It’s 3am and with the mercury struggling to keep above minus thirty, the sprawling wilderness of the Yukon is all but frozen solid. All except for a lone wolf, whose distinctive howl echoes eerily around the shores of icy Marsh Lake.
On the edge of the lake is a honey-coloured wooden lodge with high vaulted ceilings and soaring atrium windows. Inside, slumped in armchairs surrounding a crackling log fire, are a small group of sleep-deprived tourists desperately trying to keep awake.
Despite consuming countless cups of coffee, I’m one of those to have momentarily nodded off.
“They’re starting, they’re starting!” someone yells. With a jolt, I snap out of my daze. It’s Suki, a young Japanese woman, alerting our group of half a dozen aurora seekers that the world’s biggest lightshow has just begun.
Within seconds, I’ve gulped the dregs of my coffee, pulled a beanie over my head, thrown on my coat (make that three jumpers, a fleece and a coat) and while still fumbling with my gloves, clambered half out the door to peer skywards.
My heart beats excitedly – it’s my first glimpse of the aurora borealis, or northern lights. Wow! The sky, which had stubbornly remained blackened for the past two nights, is now punctuated with luminescent plumes of green light.
I scamper down the icy embankment from the lodge and out onto the frozen lake. The Lodge owner, Carson Schiffkorn, had earlier told us that the northern horizon is best viewed from the expanses of the 50km long by 4km wide lake. And he’s right.
Almost 2km out onto the lake, I stop to catch my breath, and as if on cue, more curtains of green light avalanche out of the heavens. Soon, colourful cascading folds and ghostly ribbons of green reach from one horizon all the way to the next. It is serene and spectacular, almost spiritual.
Spirits of heaven
It’s little wonder that these dancing lights have inspired so many myths and legends. To the Inuit, they are spirits dancing their way to heaven. To medieval scientists, the lights were a reflection of the sun and so the named them Aurora – after the Roman goddess of the dawn.
Eventually, the lights start to fade, and I clamber back up to the lodge and along lantern-led ice paths to my chalet. Climbing up the stairs to my lofted bedroom, I flop, exhausted, into a pile of fluffy doonas.
As I fall into a deep slumber, through the north facing window, the last of the green slivers of light dance gracefully above the snow-laden birch trees.
And so ends my third night at the Inn on the Lake, an upmarket oasis, ideally located for aurora viewing in the frigid, sprawling icy Yukon boondocks.
Although it is the northern lights that lure most winter travellers to this rustic getaway, by day there’s plenty of activities to entice even the most sleep-deprived aurora seeker.
After some snowshoeing (it’s harder than it looks), Carson takes us to the far side of the lake for some ice fishing. It’s a most odd pursuit. We pick a random spot, and with a giant corkscrew device that he calls an ice auger, Carson starts to drill into the ice.
It’s tough work and after around five minutes, he breaks through the metre-thick ice. It’s like opening a frozen can of soft drink. Instantaneously, frigid water fizzes out of the hole and spills onto the surface, drenching the front paws of Dune, Carson’s trusty canine fishing companion.
Carson passes me the baited line which I dangle in the tiny hole. We’re apparently fishing for whitefish and lake trout. Dune paces expectantly by the hole.
Thirty minutes pass. Then an hour. Still nothing. Perhaps it’s not that much different to normal fishing after all. Eventually even Dune gives up hope of a fresh feed of fish. With the Yukon’s early wintry dusk fast approaching we reel in our lines.
Although we didn’t catch anything, if you’re rugged up in the right gear, it’s a relaxing way to spend an afternoon. A couple of stiff drinks would probably enhance the experience.
Back at the lodge there’s an undeniable buzz in the air. After thawing out over another sumptuous home-cooked dinner whipped up by the Inn’s award-winning chef, it’s time to start gazing skyward for the next instalment of the greatest lightshow on earth.
Tim the Yowieman travelled with the assistance of Canadian Tourism Commission.
Did You Know? In the first century AD when Roman emperor Tiberius saw a red aurora, he thought that a nearby town was on fire, so sent help to put out the blaze.
The Aurora Borealis
- Best viewed above the 60 degree north of the equator parallel during September to April.
- Solar dust particles are attracted by the Earth’s magnetic field into rings around the polar regions. They hit gases in our upper atmosphere and charge the gas molecules, making them glow.
- Red glows are predominantly from charged nitrogen atoms and green glows from charged oxygen atoms.
- Aurora Borealis refers to the lights in the Northern Hemisphere and Aurora Australis, to those in the Southern Hemisphere.
For more things to do in Canada see Best of Canada.