, but they're grey in colour. And there are pine trees all around. It’s really wild. It’s a landscape that’s not of the earth.”
As a professional landscape photographer who’s amassed more than 160,000 followers on Instagram, he makes a living off these moments: The feeling of awe at the end of a long journey, when kilometres travelled lead him to a vast, untouched landscape and a breathtaking photo.
Jinks has come to know this corner of the earth like the back of his hand and says that, with a bit of guidance, there are pockets of untouched wilderness all around Northern Alberta that any aspiring photographer or eager tourist can find.
Those “little lakes” Jinks photographed are the Salt Plains – remnants of ancient inland seawater from 380 million years prior, visible from the northern tip of Wood Buffalo National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As a landscape photographer, Jinks is practiced at snapping pictures like this. But it also helps that there often aren’t other visitors around in this part of the province – few tourists to contend with for the prime vantage points. In fact, he’s done entire trips through Wood Buffalo where he’s only come across a handful of fellow visitors all day. “You might not see another car on the road for an hour or two,” Jinks says.
Wood Buffalo’s hidden-gem status makes it an excellent location for photography enthusiasts.
Fewer park guests also make for better conditions to capture wildlife on camera. “A lot of those wildlife moments are fleeting,” Jinks says. “The animal generally tends to take off into the forest at the first sign of human activity.”
For a photographer, the 45,000 square kilometres of national forest at Wood Buffalo are like a playground – there are endless corners to explore and opportunities to spot wildlife. But it’s impossible to cover the park in a single day. That’s where a tent comes in handy: Jinks recommends staying at the Pine Lake Campground, a resting spot nestled in trees with sites available on a first-come, first-served basis.
Jinks has spotted all types of animal life in his days at Wood Buffalo National Park, including bison, moose, black bears, lynx, foxes and beavers. The more time you put in, the more likely you are to spot wildlife. He keeps his camera on a strap around his neck while walking, ready to shoot at a moment’s notice.
"I always have my 500-millimetre telephoto lens ready to go,” Jinks says. “And I have my [camera] settings dialled in, just in case I need to take a quick shot.” Jinks urges visitors to respect the wildlife by not getting too close, and using a telephoto lens for capturing photos of the wildlife from a distance.
Another tip for capturing wildlife is to venture out in the early morning – something that’s only feasible while camping. “You get that golden-hour light right at sunrise,” Jinks says. “It lasts for anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes. It’s a nice soft light for photography.”
Early morning also coincides with a boost in animal activity. “There are a lot of wolves that are active during the night and are coming back to their den sites right around sunrise,” Jinks notes.
I always have my telephoto lens ready to go, along with a 500-millimetre zoom lens.
Jinks’ shutter doesn’t stop after sundown. Once the night sky emerges, he heads back out to capture images of the aurora borealis. Northern Alberta offers prime conditions for viewing the northern lights, but Jinks has had tremendous success finding them in Wood Buffalo in particular. With its untouched landscapes and low visitor volumes, aurora-chasing in this region won’t require fending off competition or sharing shutter space with other photographers. And Jinks has a few tips for beginners.
First, scope out potential shooting locations during the day. He recommends lakes and ponds, so that the horizon is visible – and the surface of the water reflects the light show for added detail. The northern lights typically appear strongest when facing – you guessed it – north. “I'll drop a pin on Google Maps,” Jinks says, once he spots a great location during the day. “That way, it's a lot easier to find in the dark.”
Jinks also advises aurora chasers to dress warmly for nighttime in the park. “The adrenaline rush of experiencing the aurora borealis is no match for the lack of sleep or colder evening temperatures,” he says. “Watching the aurora borealis is like a spiritual experience for me. The way they dance and move across the sky, it’s almost like a curtain blowing in the breeze of an open window.”
Though the experience of capturing aurora borealis is worthwhile, it isn’t an unearned endeavour for Jinks. The trek to Wood Buffalo National Park takes him 15 hours and two days of driving from his home base of Edmonton.
But a few unique towns and local gems help punctuate the journey there and back. Jinks recommends Peace River as a place to rest, spend a night and snap some images at Sagitawa Lookout, where the Peace, Smoky and Heart rivers meet.
History and culture buffs will want to stop in Fort Vermilion, where a heritage centre details the region’s pre-human history and the Dene, Beaver and Cree Nations that gather here through thousands of photographs, artifacts and two heritage houses. Jinks recommends Limeblu Café for a post-museum refuel, which serves light soups, sandwiches and salads along with scoops of ice cream.
The opportunities to discover off-the-beaten-path places that don't get a whole lot of tourist traffic are seemingly endless.
If you’re short on time but still seeking an escape not far from Edmonton, Jinks has a few locations to recommend. The Carson-Pegasus Provincial Park, just north of Whitecourt, is about two hours northwest of Alberta’s capital, and offers ample opportunity to spot wildlife and views of the still waters of McLeod Lake.
“I have seen grizzly and black bears here, moose, lynx, whitetail deer and heard wolves howling along the shore of McLeod Lake,” Jinks says. “It’s one of the most underrated places for landscape photography in Alberta. It gives you a sense of being in a northern boreal forest.”
And just south of Whitecourt, Jinks recommends the Hard Luck Canyon loop, where you can take a short hike to a picturesque waterfall.
East of Edmonton, Jinks recommends Elk Island National Park for spotting and photographing bison. The national park is a cornerstone of conservation for both wood and plains species of bison, and is home to more than 700 of them – so chances are you’ll spot one, even on a quick day trip. For a better chance at success, stop by Bison Loop Road, a scenic stretch of the park that’s become a gathering spot for plains bison since it’s home to a type of highly-nutritious grass called fescue.
“The park is also a great place to see the northern lights if you don’t want to get too far out of Edmonton,” Jinks says. He recommends visiting on a weeknight to reduce crowding. The park has 11 hiking trails, some up to 15 kilometres long, to satisfy those craving more physical activity.
International destinations may still be out of reach for travellers this summer. But as Canadians, we’re lucky to have a rich breadth of photo-worthy destinations in our backyards.
Jinks puts it best: “The opportunities to discover off-the-beaten-path places that don't get a whole lot of tourist traffic are seemingly endless.”
This content was produced by The Globe and Mail’s Globe Content Studio on behalf of Travel Alberta. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.
CREDITS: Concept and oversight by JESSICA ROBINSON; Editing by AUDREY CARLETON; Art direction, design and development by JEANINE BRITO; Original photography by NOELLA STEINHAUER and JESSE KOZIJ; Project management by CHRISTINA LIPPA; Bison audio by JENNIFER JERRETT/NPS