Finding the Unicorn of the Sky
Last March, we decided it was time to pack up and leave Vancouver — such is the life of opportunists and world travelers always looking ahead to the next stop. But before we left we were surprised with one late-season, last-minute opportunity to see the Northern Lights — a big item yet to be checked off our bucket lists. Forecasts predicted the Lights would be active over the coming weekend due to a coronal hole and resulting solar wind entering earth’s atmosphere. Yay, science!
We did what any ardent Northern Lights chasers would do: we booked a last-minute flight and a tiny remote cabin in the Yukon Territory. Two days later, we were fastening our seat belts for a long weekend in the middle of nowhere, in search of the Unicorn of the Sky (Jay’s name for the Northern Lights).
“Nowhere” doesn’t do it justice. The flight to Whitehorse was full of spectacular mountain views and the town itself is pretty cool. Whitehorse has managed to hang onto some of it’s vintage charm, blended with indigenous art and a new community center, interspersed with a few little shops and cafes.
The best thing about the weekend was our one-bedroom cabin on the 80-acre ranch of a Renaissance outdoorsman. He milled the wood and built the cabin himself with a fantastic front porch and firepit facing directly north to the horizon where we hoped to see the elusive green glow of the Aurora. The cabin had no running water but the luxurious outhouse was far better than some bathrooms, and the efficient heat and fast WiFi made the whole outpost perfect for our weekend camp. Located 45 minutes outside Whitehorse, the sky was plenty dark for our adventure in light.
On the afternoon we arrived, we explored the vicinity of our cabin and discovered other myriad things the Renaissance outdoorsman had built including a handful of additional cabins, an enormous solar array to power the site, and the “Boyleville Saloon” just beyond his backyard (closed for the season, but probably host to some really fun parties).
To the east of his home, he had a large yard and housing for a team of 30 sled dogs, and his wife tipped us off that he’d be taking some of them out for an “afternoon run” around 4:30 p.m. (Fun fact: You probably don’t know this, but I wrote the introduction to a sold-out coffee table book about Iditarod sled dogs called Born To Run by Albert Lewis.) Seeing these dogs here in person, from behind the fence (they are VERY enthusiastic creatures), was an unexpected treat.
All hooked up and harnessed to run, OFF THEY WENT barking madly and racing for the hills. They didn’t return until 50 kilometers and one frozen river crossing later, in full darkness at 10:00 p.m. that evening.
That same evening was the first time we saw the Northern Lights. I was using three websites to track the activity. The Lights had been extremely active over Scandanavia but by the time they reached western Canada, they had calmed to a sleepy Level 2 — nothing too special, but still a fuzzy green glow above the distant mountains to the north of us along with a blob of light above us that was so subtle I mistook it for a cloud until I realized it was shifting in all directions. We ducked in and out of the cabin until 3:00 a.m. that morning, checking to see if the Lights were becoming more active. The forecast predicted better activity during the following two evenings so eventually we gave in and slept.
The next day, we took a walk around the property to a bluff near the cabin. We could see all the way to the next mountains with a flat expanse of land in between and a few stands of trees like ribbons running north to south. With the lingering snow, branches not yet budding for spring, and the frozen Yukon River in the distance, the sparse landscape had the look and feel of The Revenant — minus the grizzly bear (hopefully sleeping).
That night, Jay succumbed to the primal need to make fire in the wilderness and built a glowing pyramid in the firepit out front. We alternated between the warm cabin and the fireside heat until the wood ran out around 9:00 p.m. At 10:00 p.m., Jay took a look out the front door exclaiming, “The band’s here!” That ethereal green band was getting brighter as darkness finally arrived. But Aurora activity again remained low and steady throughout our gaze until 2:00 a.m. in the morning. It was easy to see and enjoy with our eyes but not so easy to photograph with a camera.
On Sunday, our last full day in Whitehorse, we made the most of it. We drove out to walk on the frozen Yukon River and then went for an evening soak in the local hot springs — a community gathering spot with two large pools at different temperatures.
We returned to the cabin and checked the Aurora forecasts, knowing the conditions were right for increased activity. A coronal hole in the sun was releasing solar wind that was striking the atmosphere with high-level intensity as the earth rotated through it. Activity had again been elevated over Scandanavia but tonight it had continued over eastern Canada, too. We knew that if we were lucky we might catch the tail end of the show.
We were drinking wine, making dinner, waiting for the sunlight to completely disappear from the western sky. And then … it happened. The band’s here! Brighter and greener than ever. GET THE CAMERA!
I was excited, frantic, running around trying to get my camera attached to the cold tripod I had staged on the front porch. Jay was turning off all the lights and, with less and less light to work with, my camera wouldn’t focus on anything. I switched to manual but the scene was so dark through the viewfinder and I was so filled with glee that both IT and I could not focus. FAIL. More attempts, more failures, but pretty nonetheless! I finally had to stop, take a deep breath, and make Jay be my focal point (standing in the front yard holding up a lighter like he was at a Northern Lights concert) to bring the full depth of field into focus. With a few experimental exposures, I finally got it dialed, and captured a shooting star in the process.
The most memorable part of the following two hours was something I could barely capture with the camera. The green band continued to glow, but long fingers of light started to descend from above us down to the horizon. When those disappeared, more fingers would extend from the horizon up into the sky. Sometimes three, four and five at a time would reach down or up, shift left or right … and be gone. THIS was the solar wind blowing through the atmosphere right in front of us. MAGIC!
Here was a moment to put down the camera and watch the science and beauty of the Northern Lights as two tiny human beings in an infinite galaxy. As fellow blogger Ron Mitchell often says, “Thank you, Abundant Universe.” We have seen the Lights and they are divine.