The following publication-ready feature story, "Northern Lights: The Star of a Yukon Sky", was written for Tourism Yukon by local writer Darrell Hookey. You are welcome to publish the piece free of charge and images to accompany the article are available by contacting our media relations department at the email address below. If you do print the story we would appreciate recveiving a copy of the published piece. Tourism Yukon wholly owns the rights to "Northern Lights: The Star of a Yukon Sky".
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Northern Lights: The Star of a Yukon Sky
by Darrell Hookey
“Northern lights, northern lights!”
It was 3:00 on a December morning and the young man who first saw them graciously and excitedly shared the news with those who were enjoying music and hot chocolate in the homey meeting room/log cabin.
With nary a word, parkas were grabbed, hats were pulled over ears and 23 guests streamed out the door. It was as if they were saving their enthusiasm for their first glimpse of the dancing curtains of lights that, to each of them until this very moment, had been just legend.
This particular group tonight were all English as Second Language students who were studying at Yukon College and living with Whitehorse families. Many were Japanese who lived in cities that were lit all night robbing them of even an appreciable sight of the stars.
Yet, on this night, at the Sundog Retreat within walking distance of Robert Service’s Lake Laberge, there was no such “light pollution” and the stars were as plentiful as Jack Pine on a Yukon mountainside. Every hour, new stars were introduced rising in the east replacing those that dipped below the western horizon as the world rotated under the heavens’ most glorious display.
The, er, star of the evening, was the much flashier and majestic Aurora Borealis.
The guests gasped at the first sight and then squealed with glee. They had heard of such things, seen pictures even, but to stand beneath them and watch one of nature’s most glorious displays was more than they had ever hoped for.
As the initial reaction waned, they moved further from the glow of the cheery bonfire for an even better view and, probably, just to enjoy the moment in quiet contemplation.
The heavenly display of lights was courtesy of the sun. Just three days earlier, it sent solar particles hurling toward the earth. This cloud of solar plasma particles was attracted to the Earth’s two magnetic fields where they mixed with our atmosphere and created photons of light. When these particles mixed with oxygen at a height of 120 to 180 kilometres, it glowed green. When they mixed with the nitrogen at 90 to 100 kilometres, they turned blue-green and red.
That was a light show of one trillion watts of power and it shone just for these 23 guests this night ... and for anyone else at the optimum latitude for northern lights viewing. Since it happens mostly over the poles of the earth, a more side view is best, but not so far away that it is too small to be seen. This optimum zone lands between Dawson City to the north and Whitehorse in the south creating a vibrant northern lights viewing industry.
The peak periods are March-April and September-October.
The demand for northern lights viewing is “way bigger than I expected,” says Torsten Eder, owner of Nature Tours of Yukon. In the summer, he arranges canoeing and hiking trips as well as custom trips for all occasions. However, in the winter, it is mostly aurora viewing.
Outfitted in their own cold-weather gear or in rented goose feather parkas, Eder’s guests are driven out to a camp that has a wall tent with a Yukon stove to keep guests warm. Outside is a bonfire and lounging chairs carved from tree trunks for northern lights viewing that doesn’t strain the neck.
Then they wait. They read books from his library and listen to music and roast marshmallows.
Eder says every third night they see something. On a clear night, they will see at least a green glow. If the northern lights are hidden by clouds, at least his guests enjoyed a pleasant outing.
To fill the daytime hours, Eder helps his guests arrange for city tours, dog mushing, ice fishing or many other activities they may seek. This, he says, is his advantage over other regions of Canada that offer northern lights viewing: Whitehorse has so much to offer visitors from museums to mountains to a lively arts scene. And Whitehorse is a daytrip away from Kluane National Park and the downtown is a 30-minute drive from Takhini Hotsprings.
Back at Sundog Retreats, co-owner Andrew Finton says many locals and visitors will rent out their cabins for their own northern lights viewing. These cabins, nestled in the forest, are just steps away from the total darkness of a field with picturesque mountains this way, and Lake Laberge that way. Or the northern lights can be enjoyed from the outside hot tub.
For a more pampered experience, there is Scott and Joanne McDougall who own and operate Kanoe People and their summer/winter camp, Fox Bay Retreat on Lake Laberge.
Big, hearty meals are provided and they will even wake up guests in the middle of the night when the elusive northern lights make their appearance. Once guests pull on warm clothing, there will be hot drinks awaiting them around the cheery campfire.
But Scott says their camp also offers enough independent living so that guests can feel the satisfaction of lighting their own wood stove and lighting the propane lights and candles.
The northern lights are elusive enough – often likened to catch-and-release fishing – that Scott ensures his guests have plenty of activities to enjoy. If they don’t see the northern lights during their visit, at least they had a chance to enjoy the landscape by snowmobile, cross-country ski or hiking. And they can have the experience of jumping from the sauna into a snow drift for a “snow bath”.
Scott says even just walking out onto the ice of Lake Laberge and hearing the thunderous cracking sound as the ice shifts is a thrilling moment as his guests come face to face with the power of nature.
“That’s the awe of the thing,” he says. “Just seeing snowdrifts in the shape of a tree and the beautiful sunsets and watching shooting stars.
“On clear nights, our air is so clean and the sky is so brilliant you can just about read a newspaper.”
Another Whitehorse company, CJ Link Service, picks up guests in the city each night at 11:00 and takes them out to Takhini Hot Springs for a swim in the heated natural spring water and a hot drink, snack and soup.
Enjoying the northern lights is incredible, but to have photos to remember it by and to show friends will keep these moments alive.
James Cackette, president of the Yukon Astrological Club, says he captures many stunning images of the northern lights by using the ol’ trial and error method. But, first, it must start with a tripod and a ready supply of warm batteries for the camera.
He turns off his auto-flash and then opens the aperture to F2.8 or F5.6 and leaves it open 10 to 20 seconds each time.
To make the photo even more special, he places a tree or a mountain in the foreground to give it scale and a sense of place.
And, if there are no northern lights on a particular night, there are always stars to gaze at in some of the best conditions anywhere.
Yukon Northern Lights Operators:
NATURE TOURS OF YUKON - Torsten Eder - www.auroraborealisyukon.com - (867) 667-4868
SUNDOG RETREAT - Andrew and Heather Finton - www.sundogretreat.com - (867) 633-4183
KANOE PEOPLE - Scott and Joanne McDougall - www.kanoepeople.com - (867) 668-4899
YAMNUSKA CJ LINK - www.auroranavi.com - (867) 668-3660
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