I’m standing on frozen Prosperous Lake, a cheeky name for a lake near Yellowknife, NT, a city known as Somba K’e in the Dogrib language: “where the money is.” It’s half-past midnight and a hair shy of -30 C. I’m no wilting pansy, but, sheesh, it’s brisk, even with me swaddled in goose down and man-sized moon boots which make me swish and squeak.
Joe Bailey is my cosmic guide tonight. A tree-trunk Chipewyan-Cree, 6’2” and 240 lbs., he’s wearing a ball hat and a jacket unzipped at the neck. He used to camp in winter as a child when he and his grandfather were checking traplines for fur-bearers like lynx and rabbits. Cold means something different to him.
It’s pitch dark and we are looking up, which is what winter visitors to Yellowknife do in remote locations after midnight. Fortified with caffeine and anticipation, we wait for proton- and electron-rich solar particles to get sucked into the earth’s magnetosphere.There, it excites oxygen and nitrogen atoms and blooms into swooping, luminous greens and pinks known by the woefully inadequate label “northern lights.” Aurora borealis sounds much better, after Aurora, goddess of dawn and goreas, god of the north wind.
Tonight’s moon, which becomes full almost exactly at perigee—the point at which the moon orbits closest to earth—is an occurrence that happens every 18 years or so, making the moon appear larger and brighter than normal. Great, I think, with uncharacteristic moon-imosity, this giant light bulb will ruin our dark sky. But it doesn’t. A gray smudge turns into a band of green light directly overheard. It widens and billows like celestial drapery and I’m suddenly giddy, like I just won at bingo.
“Welcome back, Aurora,” Bailey whispers.
I’ve seen the northern lights dozens of times, and it still feels like sorcery: Magical and strangely ominous. This is not uncommon. The aurora used to send Bailey scrambling for cover as a child, fearful that glowing fingers would descend and grab him. Northerners have aurora myths—and they’re not all benign. Explorers and early scientists puzzled over the phenomena for centuries, devising ludicrous contraptions and formulae to explain their existence. Even though they have been demystified by molecular physics, the aurora still render us stiff-necked in slack-jawed awe.
“By rights, we humans ought to live in constant wonderment, amazed by every star, cloud, tree, leaf, feather, fish and rock,” says renowned Canadian naturalist Candace Savage, in her book Aurora: The Mysterious Northern Lights. “But, except for a gifted few, we lack the stamina for so much mystery. It takes a shock—a sudden burst of beauty—to wake us to the wonder of our reality.”
Thousands of people visit Yellowknife every winter to awaken that wonder—an estimated 7,000 from Japan, alone. Yellowknife is among only a handful of accessible urban centres located within the coveted auroral oval—belts around the north and south magnetic poles where the aurora borealis appear most frequently. In the North, that zone usually hovers between 60 and 72 degrees latitude. It periodically migrates south when the earth’s turbulent, molten core causes geomagnetic fields to fluctuate (and on rare occasions, the aurora can be viewed as far south as Mexico). As one of the driest cities in Canada—meaning skies are usually clear—Yellowknife averages 240 days of aurora viewing annually.
Taking its name from the Yellowknives Dene First Nations group who made tools from local copper deposits, the city of 18,700 oscillates between a frontier past and a yoga-latté present. It was settled in the 1930s for the gold and other precious metals beneath it; grew into a government town in the 1960s and is now Canada’s diamond capital. In the 2006 census, 22 per cent of residents identified themselves as aboriginal, and about 10 per cent were visible minorities, while 63 per cent of the population is under 40.
But you don’t need statistics to prove the territorial capital is young, diverse and urban—just walk down 50th Avenue. You can buy sushi, falafel and fair-trade organic coffee. You can pray at a mosque, learn to meditate, take Zumba, pierce an eyebrow, see live music or head to Old Town and gorge on fresh fish and chips at Bullock’s.
If it’s nature you crave, explore the critter-filled surroundings. You can also travel by snowshoe, ski, snowmobile or dog team, which is what I did one afternoon at Aurora Village, an outdoor adventure outfit, a half-hour from town, that’s owned and operated by former NT Premier Don Morin.
After sitting in the sled for a run, dog handler Lester McKay and I switch places so I can be the “driver.” Willful and exuberant, the dogs barrel around turns as I struggle to stay upright.
I was fortunate to be visiting in March to see Anthony “Snowking” Foliot’s gargoyled snow castle on Great Slave Lake. Built annually by a team of robust artisans, the castle hosts family events during the day and dancers, DJs, musicians and other performers after-hours. Lit with floodlights and backlights for performers, the castle is covered with sheets of polyurethane plastic over arced wooden rafters; the structure is exquisite and functional. Stairs lead to landings and rooms furnished with ice-slab tables and wood-stump stools. The place fills quickly one evening for a rocking double bill with Small Narrow Valley (featuring Great Slave MLA Glen Abernethy on electric bass) and local favourites, Erebus & Terror. A crowd of mostly 20- and 30-somethings sipped spirits from travel mugs. The ornate interior lost some of its detail the previous weekend, Foliot said, after a funk reggae dance party. Apparently, body heat melted the art.
It’s the feared absence of body heat that discourages some from heading north in winter, but it beats a mosquito-rich summer. Yellowknife is no gaudy strumpet, flashing her bounty for free. She makes you wear big, frumpy coats and pilfers all moisture from your skin and hair. She bites your fingers with icy teeth when you’re trying to take a pretty picture and, even if you stay up all night, she might reveal nothing but stars. But if you’re patient, you may see something wonderful: an Arctic fox, a snow white ptarmigan or the starry heavens writhing with light.
I spend my final night in Yellowknife with eyes skyward again, this time at Aurora Village, which caters to an upscale, largely Japanese clientele with heated teepees, a dining hall and a gift shop. It’s a dreamy place to play constellation connect-the-dots and consider your fleeting cameo in the eternity of space.
Hours go by. The light show eludes us. Dozens of Japanese tourists in matching blue rental parkas sip hot drinks next to a forest of cameras and tripods and buy aurora videos at the gift shop. I chat with Ako, a doctor from Tokyo, who is enjoying her third trip to Yellowknife. “I just love being out in nature, but I never see aurora in Japan,” she says. She might not see them here, either. When solar activity is low, the northern lights are dim or absent. Sometimes, they appear around dawn when no one’s looking. Other times, there is just no sensible explanation why they don’t show up.
Around 1:30 a.m., we gather at our teepee and pack up for the bus ride back to the city. We’re hushed in disappointment when suddenly Takayuki Saka, our guide, beckons us outside. Streams of people spill onto the frozen lake as a spool of green unravels on the southern horizon. People gasp, flash cameras, embrace. The timing is so impeccable, I’m tempted to search for a projector. The jade spectre hovers for about 10 minutes, then fades away like a feverish hallucination.
Sometimes a glimpse of heaven is all you get, but it’s better than no glimpse at all.
The Best Places in Canada to See the Northern Lights
Canada is a prime destination for northern lights viewing, best experienced between October and March. Watch them dance in the night sky above Lake Superior near Thunder Bay, in Whitehorse, on Prince Edward Island, in Yellowknife or near Edmonton.