It’s pitch black, cold as all get up and I’m standing in the middle of an empty parking lot in Canada’s remote Northwest Territories—clutching a Tim Hortons hot chocolate for warmth and waiting for the show to start. The only problem is, there is no show tonight, and the only way to have found that out is by doing exactly what we are doing: standing, necks cranked to the sky and watching for a miracle.
The aurora borealis (a.k.a. Northern Lights) is like a petulant child peeking out from behind its mother’s skirt: a finger here, a toe there and finally—sometimes hours later—the full reveal. The reams of colour you’ve seen on television and in the movies aren’t simply waiting for you when the sun goes down; you’ve got to find them. And until they’re ready to be seen, they’re tucked away behind a dark sky teasing you with stops and starts before showing off the whole kit and caboodle.
Locals know what to look for, and the couple that has driven us out to this remote spot is certain that it’s only a matter of time. But three hours after our 10 pm start, we’re tired and cold (despite down parka, long johns, hats, scarves, mitts and boots), and we call it a night. Tonight there would be no kit; no caboodle.
This is the experience that people come halfway around the world for. We see them nightly, boarding yellow school buses for trips out to places like Aurora Village (where they can keep warm inside giant tipis in between dashes out to check the sky) or huddling in their cars for warmth along the sides of dark, deserted roads. The Japanese are the most prevalent; but there are visitors from across the planet, hoping that during their few days in Yellowknife, NWT, the aurora will appear. Usually they get what they came for.
Many maintain that Yellowknife is the world’s best spot for viewing the Northern Lights because of its location directly underneath the auroral oval, described by scientists as “a gigantic ribbon of energy that encircles the Northern Magnetic Pole.” And this is the best time to see them. Between August and early April, clear skies make the perfect canvas backdrop for the colourful show.
Even on the nights when the lights aren’t “on” (no, there is no switch), the sky is something to behold. Standing under the stars takes on new meaning when the stars aren’t mere twinkling lights in the distance, but an explosion of white light smeared across the sky. The Milky Way is clearly visible, and with the right telescopes, planets as well.
But as beautiful as that is, it’s all a precursor for the real show.
The next night, we head further north, boarding a float plane for the comforts of Blachford Lake Lodge, a rustic wilderness retreat that feels like a cottage perched at the end of the earth. After a dinner that warms the spirit as much as our bodies, we bundle up and settle in around the dancing sparks of a campfire to wait. Hours later, I’m certain we are in for a repeat of the night before and, disappointed, I turn in. Just as I am about to climb under the covers, the call pierces the silence of the forest. “They’re on. They’re on!”
I dash out to the veranda in my robe and bare feet. They are on, indeed.
First, it is a ribbon of light descending straight down from the sky. Then it unfurls like a roll of wrapping paper and begins to wave and dance like a sheet hanging out to dry on a laundry line. My feet are cold, but to get my shoes might mean missing this show and I don’t dare risk it. To my eye, it is white, ghostlike even, but camera photos later show the lights as green with hints of red and purple. I hear no sound except the whistle of a faint wind and the calls of the loons. I’m in awe.
I know that at its heart this is about science: electrically charged particles from the sun that make gases glow somewhere far above my reach. But it feels like magic.
The slow, determined wave of light can, in an instant, turn with rocket-like speed. The action causes you to both gasp in amazement and hold your breath with the irrational fear that somehow breathing may cause it to shut off. I shiver, but it isn’t the cold; it’s the haunting beauty of the image before me, the silence of a night I’ll remember forever and the way in which an illuminated sky has transformed the view. The show continues for at least an hour. I watch it until my eyes are sore and my toes are numb.
When it is over, I go to bed dreaming of the dancing lights—grateful for the chance to stand in the cold, neck cranked to the sky again tomorrow.
Watch the Aurora Borealis in Canada’s Northwest Territories:
From a tipi: Aurora Village
From a dogsled: Beck’s Kennels
From a remote wilderness lodge: Blachford Lake Lodge
Can’t get to Yellowknife, NWT? Try Whitehorse, YT, or Churchill, MB.