Our Trav­els: Aurora Hunt­ing in Yel­lowknife

Wit­ness­ing na­ture’s most spec­tac­u­lar light­show

More of Our Canada - - Contents - by John A. Bar­rett, Nanaimo, B. C.

Tour­ing around with a sea­soned aurora-hunter was a great way to see one of na­ture’s most spec­tac­u­lar light shows.

Our group heads out with Joe Buf­falo Child, tonight’s North Star Ad­ven­tures tour guide. He of­fers af­fa­ble greetings in English as well as other lan­guages for all on board the tour van.

“Spot five stars and I’ll find an aurora,” Joe de­clares, with the con­fi­dence of a sea­soned hunter. “Bet­ter yet, find the Big Dip­per and you’ll see aurora bo­re­alis as if you’re in­side a cos­mic shower.”

De­pend­ing on cloud cover, Yel­lowknife’s north­ern lights can be vis­i­ble for an hour or so on ei­ther side of mid­night, for about two-thirds of the year— omit­ting the sum­mer months, when you’ll have to set­tle for the mid­night sun.

Yet, it’s aurora view­ing that lures ad­ven­tur­ers from all over the world to this di­verse and ex­tra­or­di­nary city lo­cated on the north shore of Great Slave Lake in Canada’s North­west Ter­ri­to­ries.

Sum­mer here of­fers warm temperatures, boat­ing, fish­ing and sight­see­ing. Win­ters can reach -40°C, but if you’re clad in sur­vival lay­ers, you can en­joy snow­mo­bil­ing, sledg­ing, ice-fish­ing, and usu­ally clear skies to add flavour to any aurora ex­pe­ri­ence.

Our van heads west along the high­way, among forested wilder­ness that will even­tu­ally meet Al­berta, some 760 kilo­me­tres away.

“Any­one take the town tour?” Joe asks. “My cousin Dene is this week’s host.”

Among oth­ers, I ad­mit par­tic­i­pa­tion in the in­sight­ful tour of Yel­lowknife’s unique of­fer­ings. The Old Town sec­tion boasts a charis­matic flair, in­clud­ing the fa­mous “Ragged Ass Road,” and the old min­ers neigh­bour­hood fea­tures ply­wood shanties rem­i­nis­cent of a by­gone age. Pi­lots Mon­u­ment, which sits atop a mas­sive for­ma­tion called “The Rock” of­fers in­cred­i­ble views of Great Slave Lake, Back Bay and beyond.

From the van, we

glimpse the en­trance point to the ice road at the soon-to-be frozen Great Slave Lake.

“When hunt­ing aurora un­der this cloud cover, it’s best to keep mov­ing,” says Joe, the van purring along with us ten hardy souls se­cure in its heated com­fort. The mid-septem­ber night’s tem­per­a­ture is flirt­ing with the freez­ing mark.

Joe twid­dles the ra­dio knob to a nos­tal­gic golden-oldies chan­nel. “Any­body know this?” He sings along to “Michelle,” his mel­low guests join­ing the rhythm, al­beit with com­i­cal flair. Joe picks an­other song, be­fore we even­tu­ally make our first stop. We spill out of the van, us­ing Joe’s safe-exit foot­stool.

“Don’t wan­der off,” says Joe. “Stay close and make noise; it’ll keep the bears and foxes away.”

“What about hunt­ing an­i­mals?” An un­likely in­quiry from Jas­mine, a Sin­ga­porean.

“Sometimes moose, but mostly rein­deer and buf­falo.” Joe smiles, us­ing his name­sake.

“A lot of meat for one fam­ily,” she replied.

“No, the bounty is al­ways shared. Elders first, then the needy, and then ev­ery­body else,” he says, proudly. “We share and use ev­ery­thing from an­i­mals, noth­ing is wasted.” Search­ing the cloudy sky, he shines the spot- light fur­ther west. “Let’s keep go­ing.”

Af­ter an­other noshow stop, we me­an­der on. Joe steals sky­ward glances, while seek­ing more from his worldly au­di­ence. How to make glut­ton-free York­shire pud­ding? What’s the weather like in Buenos Aires? Which bar made the Sin­ga­pore Sling fa­mous? He en­gages each of us, en­joy­ing our re­sponses.

By the third stop, about 65 kilo­me­tres out, Joe stud­ies a small break in the clouds. It’s

past mid­night; cam­eras are ready on tripods, wait­ing. Anx­i­ety height­ens, feet stamp, hopes dwin­dle, the cloud cover breaks up but is still sub­stan­tial.

Joe’s distri­bu­tion of hot choco­late in paper cups works its magic, re­new­ing faith in our mis­sion of spot­ting the aurora bo­re­alis, but as he col­lects the cups, the warm van beck­ons once again.

“Hang on!” Joe cries out, his spot­light traces an elon­gated cloud as it tra­verses quickly across the clear­ing sky.

He aims his pre-set cam­era and re­veals a green image. “It’s about a two.” That’s two out of ten—he grades the in­ten­sity of the au­ro­ras. The naked eye can­not see much colour at this in­ten­sity, but the cam­era can. We need at least a grade four, as the slight green fringes dis­ap­pear beyond the treed fore­ground.

He in­forms us that al­though in­ten­sity and shapes of aurora may be sim­i­lar, they do have unique char­ac­ter­is­tics that ex­cite him.

“They’re com­ing!” Joe an­nounces, as au­ro­ras stream over­head in long, par­al­lel rib­bons of a green-yel­low mix of colour, com­ple­mented by red­dish tinges; the shapes sep­a­rate into mul­ti­ple waved rib­bons, be­fore ex- pand­ing into ver­ti­cal cur­tain for­ma­tions.

Joe ex­plains that oxy­gen mol­e­cules about 100 kilo­me­tres above the Earth de­ter­mine the pre­dom­i­nant green and yel­low colours. The oxy­gen mol­e­cules at higher al­ti­tudes pro­duce a red fringe. The ab­sence of rarer blue and pur­plish hues, caused by ni­tro­gen mol­e­cules, leave some­thing to look for­ward to an­other day.

The aurora dances mag­i­cally across the sky, as if splashed by a painter’s brush. It’s as though I’ve peeked into an­other realm of an­cient se­crets and glimpsed the won­ders of space—a feel­ing I de­scribe as step­ping in­side a rain­bow. ■

Top left: Aurora “cur­tains” dance in the night sky. Top right: a float plane head­ing into the ter­mi­nal in Yel­lowknife.

A view of stun­ning aurora “twins.”

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