Chasing the Northern Lights

Sallie Tisdale 16 December 2021

Visiting Canada’s Northwest Territories in search of a primeval encounter with nature

By the time I finish dressing and walk into the lobby of the Explorer Hotel in Yellowknife, it’s 9pm. There is a crowd of Japanese tourists wearing identical red parkas and black polar boots the size of toasters.

Outside, in the black Canadian winter night, four yellow school buses pull up. The Japanese group fills the first three, and the rest of us, a mixed dozen from several countries, climb into the last. The bus bumps onto the dark highway.

It is February 2020, and it’s almost as cold inside as out; the windows are already icing over from our breath. Our guide is Céline, a petite Frenchwoman. “The prediction is clouds tonight,” she tells us. “But 
a prediction is just a prediction. So we will be hopeful.”

After about 20 minutes, the bus turns down a narrow road toward Aurora Village, a collection of teepees and small buildings beside a frozen lake. The few lights are dim and downcast to protect our night vision. We follow Céline’s blinking red headlamp, the only way we can tell her apart from the crowd.

More than a hundred people are plodding from the parking lot along hard snowy trails between dark trees. As we emerge from the woods, Céline points out the path to the heated, 360-degree-rotating recliners (extra fee required). We find our teepee at the edge of a field—a place to warm up and rest, but not to stay. We aren’t here to be indoors.

Yellowknife sits on the shore of Great Slave Lake, one of the world's largest, deepest lakes

The clouds lift. The teepees are in a small bowl, and trails lead through the trees to low bluffs with longer views. I join a crowd of silhouettes. I shift from foot to foot. All winter, Portland, Oregon, where I live, had been unseasonably warm. I longed for cold, the kind that would make me sit up and pay attention. I went north for the aurora, but also this: the dark, the sky, the ice.

“Is that it?” someone asks, pointing at a small dome of brightness on the horizon. I think it is Yellowknife. The city has dark-sky compliant streetlights, but the town is plainly visible from a distance.
“Is that it?” somebody else asks, pointing at a pale flash on the opposite horizon. But it is just headlights from the highway. We don’t really know what we are seeking, what we will see. We may see nothing at all.

The aurora follows its own subtle schedule, and aurora tourism runs on hope, on expectations manipulated by Instagram and travel websites. Thousands of edited, enhanced photos of emerald-green drapery and quivering ruby-red arcs make false promises. I’ve tried to keep my own expectations tightly bound.

We watch, and over about 20 minutes, a cloud grows into a fine white arc stretching across the lower half of the sky, brightening until it is a river of pearl. Céline and I lie back on a pile of packed snow, watching the glowing track cross the sky like a painter’s brush. It changes without changing; a fraction dissolves and reappears, slides away, returns. The river cleaves into two puddles of ghostly milk. I can’t see it changing, yet it changes. Soon the two wide swathes thicken and then burst, flooding the banks until the entire sky is filled with vibrating light.

A hundred voices shout from the darkness all around. Fluttering sheets of pale light, pinkish folds shifting as if from a breath, shimmering rays, and billowing golden clouds, liquid and shining in all directions. Now, I know.

"Fluttering sheets of pale light, pinkish folds shifting as if from a breath, shimmering rays, and billowing golden clouds, liquid and shining in all directions"

The summer before, a friend invited me to come along on a trip organised by the Cloud Appreciation Society (CAS), of which I was also a member, to view the aurora borealis in Yellowknife. I don’t generally do that kind of thing: travel in packs, with guides. I’m too cheap for curated trips, too introverted for groups, and I prefer to stay close to the ordinary daily life of a destination.

But viewing the aurora is a peculiar undertaking, something best done in very cold places at night, far from cities, in an environment that doesn’t reward the solo traveller. I decided that I would need to go in a group for this, and if so, this was the group for me.

The capital of the Northwest Territories sits on the shore of Great Slave Lake, one of the world’s deepest and largest lakes. The Dene people have lived along its shores for thousands of years; Yellowknife is named for Indigenous copper knives.

It began as a fur-trading outpost, then ignited with a gold rush in the 1930s, and is now a diamond-mining centre with a population of roughly 20,000. Until 1960, the whole region was inaccessible by road, and until about ten years ago, Yellowknife was not a major tourist destination. Its winter visitors were mainly miners, trappers, and a few travellers seeking a hideaway. By 2019 there were almost six times as many visitors as residents. 

A large proportion of visitor spending here is related to the aurora borealis. Viewing it is often promoted as a kind of primeval encounter with nature. Just as people yearn to see megafauna such as lions and elephants, we seem to have a collective desire for the cosmic view, for those things large enough to push us down into our place, close to the skin of the planet.

After two nights at the Explorer Hotel, I joined the CAS group for a trip to Blachford Lake Lodge, about 60 miles away. Small bush planes are a common way to get around in this vast territory of more than 100 square miles of fresh water. There were about a dozen people from the United States, England, and Australia going up in the Air Tindi turboprop. We crammed in among luggage and supplies, and the unpressurised craft slid over a quilt of spindly trees, frozen lakes, and satiny mounds of snow.

Blachford Lake Lodge is best reached by bush plane

This is part of the immense Canadian Shield, where the continental crust was swept clean by ice, and the oldest rock in the world was found. The boreal forest of black spruce scribbled across the white in all directions, a fraction of a vast biome stretching around the globe. Except for a few snowmobile tracks just outside Yellowknife, there were no signs of humanity at all.

We landed on the lake; a smooth, fast slide between small islands. The lodge, at the top of a hill, was to be our living room for several days. Our cabins were down the long slope, along interlacing trails, their paths compressed by snowmobiles. The surrounding snow was deep and fine; I learned to beware of the trail’s edge when I stepped off it and into powder up to my waist. 

Three of us from Oregon shared the cabin farthest from the lodge, near the shore. The low trees leaned every which way in the permafrost, small and dark and ancient, and the lake stretched out of sight around layered hills under virgin blue sky. 

Our time at Blachford Lake was marked by shared meals and conviviality. We gathered every evening in the lodge. One night, Elizabeth MacDonald, a visiting space scientist from NASA, gave a lecture on the aurora’s physics. She told us how glad she was to be here; she spends most of her time on data. “I study the aurora,” she said, “but I don’t get to see it that often.” 

"Except for a few snowmobile tracks just outside Yellowknife, there were no signs of humanity at all"

We see the aurora because electrons charged by the solar wind collide with atoms in the upper atmosphere, mostly atomic oxygen. A fountain of resulting photons spills across hundreds of miles in seconds. Atomic oxygen releases red light when high in the atmosphere and can emit greenish-white light at lower altitudes. Sometimes deep blues and purples appear from ionised nitrogen. A furious discharge cascades down through the atmosphere into increasingly dense air until it is exhausted.

The power of the aurora can be as high as 100,000 megawatts. For aeons, people have said the aurora makes noise, that it swishes, whistles, cracks. One polar explorer described it as “the sound of field-ice, then it was like the sound of a water-mill, and, at last, like the whirring of a cannon-shot heard from a short distance.” It has been long thought, however, that whatever audible sound reaches a human ear at ground level could not be an effect of activity at such a high altitude.

But in 2012, Finnish scientists captured faint hissing, popping, and clapping during an aurora, and proved the sounds were coming from the sky.

The Aurora Village viewing area and its collection of teepees

A geophysicist in Alaska reacted to the news by saying that auroral sound was “scientifically unreasonable,” but admitted that he has heard it, too. To Indigenous communities, the northern lights are familiar but worthy of respect. Many Inuit people in the Arctic share a myth of the lights, which they call aqsarniit. They are said to be the spirits of the dead playing football, usually with a walrus skull. The aqsarniit were traditionally considered dangerous because they move so quickly and heedlessly in their pursuit.

It’s been said that the Sámi people, of Fennoscandia, believed that the aurora, called guovsahasat, could swoop down and burn a person. Women would cover their heads to keep the aurora out of their hair, people kept silent to avoid irritating it, and bells were taken off reindeer when the aurora was bright. Early European and Asian observers thought the aurora was a heavenly battle, a line of enormous candles, or a fissure in the sky. Edmond Halley—the early 18th-century astronomer of Halley’s Comet fame—theorised that it was the result of water vapour somehow igniting the atmosphere after being released from fissures on Earth’s surface.

The aurora is only a few hundred metres thick, since it follows the lines of our planet’s magnetic field. But it is also immense, hundreds of kilometres wide and high, and it occurs between 100 and 1,000 kilometres above the earth, in the ionosphere. The International Space Station flies through this range. The lights cannot form lower in our skies because the energy of colliding particles is lost as the atmosphere becomes denser.

Each evening at Blachford Lake, we waited. The intensity of the aurora depends on many factors: the roughly 11-year solar activity cycle and its many effects; whether the solar wind is steady or gusting; and the sun’s rotation in relation to Earth’s. In the end, viewing is a local problem. Maybe you need a treasure to trade, good luck, good karma, or a blessing. Once you are in the right place at the right time, all you can do is wait.

After lectures, we mingled in the lodge, an artificial family. I joined games of Trivial Pursuit. I hung out with a doctor from Melbourne and talked to a retired social worker from the US state of Maine. About 9:30pm, someone would say, “It’s starting.” We would get dressed and go out, and move slowly from one viewpoint to another, from the bluff in front of the lodge to the tepee on the far side of the hill. A few gentle arcs would gradually widen and join and become an arch with trailing ribbons, wavering, glowing, seeming to shimmer.

"Once you are in the right place at the right time, all you can do is wait"

Before I had seen aurora borealis, I had imagined it erupting above me, an abrupt display of light spilling out of the sky. I put myself in the centre. But I was just spinning slowly beneath an enormous event. It is happening all the time, this torrent of ionisation and spectral light; mostly we don’t see it. For a few hours each night, I was granted a fractional view of cosmic forces, by the benevolence of darkness and a clear sky.

The days were clear and bright and flagrantly cold. After breakfast, people would break into pairs and small groups to go on snowmobile rides or ski across the lake. I read, napped, played more Scrabble. I went for hikes, stomping along snowmobile tracks in several layers of insulation. The trails passed through mounds of glittering snow dappled with velvet-blue shadow, broken by the marks of other travellers: snowshoe hares, caribou, lynx. Walking was cacophony, every step a chorus of squeaking snow, swishing pants, and creaking ice. But when I stood still, silence. A single bird’s note. Then silence again.

“It’s starting,” someone says. This is our last night at the lake, and the temperature is minus 32 degrees Celsius. We stand at the ice’s edge under the black sky. The snow, which is everywhere, which is the whole world, reflects the faint fog of starlight, and yet we see one another only as shadows. Above us the sky is a white wash.

The wash glows, widens, brightens, and begins to spin over my head, a luminous cyclone of pearl and dove and alabaster, suddenly so thick and near I could pluck off a tuft in my hand. Faint flashes of pink and green and blue, barely there, gone. We spin and crane our necks, gasp and laugh.

When I first arrived in Yellowknife, I kept reminding myself that I might not see the aurora at all, that it wouldn’t look like the pictures, that the real thing would be less than I expected. And I was wrong. I am not sorry that I couldn’t see what is in the photos. I am sorry that the photos don’t capture what I could see.

FROM HARPER’S (DECEMBER 2020), COPYRIGHT © 2020 BY SALLIE TISDALE.

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