Toronto Star Dec 1. 2017: YELLOWKNIFE—“Never whistle at the northern lights, or else they’ll come and get you,” my pal, 10-year-old Jakob Hotson, says from the back seat as his mom drives us around Yellowknife. “But snap your fingers and they’ll come closer,” he advises.
Hotson and his family live here, smack dab under the aurora belt, about the best place on Earth to see the northern lights and not a bad spot to hear some of the stories that swirl along with them.
When the Dene, who have lived here for millennia, see aurora over their northern skies — careful not to whistle — they see much more than light.
“Back home, some elders say aurora means animal spirts, the animals that we killed,” says Randy Baillargeon who grew up in Dettah, a First Nations community 20 minutes from Yellowknife. “They’re spirits up there and they’re just running and dancing.”
Baillargeon sometimes works in the mines and sometimes takes tourists like me out fishing at Blachford Lake Lodge and Wilderness Resort, a fly-in lodge 100 kilometres east of Yellowknife.
“I see the aurora a lot. I just ignore it,” he says with a grin. “I just go to sleep.”
But the aurora keep David Yau awake at night. The co-founder of Aurora Ninja in Yellowknife takes tourists around until 3 a.m. “chasing the light” in different spots outside Yellowknife. The Hong Kong born photographer remembers the first time he saw the Northern Lights after moving north in 1999.
“It was like dragon coming down,” he says. “It was amazing.”
A few years earlier, the Northwest Territories had started marketing aurora tourism in Japan. It worked. Today, Yau and other operators see a steady flow of visitors from Japan, China and Korea. His Asian customers believe the lights “bring them good luck and happiness.”
A visitor from Hong Kong, a crowded city where just seeing the stars can be a challenge, tells me she’s come all this way simply because “I’ve never seen the aurora.”
As for the oft-repeated trope of Asian honeymooners wanting to conceive a gifted child under the lights — Yellowknife locals roll their eyes, tracing the rebirth of the ancient myth to a line in an old episode of Northern Exposure.
“You need to see the moon and a star and then you can see aurora,” Yau says, explaining the ideal conditions for viewing. But on this night, alas, we see only cloud in the sky and the pictures Yau took the night before — great green gobs of light fill up the screen on his phone. Every now and then, people appear grinning in front of the green.
“You have to take the picture fast, you never know how long the aurora will last,” he says. “I always tell them, don’t worry about who is standing the in the middle.” He also tells visitors to put the camera down and just look up and enjoy the spectacle.
“The big dramatic stuff is the solar wind putting tons of energy into the system. It’s like a hurricane,” says Eric Donovan, a space physicist and aurora expert at University of Calgary.
It may not bring as much luck, but he says the “quieter stuff” shows off the interesting physics of the magnetic field that protects the Earth, the magnetosphere. Physics also determine the colours we see in the sky — the green and red from atomic oxygen and the violet “that’s like a little hem on the bottom of the curtains” from nitrogen molecules blasting through the atmosphere from above.
Baillargeon has a different take. For the Dene, that violet is the fish they’ve caught, the reddish hue the dancing spirits of small animals and the green the big animals, the muskox, bears and moose that have fed the people for thousands of years.
Back at Blachford Lodge, after we feast on bison stew, a full moon rises over the lake and chases the sun’s pink out of the sky — a prelude, I am certain, of the night’s coming aurora adventure. The family from Hong Kong gets their cameras and tripods ready in front of the lodge.
I put the sign on my door “Wake in case of aurora” and go to sleep. A few hours later I wake up by chance, look north out my window and there they are — lights dancing across the sky. It’s the quiet light with the “nice physics” and that violet hem on the curtain swaying in space.
As I enjoy nature’s IMAX, I try, and fail, to fathom the science. Instead of excited nitrogen, my excited brain goes to animal spirits dancing across the sky. I am snapping my fingers when the tap on the door comes: “The aurora are really great right now.”