We went to Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada to view the Northern Lights, the Aurora Borealis, as it was on my wife’s bucket list since she was a child. We had booked a three-night package of northern lights viewing opportunities but we skipped the third night due to cloudy weather. The process involved meeting our guide in the hotel lobby at 10pm on the first and second night and being driven from there to our viewing destination about 30 minutes out of town.
Although it was the start of Springtime in the Yukon, there was still a lot of snow around and our drive out the Alaska Highway and then a right turn on to the Klondike Hwy was against a dark background of fir trees covered in snow. We were taken to an area where the company, Northern Tales, had set up some rustic but cosy cabins with a wood heater at the centre of each as well as a wood camp fire circle outside for the more hardy travellers; 12 degrees below zero is very cold by Australian travellers’ standards! Inside the cabins it was very warm and homey with plenty of hot drinks and snacks. These were very necessary because Aurora Borealis hunting is a slow and patient game. Between 10.30pm and 12.30am there was very little sky action except for lots of stars against a dark foreign sky; reconnoitres involving crunching through snow out to the edge of the light where our camera tripods were set up were generally brief at this stage of the night.
Our Monday night’s sky-show started around 12.30am Tuesday morning and consisted of a low band of light across the horizon. I had brought with me a relatively up to date camera but it didn’t have the old manual controls where I could set the aperture width and the shutter speed for low-light conditions. Those people whose cameras could be manually adjusted hit their camera button for a 10 second delay image and this enabled the camera to enhance the colours in the photo.
As the early morning hours progressed, the horizon lights began to expand, the photos recorded became greener and started to pick up a hint of a pink hue. Seeing life through a camera lens was not quite the sweeping swathes of midnight colour that we were hoping for. It had been explained to us that the show couldn’t be guaranteed so we had to be happy with what we got.
Our two guides were excellent and they had brought their own cameras and light-sticks to entertain us. Having wide open apertures on their cameras meant that they could do some light-writing over the top of their guests with the Aurora Borealis in the background. There were some great souvenirs of the night.
Whilst the Northern Lights show wasn’t spectacular, the occasion itself was quite enjoyable, made so by our interesting guides and the international travellers who had joined the night tour. We met quite a few guides over our three day visit and none were locals; they were young Japanese, German and French who had travelled to the Yukon for the outdoor adventures and stayed for the wilderness life-style. These guys were experts in conversations about their varied travels. Given we were on this trip at a time when international borders were being closed due to the Corona Virus, the visitors also had plenty to talk about given the state of the world.
On the second night of the trip, the sky was still clear but there was little sign of the mysterious light shows that we had come here to see. Luckily this was the second night for most of us so now the group were ‘old’ friends and so our discussions ranged broadly.
One of the guides was asked what he did during his leisure time, did he in fact do any skiing? He explained that his thing was mountain climbing. He carried his skies and stocks, presumably attached to his back, and goes up one of the surrounding mountains around Whitehorse and then skies back down (No groomed runs for him!). Such is the love these guys have for the Yukon lifestyle.
One of the other guides was a young Japanese man whose interest, apart from guiding, was in photographing wild-life, specifically the Porcupine Caribou treking across the top of the Yukon on their annual cross-country journey to their calving grounds on the edge of the Beaufort Sea. He had been going annually for the last ten years up north towards the Arctic Circle but was still struggling to get the great photos he was looking for, even with the assistance of a drone. He camps out for two months of the year in his van for this, so far, fruitless preoccupation. He was explaining to us that propane gas, used in the canister that ran his stove, doesn’t work below minus 40 degrees centigrade so he couldn’t use it to warm his van or cook his late snacks some nights. He had to get into his sleeping bag with its guarantee to keep him warm up to but no further than 40 degrees below. He was depending on this guarantee to keep him alive in his pursuit of the perfect caribou photo.
However, if Yukon Bull Moose were his thing, he would have been able to get an excellent shot like me right in the middle of Whitehorse without spending any time on travel. Two of these ageing bulls chose to do battle on top of a local shop verandah.
APPENDIX 1: What causes the Northern Lights?
The Science! (A layman’s brief attempt at explanation!)
As is being illustrated in the image above, the (hopefully) bright, dancing lights we were night-hunting for outside Whitehorse are collisions between charged particles swept by the solar wind to our atmosphere and gaseous particles in the upper atmosphere. Due to the interactions between these particles and the Earth’s magnetic Field, they are only seen above the above the magnetic poles of the northern and southern hemispheres. The variations in colours depend on the type of gaseous particles involved in the collisions.
APPENDIX 2: First Nation explanations for the Northern Lights
One of the issues that is getting more attention in Australia these days is an understanding that night sky stories were part of Australian Aboriginal culture for presumably since their ancestors arrived in Terra Australis around 65000 years ago. One example of Australian indigenous astronomy is the story of the ‘Seven Sisters’, a tale known in different forms by many language groups from the central desert region of Australia. The journeys of Orion’s stars across the night sky represent the seven sisters fleeing the unwanted attention from a man.
With Australian aboriginal astronomical tales as background, I wondered what the First Nations’ people of Canada passed on about the meaning of the Aurora Borealis. I could do no on-ground research on this topic but here are some short native tales about the Northern Lights gathered by Marsea Nelson (www.nathab.com).
- When they witnessed the lights, many Inuit, the Arctic’s indigenous peoples, believed they were spirits of the dead playing a game with a walrus skull as the “ball.” The Inuit of Nunivak Island in the Bering Sea flipped its take on this story believing that it was walrus spirits playing with a human skull.
- Indigenous Greenlanders believed that the lights were dancing spirits of children who had died at birth.
- For Wisconsin’s Fox Native Americans, the aurora gave them a sense of foreboding—representing their slain enemies preparing for revenge.
- In Alaska, some Inuit groups saw the lights as the spirits of the animals they had hunted, namely beluga whales, seals, salmon and deer.
- The Inuit of Hudson Bay dreaded the lights, believing they were the lanterns of demons pursuing lost souls.
- Inuit in Point Barrow, Alaska’s northernmost spot, believed the aurora was evil. They carried knives to protect themselves from it.
- If you whistled at the aurora, some Native Americans believed it would sweep down and take you away. Clapping your hands, however, caused the lights to retreat, keeping you safe.
APPENDIX 3: The Photos we didn’t get!
The local cafes and shops delighted in decorating their walls with images of the Northern Lights; here’s an image that we didn’t see on our two nights of star-gazing!