When I hopped a plane in Edmonton for a winter flight to the Northwest Territories, it was packed with Asian tourists who knew something that most Canadians don’t. Yellowknife, and the central part of the territory, sit right under the auroral oval and experience the northern lights an average of 200 times a year.
Astronomers describe the oval as a thin band around the Earth where the most intense northern lights occur. In the heart of northern Canada, the oval meets desert-like climates, ultra-low humidity, unusually clear skies, endless wilderness and long, dark nights with virtually no light pollution. So, it’s fair to declare Yellowknife as the best place in Canada — some say the world (sorry Iceland, Finland, and Fairbanks) — to chase the aurora borealis.
The fall aurora season runs mid-August to early October when dramatic, dancing night skies are reflected in the lakes. There’s a lull until the waters freeze and the winter aurora season lights up the dark skies from December until early April.
When I arrived in Yellowknife one Thursday in late March a few years ago, I had absolute faith that I would find the northern lights with my fellow “aurora tourists” from China, Japan, South Korea, and Hong Kong, places where people consider it fortuitous to witness the celestial phenomenon. And yet my first booking, for a mobile sky hunt on Friday night, was cancelled because of clouds. The forecast for Saturday was iffy and so I gambled on Sunday.
There isn’t just one way to chase the northern lights in the territorial capital city with barely 20,000 people. It’s a matter of opting for the DIY route like a local or choosing which tour company to book with, how many people to share the experience with, how much to spend, and how long to be out (bank on 9 p.m. to 2 a.m.). Some companies rent winter clothes (though with the pandemic that practice may be slow to return) and most throw in a few photos.
For a ballpark $125, I could roam by minibus, snowmobile, dogsled, or even by Bombardier to ice fish on Great Slave Lake while waiting for nature’s greatest light show. I could be transported to swish lodges, wilderness cabins, teepees, and heated tents to stay warm and maybe even eat dinner. I could hang out in a lakeside cabin with the Yellowknives Dene community to play traditional hand games and hear drumming, or splurge on multiple nights at a fly-in wilderness resort.
Mindful that Mother Nature is the boss of the aurora and doesn’t care how much you pay, I kept it simple (and relatively warm) and picked four hours in a roaming minibus.
While I waited, there were three days to fill with adventures, like visiting the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre and Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories, and taking a guided winter hike to an ice cave by way of a mining heritage site and forest cemetery. There were two hours spent in N’Dilo — a Yellowknives Dene First Nations community on Latham Island, which is connected to Yellowknife by a causeway — learning how to ice fish with nets stretched between two holes under the ice, and then having a fish fry with chowder and bannock. That’s where one local quietly told me, “If you want to come back for the best aurora season, it’s September when it’s 15 Celsius.”
I trudged around the historical Old Town, home to Ragged Ass Road, named for the drunk, “ragged ass poor” prospectors who once lived there. At Old Town Glassworks, I cut, polished, stencilled, and sand-blasted glassware from recycled bottles — covering a deeply green glass with three ravens under the northern lights. There were four distinct aurora designs showcasing swirls, streaks, and shooting rays.
At Bullocks Bistro I ate the legendary deep-fried burbot and read graffiti in the women’s room — “It’s one of my dream!!! I came Yellowknife and saw Aurora.” I got my multicultural food fix at Zehabesha Traditional Ethiopian Restaurant, Korea House, and Sushi North (home of the grilled Arctic char roll). Then I walked to the famous clock outside the YK Centre that broadcasts the temperature and took selfies at a somewhat lame minus-20 Celsius, envying those who get visual proof they were out and about at minus-40 Celsius.
I timed my aurora trip to the Long John Jamboree to admire the work of international ice-carving competitors, take fundraising flights in a Twin Otter and a helicopter, ice fish from a SnoBear recreational vehicle, eat maple snow taffy, and drink at the festival’s Brrr Garden. I’ll never forget the intense heat of Burn on the Bay, when the community gathered on the ice around a huge wooden structure (apparently signifying the theme of gridlock) and joyously watched it burn down. Then there was Snowking’s Winter Festival, which runs in March, with its mammoth snow castle on the ice, all ages ice slide, ice bar, and performance stage full of bands, magic shows, and children’s theatre.
It was a memorable — albeit exhausting — way to kill time waiting for what the Northern Lights Centre describes as “collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth’s atmosphere.”
The aurora usually blazes eerie green but sometimes the light show might be pink, yellow, white, crimson, or violet depending on the type of gas particles colliding. Oxygen molecules located about 100 kilometres (62 miles) above the earth create pale yellow-green lights. Nitrogen produces blue or purplish-red aurora. High-altitude oxygen — at heights of up to 320 kilometres (200 miles) — creates rare, red auroras.
The only things I missed in Yellowknife were the 120-centimetre (3.33-foot) “northern lighthouses” placed on select roofs and equipped with a colour-changing LED lighting system to provide aurora alerts. At least I knew about the aurora forecast on Astronomy North’s website.
I admit I’ve seen more than my fair share of northern lights. There were faint white ones at my northern Ontario cottage, brilliant green ones in Iceland, muted green ones on an expedition cruise between Nunavut and Greenland, more muted greens from the ground in Fairbanks and Iqaluit, and the unrivalled Aurora 360 experience of flying on a chartered jet through the night sky north of Whitehorse. But I’m always chasing the next aurora borealis.
When it was finally Sunday night in Yellowknife, I waited in the Explorer Hotel lobby near the photogenic polar bear on its hind legs, safe in the knowledge that the seal-loving hypercarnivore doesn’t travel this far south from the Beaufort Sea.
When I climbed into a minibus with Joe Bailey’s Indigenous-owned North Star Adventures, I discovered a local driver named Charles and a Cantonese-speaking guide named YoYo from Hong Kong who had been in town just three months.
“Yellowknife is the best place to see aurora, do you know why?” YoYo cheerfully asked everyone. “No? Then why are you here?”
“To see you,” quipped one passenger.
“More than 250 days we can see the aurora in Yellowknife, so it’s a good choice,” countered YoYo. “Tonight, we have a 98 per cent chance, but still we have a two per cent chance that we will not see it.”
After putting us on edge, she soothed us with a promise of hot chocolate and Canadian maple cookies at midnight and we took off to a round of applause and the Tragically Hip singing “Fully, Completely” on Moose FM.
First, we drove down to Yellowknife Bay and along the Dettah ice road, stopping for photos and trying to avoid all the other aurora hunters doing the same thing. Then we escaped to dark and mostly empty back roads, eventually pulling into a parking lot and wandering out onto a seemingly random frozen lake to make snow angels.
When the northern lights suddenly appeared, it was pandemonium, as people shrieked, pulled out cameras and tripods, and swivelled in every direction trying to keep up with the fast and furious light show. YoYo somehow corralled a dozen of us into an orderly line for individual shots before staging a group photo just as our aurora quietly faded away.
According to my notes, we drove away euphoric, full of cocoa and cookies, and listening to Bruce Springsteen singing “Dancing in the Dark.”
More About Visiting Yellowknife
Where to Stay: The Explorer Hotel is a non-smoking hotel with a free airport shuttle, room service, a fitness centre, Trader’s Grill and Trapline Lounge. All rooms come with a fridge and microwave. It’s downtown and walking distance to Old Town.
Address: 4825 49 Avenue, Yellowknife, NT (see map below)
Room Rates: A recent search of the hotel’s website showed prices range from $165 to $195 for superior, deluxe and accessible rooms with king and queen beds, or $888 for the Aurora Signature Suite with a private deck for stargazing with a telescope.
COVID-19 Considerations: The Northwest Territories’ borders are closed to all non-essential travel. For potential future travels, consult the Government of Northwest Territories’ website for the latest updates and adhere to both territorial and federal travel advisories.