Lest you whistle or sing. … This ominous warning comes to my mind as northern lights gently illuminate the pitch-black sky. Indeed, legend has it that whistling, singing or waving would attract the malevolent lights, ready to steal souls or sever heads. Fear not: I am silent and still, alongside a remote lake in the Northwest Territories, for another night of hunting the auroras.
If today we understand the science behind aurora borealis, peoples of the North once perceived them as souls of the dead playing ball with a walrus or a human skull, as fires over which tribesmen cooked their enemies, or even as demons’ lanterns chasing lost souls. Other less sinister beliefs also exist, such as the Finnish legend of a running mythical firefox whose tail grazes the snow or bushes, causing sparks to fly into the sky.
Just look, and let your heart tell you what they mean to you, suggested a friend. Hence, I imagine fairies, rippling magical coloured ribbons, akin to gymnasts, teasing us humans below. Surely, if souls were to take tangible form, they would be northern lights.
Auroras occur when our planet’s magnetic field steers charged particles, travelling from the sun, toward the poles where they collide with gas atoms in Earth’s upper atmosphere. The collisions provoke luminescent reactions in a belt called the auroral oval.
Nowadays, scientists provide short-term aurora forecasts. Tonight, as I am stealth camping near this lake named Bighill, there is an 85-per-cent probability of active northern lights and, thankfully, the sky is clear.
The wind dies down, leaving scarcely a ripple on the lake. My tent sits sheltered among the stunted spruces as tea brews in my pot – I am ready for the show.
The Milky Way appears above, in an ocean of twinkling stars. I feel like I am alone in the world, despite Yellowknife being merely 15 kilometres as the crow flies. This capital city of 20,000 inhabitants offers prime conditions to observe the northern lights – dry climate, clear skies and a position directly beneath the auroral oval. Tourism here, understandably, has evolved around this phenomenon.
I was among those who dreamt of experiencing and photographing this spectacle. I tracked the auroras in winter, spring and fall, sacrificing hours of sleep, frozen and cursing the clouds. They became an addiction and I found myself itching for more and more. Again and again, I set up my tripod adjacent to the emblematic houseboats of the capital, or in the middle of nowhere, as I am doing now.
Slender fluorescent rays flutter in the sky, like drapes in a breeze. Arcs form and shine brightly, fusing, separating and multiplying. They bring life to the firmament, flickering up to 50 shades of green, with rose and purple hues.
Vibrant ribbons spiral in the heavens. Rolling in from all sides: west, south, east, north. If these are souls, they are feverishly unbridled, dancing through infinity.
It’s unsurprising that people once dreaded auroras. As for me, I’ve finally broken the silence, shouting in ecstasy! Yet, my reaction has not angered them, and my head remains intact. They become rather subdued, and a diffuse light floods the sky and blurs. The curtain falls and stars reappear, taking centre stage.
This peak is called an auroral substorm, a geomagnetic activity that eventually subsides. Hopefully, this is a brief intermission. The show is temperamental; it can last hours or just a few minutes.
When the northern lights are active, locals and fellow enthusiasts alert one another on social media. Fanatics tirelessly monitor websites or smartphone apps, readily surrendering a warm bed for freezing temperatures. As timing is everything, hurriedly walking to a park or jumping into a car to see them can end up in vain. At times though, the show disappoints, with hesitant auroras content to play a minor role in the heavens.
In winter, -25 C temperatures will test anyone’s patience. Visitors on organized tours can observe the spectacle from heated 360-degree swivel seats, or warm themselves in buses, tipis or rustic cabins. Personally, the biting cold does little to cool my ardour.
A lime-coloured arc skims the conifers, signalling the end of the intermission. Like a cat, it languorously stretches, its reflection mirrored on the lake’s surface. Could this be a soul admiring its own beauty? Inflated with pride, now energetic, it climbs to the firmament, waxing teal and violet. Amber ribbons ignite the horizon.
Abandoning my camera, I lie on the frozen ground, not wanting to miss a thing. Suddenly, daggers flash down at me from a crown of light.
The glow disperses. The time reads 1 a.m. Five hours have passed in a flash.
Finally, I forgo my tent. Snuggled up in my sleeping bag under the stars, I keep one eye open. No matter how compelling the science of the auroras may be, spending one night in their luxuriant presence is nothing short of magic.
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