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Canada’s Heavenly Lights
Winter in the Land of the Aurora

Northern lights over Northwest Territories, Canada - © Eric Lindberg PhotographyAt a time of year when many Americans are fleeing winter’s bite by heading south to sandy beaches and fruity umbrella drinks, I’ve gone north.

My friends think I’ve gone mad.

But I’m not here to work on my tan or practice my serve. I’ve come to witness a heavenly phenomenon, one that has long mystified and humbled the people of the north. I am here to see the aurora borealis, the northern lights.

The temperature hovers around –27ºF as I step off the warm plane and into the middle of winter. A thin layer of snow on the runway crackles like bubble wrap under my boots. I inhale and the hairs in my nose freeze. It’s February in the Northwest Territories. It’s the first day of my Canadian vacation.

It’s no coincidence that Yellowknife, the provincial capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories, is one of the world’s best places to see the northern lights. Located on the shore of Great Slave Lake, just north of the 62nd parallel, Yellowknife sits in the auroral oval, a thin band of area that circles the north pole. The region within this band has the highest occurrence of aurora on the planet.

In the past, some indigenous people believed celestial spirits created the ghostly lights. It’s only been 100 years since scientists even vaguely understood what causes the aurora. It occurs when high-speed particles from the sun stream towards the upper atmosphere above Earth’s two magnetic poles and collide with oxygen and nitrogen. The resulting electric jolts emit bursts of color.

Several local companies offer nighttime excursions to view the aurora an hour’s drive away from Yellowknife’s city lights. For my first northern lights experience, I leave civilization farther behind.

Joining several people on frozen Great Slave Lake, I watch my gear being loaded into a twin-engine Otter on skis. This hardy little bush plane will fly me 60 miles southeast of Yellowknife to remote Blachford Lake for a week of aurora viewing, dog sledding, and other cold-weather pursuits.

We’re a small, eclectic group: Bev, a Kansas farmwife who walks her rural farm at night to study the stars, Jim, a Pennsylvania dentist with a passion for unusual vacations, and myself, an extreme-weather enthusiast. Although the lodge usually hosts larger groups in winter, we are the only guests for the next five days. We’ve united here with one goal in common – to see the aurora for the first time.

Our pilot, Mike Murphy, gives us a brief safety talk. “The yellow box is the survival kit, first aid is the white box, and the orange box is the beacon. Use your seatbelts. Let’s go.”

He passes out earplugs and we climb in among straw bales and boxes of food. The engines roar to life and the plane speeds down the frozen lake. Five minutes later we’re gliding over miles of uninhabited forest.

Spruce Grouse at Blachford Lake, Northwest Territories - © Eric Lindberg PhotographyMike points out caribou herds gathered in the middle of snow-covered lakes. “Better protection from wolves,” he shouts over the engine noise. “Less chance of a surprise attack on the herd.”

We land on Blachford Lake in a flurry of snow and taxi to the lake’s edge. Luggage, food, and hay bales are unloaded onto sleds behind snowmobiles. The hay goes to the dog kennels for bedding; everything else goes up the hill to the lodge.

Warm muffins, hot drinks, and a crackling fire wait inside. Dany Leclerc, the lodge manager, welcomes us in his French-Quebec accent, outlining several important items.

“Always tell one of the staff if you leave the lodge area. Breakfast is at 8 a.m. and dinner is at 6:30. The hot tub is off the back deck. Who wants to go dog sledding?”

After the adrenaline rush of landing on a frozen lake, I decide instead on a quiet cross-country ski run around the track behind the lodge. Although far from civilization, I soon discover I’m not alone.

The trail doubles as an animal highway. Wolf, lynx, moose, and wolverine prints follow the path before wandering into the bush. Snowshoe hare and mice leave nervous little traces as they scamper from cover to cover. Tracks are everywhere, the only sign of a secretive animal population.

For now that world stays concealed. The sheer silence of the taiga forest is broken only by the ragged cawing of ravens. No jet contrails mar the pale sky. Clumps of snow cling to pine boughs like frozen meringue puffs. The distant lake appears as a vast white sea, its tiny islands studded with birch and spruce.

A mile from the lodge, the snow at my feet suddenly explodes in a cloud of powder. Two plump spruce grouses flap noisily up from the ground and perch on a dwarf pine by the trail. Unafraid, they watch calmly as I photograph them from five feet away.

Winter at Blachford Lake, Northwest Territories - © Eric Lindberg PhotographySunset comes early at this northern latitude, and the evening sky is dense with clouds. Without clear skies there will be no aurora viewing tonight. Danny reassures us. “These clouds can blow away by midnight. We have six hours to wait. Go do a hot tub.”

Wearing only swim trunks, I make the ten-yard dash from the back door to the hot tub. By the time I reach the steaming cauldron my teeth chatter and my bare skin is a relief map of goose bumps. Immersion brings instant bliss. Overhead, a few stars poke holes through the clouds. After a long soak, the return to the lodge is a refreshing stroll.

Just before midnight I hear voices in the hallway. Someone knocks on my door. “The sky’s clear and there’s a bright light in the east. We’re going out. Get dressed.”

Ten minutes later I stand sweating at the wood stove by the door, a puffball of wool, fleece, and down. Bundled to the eyeballs, I waddle outside and join the small group huddled beneath the stars.

A milky glow lies low on the horizon, like lights from a distant city. As we watch, thin white spikes of light emerge from the base and creep upward in the sky, lengthening and undulating like harem dancers. More strands appear overhead, whipping and coiling together in sensual helix patterns. Stars grow pale. The show has begun.

For the next 90 minutes the sky erupts in a turbulent cosmic dance. Luminous shafts of light twist between huge green curtains that shimmer and heave across the blackness. Thick pearly columns rocket upward and tear apart, then race back together at fantastic speeds. Immense white spokes radiate overhead, morphing into writhing serpents.

The sky pulses like a living creature. Waves of color collide and batter the heavens. Like snowflakes, no two are alike. We whoop and shriek at the night, hoping for more, wanting to miss nothing.

The aurora climaxes and then slowly fades to a dim glow on the horizon. The others hurry inside to warm beds. I linger a few quiet moments to savor what has just ended.

Once again the stars blaze across the arctic night. There is no sound, no movement. Only the still black trees spilling slivers of shadow onto the whiteness, and the infinite cloudless sky.