Northern Lights

October 2023
A shot in the dark to see nature's greatest light show
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  • Day 1

    Missed it by THAT much!

    October 17, 2023 in Canada ⋅ ☁️ 11 °C

    We woke up bright and early on this October morning to make our way to the Vancouver Airport for a 6:55 o'clock flight to Yellowknife, NWT.

    Our tradition of celebrating our wedding anniversary in a new location each year is in its seventeenth edition, yet, as recently as a month ago, we had no idea where we'd be going. It was at a dinner party with our astrophysisist neighbours, after a glass or two of wine, that the conversation swung to the amazing spectacle that is the Aurora Borealis. And it was then that Brenda decided it was high time she saw it for herself.

    The following day, flights to and accomodations in Yellowknife were booked.

    Our usual travel paths have us leaving home with luggage loaded with enough shorts, sandals and T-shirts to see us through three or four months. This morning, however, our baggage was just as full and just as heavy, for only a four day trip! Long pants, long sleeve merino tops, puffy jacket, waterproof shell, big wooly socks, tuques, gloves and boots take up a lot more space than our snowbird apparel.

    Our flight got off the ground right on time and we were scheduled to land in Yellowknife just after 10:00 local time. The flight attendants on this flight were the nicest I've seen on Air Canada in many years. The ride was smooth with only a few bumps along the way, but we could see a lot of low cloud cover as we neared our destination. The plane gradually descended and disappeared into the low-lying clouds. I was watching the in-flight map and as the plane neared an altitude of 250 meters, the pilot suddenly gunned the engines, pulled back hard on the stick, and maintained a steep climb for several minutes.

    The visibility was too poor to land, and there was insufficient fuel to wait out the weather, and we were diverted to Edmonton. Unfortunately, there were no more flights to Yellowknife scheduled today, so day one of our Aurora adventure will be spent at the Edmonton Comfort Inn, courtesy of Air Canada. The hotel is close to the airport, but the airport is in the middle of nowhere, so we won't be doing any exploring of the city on this stay.

    Maybe if we're stuck here again tomorrow, we'll rent a car and adventure our way to the wilds of the West Edmonton Mall.

    For now, the hot tub and sauna may be an option.
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  • Day 3

    Yellowknife

    October 19, 2023 in Canada ⋅ ☁️ 7 °C

    After another night of little sleep thanks to a 5:20 a.m. shuttle ride to the Edmonton airport, we once again hopped onto a plane bound for Yellowknife. It was still pitch dark when we took off at 7:00 and from the plane window we witnessed the sunrise at around 7:30, which was quite spectacular.

    Under daylight, we were able to see that the cloud cover was once again quite thick, and we worried this would be another flight to nowhere. Like yesterday, as we approached Yellowknife and descended into a thick fog bank, our altitude dropped to below 1000 meters and there was still no ground in sight. Finally, at 300 meters, land appeared and our second descent into Yellowknife ended successfully.

    After checking into our hotel (surprisingly, a very nice, fully equipped suite) we bundled up to brave the chilly mist and set out to explore the town. It's a fairly typical Northern Canadian town, with just under 20,000 inhabitants and most of the amenities of home. There are, of course, LOTS of pickup trucks, big, burly, bearded men and a Tim Horton's. But there is also an astonishing number of new Canadians from all over Asia, Africa and the Middle East, who, if the local restaurant scene is any indication, have brought their culture here with them. We saw several Vietnamese restaurants, a couple of Chinese eateries, some Middle Eastern places serving falafel and shawarmas, an Ethiopian diner as well as a sushi place, a German restaurant and several pizzerias. Oh yeah, and more pubs than you can shake a stick at.

    Today we wandered around downtown Yellowknife, stopped for a falafel wrap for lunch, picked up some groceries for the next couple of days, had a lengthy afternoon nap, and dined at The Black Knight Scottish pub. Not our most exciting anniversary trip, so far, but kinda what the doctor ordered after a rather busy and hectic summer.

    Tonight the sky is too overcast for nature's light show, but it's forecast to clear tomorrow and Friday when we're booked to go Aurora hunting.

    Maybe tomorrow's post will include some photos.
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  • Day 4

    Old Town Yellowknife

    October 20, 2023 in Canada ⋅ ☁️ 8 °C

    Some stuff we learned on todays tour of Yellowknife's Old Town:

    Although European explorers and cartographers came to this area of the Northwest Territories as early as the 1700's, Yellowknife, as we know it today, didn't see any settlement until the 1930's when gold was discovered here. The first gold claims were staked in 1934 and, by 1938 Yellowknife was a boom town with hundreds of settlers and three gold mines in operation.  The name Yellowknife was coined by those early explorers for the copper tools the indigenous Dene people carried.

    During the gold rush, the first inhabitants set up shop around "The Rock", a prominent mass of Precambrian rock that towers over the surrounding area. Along with the tents and shacks covering the area, a commercial strip comprised of restaurants, hotels, a billiard hall, barbers, bakeries, dance halls and trading posts sprung up. I suspect there was also likely a house of ill repute, but that didn't make it into the guide book.

    Today, the ramshackle homes and tents have mostly all disappeared, but there remains a good number of the original buildings and businesses from the '30s.

    We climbed up "The Rock" to start our tour, which offered us a 360 degree view of Yellowknife, Old and New. Unfortunately, visibility was low, so the view was less spectacular than it would be ona a clear day. Atop The Rock is a monument to the bush pilots without whom the city would not have grown so fast. Right next to The Rock is the Yellowknife Cultural Crossroads that features carving, sculptures and some very beautiful indigenous art. 

    After that, we just meandered through the streets, browsed in a couple of art galleries and stumbled upon an outdoor exhibit of fossilized stromatolites, which, at 3 billion years old, are the oldest fossils on the planet. We wrapped up our tour with a stroll down Ragged Ass Road, so named by the unsuccessful and impecunious resident miners of the day.

    Without a doubt, Yellowknife is an interesting city with a short, but quirky history to explore. It's a place filled with colourful characters, great successes and great failures, with a feel about it that one has taken a step back in time to a kinder, gentler world.

    That being said, this is also one of the very few cities we've visited where we haven't sought out a realtors office to check out property prices. It's a nice place to visit, but.....
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  • Day 4

    Hallelujah - We Saw The Light!!!

    October 20, 2023 in Canada ⋅ 🌬 2 °C

    All day we were concerned that the overcast skies in Yellowknife would ruin our chances of seeing Mother Nature's light show that night. However, the silver lining was that the cloud cover was keeping the temperature at around 9 degrees C, so even if we were wasting our time, at least we wouldn't be freezing.

    Julian, our tour guide and Aurora hunter, picked us up at 9:00 PM sharp and we set off with six other hopefuls in search of some magic.

    Julian drove us about thirty kilometers outside Yellowknife city limits to an area untouched by the city light. At our first stop, the sky had cleared and
    was full of stars, but, alas, there was only a small glowing strip of pale green just above the northern horizon. Julian explained that when the Aurora is immobile in the north, chances are the spectacle won't be very good. We want to see it move overhead towards the south and then back towards north if we hope to see a high activity show.

    Julian then drove us to a very secluded spot in the woods where he has a tent set up that's equipped with a firepit to keep us warm, not that we needed it at the time. Again, there was very little excitement in the sky, although the bands appeared to be slowly moving south. Julian rated the Aurora at about a three out of ten. The clouds started moving in, obstructing our view so, after figuring out which way the clouds were moving, Julian took us to a new site about thirty minutes away.

    There were very positive signs that the Aurora was getting itself pumped up to put on a good show, but it was becoming a constant race against the clouds.

    After driving east for a while, Julian realized we were going the wrong way and headed back west and, when he saw clear skies, pulled us off to the side of the road and things got interesting.

    At about 1:30 AM, long ribbons of Aurora crossed the entire sky and began swirling, dipping, dancing and merging, all the while changing color from pale to deep green with flares of pink running through them. And just when we though the spectacle was over, a dim overhead band would brighten, spread out, and start the show all over again. The ooohs and aaaahs from our fellow watchers (and us) said it all. There are truly no words to describe the awe and beauty of a full on Aurora display. What a way to begin our anniversary celebration!

    Amazingly, as good as we found the show to be, Julian graded it as only a 7 out of 10!!

    We have one more outing tonight with Julian before we fly back to Vancouver tomorrow. The temperature is supposed to drop to below zero tonight, which will make our experience less comfortable, but will hopefully move Julians rating of the display to 8 or 9 out of ten.
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  • Day 5

    'Scuse Me While I Kiss The Sky

    October 21, 2023 in Canada ⋅ ☁️ -2 °C

    If the Northern lights were guitarists, on Thursday we saw B.B. King with his perfectly placed, well-defined notes, refined phrasing, with some rapid-fire flourishes all leading up to an emotional crescendo.

    Friday night was pure Jimi Hendrix. A flamboyant performance that literally filled the sky with 360 degrees of ever-changing, ever-evolving light, overwhelming your senses, leaving you in awe, taking away your breath and leaving you wanting more.

    Despite yesterday's forecast of clear skies, when we awoke Friday morning, it had changed to a mostly cloud covered evening with snow flurries from 8:00 pm to 2:00 am. We nearly canceled our tour, but since it was already paid for, we decided to tough it out. We didn't depart our hotel until 10:00 pm, dressed in multiple layers of clothing to brave to -12 degree windchill.

    Julian made two brief stops as we headed north and decided the clouds seemed to be clearing out in the west. By the time we finally came to a cloud free area, it was near midnight, but as soon as we disembarked the bus, it was obviously worth the long ride.

    From just above each horizon and reaching high overhead from all directions, the Aurora filled he sky. It was as if we were standing below a dome of pale green light. And then the dance began. Tall ribbons of light twisted, turned, merged, and faded before regathering strentgh to continue their phenomenal display. There was so much activity all around us, we didn't know where to look. The peak of the diplay lasted about twenty minutes and was truly a mesmerizing experience.

    One by one, the aurora hunters gave in to the cold and returned to the warmth of the bus, where Julian greeted us with a cup of hot chocolate and a cookie.

    At 1:30, Julian announced we would start heading back to the hotel as it would take us at least forty minutes to make the drive. Even though the expedition was much shorter than last nights, no one complained as it seemed everyone knew it wasn't going to get better than what we had already witnessed.

    Brenda is already talking about a return visit in September!
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