Viewing the Northern Lights in the Yukon provides one of the world’s greatest – though most elusive and ephemeral – travel sights.
This is story 12 of our Meanwhile in Canada… series.
Being woken shortly after midnight isn’t the usual start to your day. Nor is stumbling about groggy headed, hauling on long johns, sweaters, coats and scarves in so many layers that I roll out the door like a Teletubby. Holidaymakers don’t normally want to be thrust out into the cold at this witching hour. And yet here I am.
I plunge outdoors. The air is sharp as a Japanese knife, and my breath hangs in the air like fairy floss. I stomp my feet and puff like a dragon. By mid-winter in the Yukon, it’s too cold even to snow. The pine trees are frozen fantastical sculptures. The landscape seems carved from ice and darkness.
But there’s reason in the madness of this midnight escapade. We’re off to see the aurora borealis or northern lights – or perhaps more accurately, off to chase them down. Tobias Barth, owner of Northern Lights Resort & Spa outside Whitehorse, prefers to call his excursions aurora hunting rather than sightseeing.
“It’s cold, you often spot wildlife, you move to different locations,” he says gleefully. “There are times when we go more than 200 kilometres a night. You never know what you’ll encounter. It’s thrilling.”
Twenty minutes later, I’m on a mountainside in a black landscape and a first glimmer of light appears. The overture comes in vivid waves and explosions of green that shake across the sky. After a while they quieten down into pulses of colour, sometimes blue, sometimes yellow or violet.
I gaze heavenwards, mouth agape in silent wonder. I feel the back of my neck prickle. The lights have stolen my power of speech, though Tobias is unfazed by my stunned silence. He’s seen every emotion from guests encountering the northern lights for the first time.
“Crying, yelling, dancing, singing, amazement… It’s such a powerful thing, to see the lights – and for us as Yukoners to see the reactions of our guests.”
The northern lights seem otherworldly. Some First Nations people believe they show souls the way to the next world, others that their ancestors are celebrating the wonder of creation. There’s a scientific explanation, but science doesn’t capture the splendour of the aurora as it unfolds across the skies in undulating curtains. As a tiny human standing beneath the spectacle, all you can do is gaze in awe.
The lights are immense, yet seem dainty and as fragile as billowing gauze curtains. They’re spookily immaterial, especially compared to the Yukon landscape they illuminate. The Yukon, twice the size of Victoria, is all about physical power and majesty: a land of snow and ice, wolves and bears.
Great swathes of the Yukon have near-total darkness and, like a photographer’s darkroom, the sky becomes the perfect backdrop for the aurora’s mysterious, multi-coloured activity. I’m equally amazed by the Milky Way, which glitters overhead.
It’s the search for utter darkness that gets me out into the cold. Yes, I could see the northern lights from a hotel window. Around Whitehorse, I could huddle in a tepee or a log cabin warmed by a wood fire and a handy mug of glühwein. At Northern Lights Resort & Spa outside Whitehorse, I’ve seen the aurora from a glass-fronted chalet while sitting in an armchair like the king of the mountain trolls, drinking Shiraz and savaging a steak. And that’s fantastic, but plunging into the full frigid, pitch-dark experience is immeasurably better.
The northern lights appear between mid-August and mid-April in the Yukon, but the early weeks of winter are best. The aurora is unpredictable, though, and illuminates the heavens on a whim. “That’s the most remarkable thing about the aurora borealis and to me it’s what makes it so exciting” says Tobias. “We never know if it will show up, what it will look like or for how long it will appear. It’s never the same.”
You could be drinking beer in a warm Whitehorse pub when the lights emerge, and all of a sudden people stampede towards the door, hauling on their scarves and coats in an undignified scramble to get outside. These days, things are made a little easier by apps that forecast when the lights arrive.
Sometimes the northern lights arrive only in thin green lines, weaving between gathering clouds, before being swallowed up. Sometimes they fling great cascades of light across the sky. The ephemeral nature of this grand phenomenon makes it all the more wonderful. You never know when you’ve seen the last of it. “Now you see them, now you don’t. They can dance for a single minute or linger in the sky for hours,” says Tobias.
The lights weave a spell that has me up every night, staggering into the cold like an Arctic explorer. On my last night, we drive out beyond Whitehorse on the scenic road to Fish Lake and the town lights are left behind once more. It’s almost as if I can feel the electricity in the air. I can certainly feel the cold. My breath billows out, icicles tinkle on the trees, and the snow underfoot crunches like crumbled biscuit.
I’ll never forget the stillness of a Yukon night. The landscape is muffled, the rocks dusted white, and the only sound is the occasional crump as snow slides from a pine branch to pockmark the snow drifts beneath. The cold is like a force in itself. I experience a profound silence never encountered in normal life, as if I’m the last survivor of an Ice Age. Then the flicking lights appear once more. It’s utterly exhilarating, a celebration of creation indeed, and an experience I’ll never forget.
Next time, we journey to a remote British Columbia bear lodge for the closest and most memorable of encounters.