Travel

Seeing the northern lights, finally

After years of waiting to see the aurora borealis, Robin Esrock recounts his experience viewing these dancing lights with his father in Yellowknife

  • Nov 10, 2022
  • 827 words
  • 4 minutes
An aurora display captured just north of Kenora, Ontario. (Photo: Brandon Brown/Can Geo Photo Club)
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Witnessing the northern lights has remained a planet-sized hole in my Bucket List for many years. After visiting over 100 countries on all seven continents, I’d yet to see the aurora borealis, although not for lack of trying. I’d spent hopeful yet disappointing weeks looking up at the cold night skies in Alaska, Yukon, northern Saskatchewan and Iceland, all of which left me with the following conclusion: when one lives in cold, sparsely populated northern climate surrounded by unimaginable amounts of space, your mind begins to untangle. With your brain unspooling, the frontal lobe fires neurons to the back of your eyeballs, resulting in beautiful hallucinations that can best be described as “lights dancing across the sky.”   

Should you arrive from the south in hopes of experiencing such a phenomenon, here’s what you’ll hear: “You should have been here last week; they were incredible!” or “You should be here next week, they’ll be incredible!“

Northern lights can appear in a variety of colours from green and blue to purple and red. (Photo: Richard Eckert/Can Geo Photo Club)
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Being here right now, however, results in clear skies with no dancing lights, alternating with foggy skies with no dancing lights, or rainy nights with 12 Japanese tourists looking glumly towards the sky. Here, in this case, is Yellowknife, ideally located below the Aurora belt and one of the best places in the world to see this supposed mass hallucination. 

My father had flown up with me from Vancouver, as viewing the northern lights has been the number one item on his bucket list since he saw an awful 80s movie called St. Elmo’s Fire. Oddly enough, the film does not actually feature the aurora borealis, but it does contain the hit single Man in Motion, written about Canadian Paralympic icon Rick Hansen and has nothing to do with natural atmospheric phenomena. Of course, bucket lists are matters of the heart, so it’s best not to think about it too much, or your head will explode.     

A low, rainy cloud consumed Yellowknife when we arrived, but the locals were enthusiastic. “Sometimes the clouds break, and we get a beautiful show!” one told us. I could almost hear the nerves crackling behind his retinas. According to local mythology and, more accurately, science, the northern lights result from electrical storms caused by solar flares smashing into Earth’s magnetic field. In Yellowknife, these lights can be seen at their most brilliant from November to April, attracting visitors from around the world in the hope that they, too, will share this mass delusion. Every local I met seemed eager to share a story of the sky exploding in luminous shades of green, red and blue, “like, just last week, on the day before you arrived.”

Yellowknife is one of the best places to view the northern lights because of the long, clear winter nights. (Photo: Laurence Cheung/Can Geo Photo Club)
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The rain continued to fall, but it did not dampen the spirits of Carlos Gonzalez at Yellowknife Outdoor Adventures. We’d spent a fine day fishing on Great Slave, catching and releasing monster northern pike. Of course, Carlos had seen the skies clear up and light up with natural fireworks before. Just not tonight. The aurora forecast was looking fantastic; however, on the day after, we’d fly home.  

Perhaps things would be better in the town of Hay River. Unfortunately, when we arrived, it was still cloudy, which made for poor (that is, impossible) aurora viewing.  Before retiring for the night in the Ptarmigan Inn, we asked the friendly receptionist, half-jokingly, to call us if he noticed lights dancing across the sky. Imagine our reaction when the phone woke us up shortly after midnight with exciting news! The sky, would you believe it, was now absolutely clear, but there are no lights to be seen. Seriously, guy?

At 2 a.m., the phone rang again. This time, the receptionist told us to go outside and look up. My dad was in the lobby before I opened my eyes. I found him in the parking lot, looking somewhat perplexed, repeatedly asking: “where, where, where?” Half-asleep, I mumbled that we were standing under a very bright streetlight, which is not ideal for either stargazing or aurora viewing. In the bitter chill, we walked a couple of blocks toward the river and away from the light pollution. Sure enough, a vast green band of light was hovering in the sky. To the right of us, spectacular lightning bolts were firing on the horizon. To the left, a bright, half-crescent yellow moon hung in the purple sky. It framed the definite glow in the sky and on my dad’s face too. Once again, I was reminded that any bucket list experience is only as special as the people you share it with. There were no crackling reds and blues that evening, and the soft, wave-like emerald light was nowhere near the fireworks we expected in our imaginations. But it would do.   

My father put his arm around me, beaming a huge smile. “Will you look at that!” he said with amazement. Yep, I could see it clearly. We’d officially spent too much time in the north and were starting to hallucinate too.

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