Jim Schrempp



See the Aurora Borealis!

             ...if you can


A cold day in Yellowknife, North West Territories, Canada

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January 2012

When we started planning this trip we used Google, of course, to get as much advice as we could. The web has plenty to say about where to go, how to set up your camera, and when is the best time of year. Once we picked a destination - Yellowknife, North West Territories, Canada - we found little to actually help with the trip itself. Along with telling my story and showing a few photos, I will tell you what we did in the hope that you, the reader, will find this all of some use. But I am ahead of myself...

The Plan

Our story begins years ago. We have been gathering to watch the Superbowl every year for a very long time. It started as your typical Sunday afternoon beer, chips, and rib fest at someone's San Jose home. We got older, our food moved upscale. Significant others came and went; a few stuck. We moved. Some moved quite a ways away and Super Sunday became a reason for us to all meet and christen the new digs. Sometimes we rented a house. We kind of lost interest in the game itself, using it only as an excuse to meet up again.

One year that "bucket list" movie got us talking. I think it was Bob who first mentioned wanting to see the aurora borealis. We all agreed. We all agreed about wanting to go to Burning Man too. A Burning Man trip didn't happen (or at least not yet), but this became the year of the aurora trip.

We usually start the Superbowl planning conversation with a few emails in October. Bob quickly put it on the table - how about the aurora? Back and forth the emails flew as members of the team let Google take them to many places. It seems that the top spots for viewing are Fairbanks, Yellowknife, and some place in Finland. We sent emails to lodges in Alaska and Yellowknife. Alaska didn't write back but Yellowknife did. Paul pointed out that Super Sunday was a full moon, so we picked two weeks earlier when the sky would be darkest.

Back and forth, email, phone calls, email, investigation. Finally the phone call, "I'm about to book air fare? Are we serious? Yes? Go!" And the path was set - we were going to Yellowknife.

Getting There

Kayak.com is a wonderful site for searching air fare, but I find their links to the actual purchase sites a bit tenuous. 9 out of 10 times I use Kayak to find the route, but then have to abandon their link to book the tickets directly on the airline web site. This time Kayak found an eight hour trip from SFO to YKK with two stops. Unfortunately Air Canada would not let me book that trip, even directly on their site. AC wanted us to make it a 24 hour trip including a night in the Calgary airport. I'm too old for that bullshit so we decided to spend two days in Vancouver, BC on our way there. Paradoxically the trip back can be easily made in one day.

She likes historic hotels and with some trepidation over mixed online reviews, I booked The Victorian. We got a room with ensuite bath and it turned out to be delightful. The staff was very friendly and helpful. The room clean and well maintained. There is no elevator in this two story hotel, so it's not a hotel for you if a hip replacement is in your future. The hotel is just two blocks uphill from the Gas Light area, well situated for the tourist. Some online reports say it's a "bad" area, but we did not find it that way at all. It is downtown so if you walk back late at night, the streets are deserted. Not dangerous to us, but if you're a country person you might feel uncomfortable - that's really you, not the place.

The Victorian Hotel current entrance. It appears they are remodeling into a boutique hotel with entrance around the corner, across from the backpacker hotel.

Her delicious appetizer at Pour House
View from Gas Light district up the hill to The Victorian Hotel. Two blocks up on the left. Not a bad area in any way.

January in Vancouver is rainy and either cold or very cold. We took a taxi to the Museum of Anthropology (MOA) at BC University. What a wonderful museum of the area. Spectacular collections of totemic art and folk art. We took the hour long tour and then spent five more hours wandering the halls and galleries. One great innovation is their "multi university." (I had to ask again when I thought I heard the guide say, "this way to the multi-verse.") This is a warren of floor to ceiling display cases and drawers chock full of the museum's collection. Everything is on display. Each area has a touch screen computer with access to the entire catalog. You can look at one basket in a display case, bring it up on the computer, and then view it from all sides, inside, read about the collection, artist, technique, and links to other items. With the entire collection on display, anyone can research the material. And this is all available to you at home in your own web browser. This is clearly the template for museums of the future.

Outside of the MOA, UBC. The building design is meant to echo that of a first nation long house.

This "bowl" was filled with sugar by the host of a potlach. Handfuls were given to each guest.

Me in front of the train station. It was a cold walk that day.

A 360 of the great room at the museum. You can see house poles all over. Angela stands in front of a collection of potlach bowls.

We had one very fine dinner at the Pour House. A most delicious mushroom compote on puff pastry, floating on a pesto of arugula and walnut. Such a refreshing taste after our last travel meal disaster at Craft Steak in Las Vegas! (I do NOT recommend Craftsteak.)

How Cold?

I was frankly a bit worried about the temperatures we'd face in Yellowknife. We're traveling to the edge of the arctic circle in the middle of winter. The advertised average temperature is minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit; on the extreme it can get down to -40F. Would we be able to handle that? My California blood might prove too thin. We have rented clothes waiting in YK, but what about getting there? Would our skin freeze on contact with the air? Our email conversations with the hotel and tour company in YK were a bit unsettling. They responded, but not quickly, and they didn't have much precision in their answers. It reminded me of traveling to third world countries where they say, we'll work it out when you're here - no worries. But this was no warm Tahitian village where we could sleep outside if we had to. This place has cold that will kill.

In the week before our travel I woke up one day to think, "is YKK so small that we'll walk off the plane and into the human-killing cold night? Do we wear our balaclavas on the plane?" I thought we faced two possible futures. In one, I'm wearing a short sleeve shirt, sitting in a narrow airplane seat when the seat belt light goes out. I look around to see everyone else putting on parkas, balaclavas, and ski goggles. I have none of these with me and the cabin attendant looks at me with some alarm. "Sir, how will you exit the plane?" In my other imagined future, I'm on the plane sweating in my balaclava, long johns, wind pants, and parka. As the seat belt light goes off I pull on my ski goggles. Looking around I see that everyone else is in short sleeve shirts. Clearly, I needed to get this sorted out.

The web is a wonderful place and I quickly found a "write for info" email link at the YKK web site. To my surprise, my email was returned in ten minutes by the regional airport manager Steve. We went back and forth several times as he fielded and tolerated my clueless questions. YKK does not have jet bridges; passengers descend onto the tarmac for a walk to the terminal. As to suiting up on the plane, Steve recommended gloves, boots, a jacket and a toque. "What about ski goggles?," I asked. "I don't even own a pair of ski goggles," was the response. Huh? I thought living in a freezing hell would require them. This was the beginning of a thaw in my mental image of our adventure to Yellowknife.

On Monday we headed to Vancouver airport with our heaviest gear in the checked luggage. We wore our bulky ski jackets, hiking boots, light gloves, and our toques. Being already in Canada our flights were all domestic. At our short layover in Calgary we find Claire at the gate, ready for the final leg. The next thing you know it's 10PM and our CRJ200 is on the ground in YKK. Bing - that's the seat belt light going off. I notice that the cabin attendant is only wearing a heavy coat as he opens the door.  No one is wearing ski goggles - good news. 

I am the first person off the plane. I had been warned that the first breath of icy air would sear my lungs, making me gasp for breath. While I was mentally prepared, that didn't happen. The minus 10F air was certainly cold, I could feel the chill through my jeans, but I wasn't going to die walking to the terminal. At the bottom of the stairs is the gate agent, a woman with so many layers of cold protection she looks like the Michelin Man. As I stepped off she offered a muffled greeting and extended her mittened hand, directing me to the terminal. I notice two big 737s on the tarmac - so this isn't as small a runway as I thought. A quick walk and we were safely inside a sparse, clean, and inviting terminal. Bob is there to meet us, having just flown in on one of those 737s. We have a short wait for the single luggage belt to deliver our luggage. The agent is back in side, holding her infant on her hip. Maybe YKK *is* as small as I thought. Our luggage makes it and we are on the way to the hotel.


Our bus drops the flight crew off at The Explorer hotel on the edge of town. It stands by itself and the lobby looks very nice. The Yellowknife Inn is a few blocks away. The lobby is small, with just a few seats, but bright and modern. We have a king suite on the 4th, and top, floor. It's big, roomy, and well appointed. Now our last worry is gone. This will be a very comfortable trip.

Snow on The Yellowknife Inn Bob, Angela, Claire in the hotel lobby. Yellowknife street scene.

The Yellowknife Inn is in the middle of town. It's connected to a small indoor shopping mall (Center Square Mall) with few stores of interest, a coffee bar (The Gourmet Cup), two hotel-like restaurants that share a common kitchen, two fast food joints, a very good Chinese restaurant, and the Yellowknife public library. Not a bad set up. Every morning I get an excellent coffee and drink it in the lobby while reading the LA Times on my Kindle. Almost seems like home. We breakfast in the hotel associated restaurant (L'atitudes), which has very good omelettes. Over the week we eat dinner at the other restaurant (MacKenzie Lounge), where the meal is acceptable and the staff less interested in serving. A musk ox stir fry yields weak vegetables and tough meat. One night we dine at the new Chinese restaurant. The food is authentic and loaded with fantastic fresh vegetables. For lunch we found Surly Bob's a friendly basement place, if a bit pricey. I wonder if they have a "local's price list," since we couldn't afford to eat there every day. The chili was too spicy for Claire, but tasted pretty good to me.

One day we spent four hours in the local museum, which is really just a one-hour museum - when it's freezing cold outside it's good to be inside. The museum has it all - local history, local fauna, local curiosities. An entire room is dedicated to the early airmail team of the Northwest. We also spent an hour in the big Yellowknife visitor center chatting with the desk man about life in the north. Near the visitor center we spy two snow white ptarmagens sitting in a bush. They look like white basketballs. One day we took a walk out to old town. It is part of Yellowknife sitting on a granite outcropping into the great Slave lake. I, unfortunately, got cold feet on the way there [pun intended] and headed back after half the walk. The rest made it and recommend the place.

The view from our room. A KFC in the background. My favorite quote in the museum.

Despite the snow, Yellowknife is dry like a desert. The six inches of snow we see is all that's accumulated so far this season. And it is fine, powdery snow that makes skiing so much fun. Each step is a squeezy crunch. Without liquid water to freeze there is very little ice on the sidewalks. Instead sliding all over the place, I find my footing with every step.

The Tour

We made reservations with Aurora Village. Our package included our hotel room, heavy winter clothing, and two nights of aurora viewing. We had a hard time getting questions answered via email, so we were not sure what to expect. It turns out to be a fine operation. Tuesday at 6PM they delivered our rental clothing. We each got a very heavy parka, huge insulated boots, a loose fleece balaclava, and mittens as big as laboratory acid gloves.

Bob on the streets of Yellowknife. Our rented gear. A parka good down to -40F, boots, mittens, pants, balaclava. In the lobby, ready for our first night out. [photo by Bob]

We were excited about our first night of viewing. There had been a massive coronal mass ejection (CME or solar flare) on Sunday, expected to hit the Earth on Tuesday. This CME was so big that airlines were rerouting flights away from the polar routes. Great news for our group! The weather was also unseasonably warm at 0F. This should have been taken as a warning; warm times indicate cloud cover that can spoil the view.

At 9PM the lobby is packed with blue parka'd Japanese. Yellowknife is a popular destination for Japanese tourists. We heard that a child conceived under the aurora is blessed, but most of these people are older or in same sex couples - not much child bearing activity. Maybe there's just a good tour operator connection in Japan? In any case they are the dominant visitors here and Aurora Village is ready for them. The tour guides all speak Japanese and many are from Japan. We're packed into a yellow school bus for the 30 minute drive to AV. The plan is to get away from city lights and have the best chance of seeing the aurora.

The bus was safe, but none too comfortable. On the bus to our first night at Aurora Village

Picasa maps the GPS location from my iPhone photos

Aurora Village is situated on the edge of a frozen lake. It consists of a number of very large teepees, one is 50 feet across at the base. Each has a flap door and a wood burning stove inside. Hot chocolate, tea, and coffee are provided. Simple tables and folding chairs give us a place to take off our jackets and wait for the aurora. And wait. And wait. AV also has a dining hall a short walk up the hill where we can each get one bowl of hot soup and native bannoc - a biscuit by another name. They also offer a set of heated outdoor seats with an unobstructed view of the sky. These seats are molded fiberglass like you might find on a ride at an amusement park. Each seat has a tonneau-like cover with hot air blown underneath. On a cold night with an active aurora, these $30 seats would be marvelous. Under tonight's cloud cover they all sit empty. I've been asked by friends at home: yes, they have toilet facilities. This is not Everest base camp.

Teepees    [photo by Bob] Claire, Bob, Angela waiting for the Aurora Angela, Jim in the lodge.

We spend our time walking on the lake, sitting in camp chairs outside, listening to other guests titter about the snow, and generally doing nothing. 1AM comes without any sighting. We get on our bus. Back at the hotel we doff our heavy clothes and collapse into sleep.

Wednesday we're faced with a decision - do we pay for a third night at AV? We have to decide by 6PM today about Thursday. Last night we saw nothing and today has been overcast. We pay another $99 each to give us yet another chance of seeing the northern lights. AV easily takes our money.

Wednesday night is about the same as Tuesday. At the village we're in a smaller teepee tonight - the "non Japanese" tent. We chat up small groups from Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. We meet Marlene Walker from Toronto who has made a second career as a nature photographer, and we have a long talk about her work. I enjoy meeting other people and hearing about their trips. Many of the Asians are on two week trips, combining Yellowknife with Vancouver BC and Toronto. The twelve Koreans did not travel together. They are groups of one, two, or three that came here independently and are meeting for the first time. One woman is on a year long sabbatical from her job at YSL fashion marketing. She's traveling the world and brought her mother and nephew with her to see the aurora. Her next stop is the Uyuni Plain in Bolivia, the world's largest mirror. The camaraderie is nice, but it does not make up for the lack of an aurora. The cloud cover is thick.

The AV staff puts on a "trick show, outside please?" Blue bodies gather around a table as one of the guides, in Japanese, explains. He has a plate of spaghetti with the noodles frozen in a stiff tower. A cup of ramen noodles frozen solid. These are passed through the crowd and people take photos of their friends faking amazement at the sight. From under the table he pulls out a log and a nail, and then uses a banana to pound one into the other. A long rag is splashed with water and swung around until it freezes stiff and straight. The big dial thermometer behind him shows 0F and he has to do the towel trick a couple of times before it really works. I guess we're not going to see the aurora tonight.

Aurora Village offers an "extended stay" each night. For another $30 one can stay an extra 90 minutes in hope that the aurora comes up - and the cloud cover abates - later in the night. A number of people sign up. With the heavy clouds overhead we decline. At 1AM we've seen nothing, another bust. As we walk back to the busses I ask our tour guide, "Do you think the remaining people will see the aurora later tonight?" "Not a chance," she whispers to me. Strike two for us.

AV in daylight. Note teepee behind tree at left.
[photo by Bob]
Blue bundled people in front of the teepees Angela and Jim - the aurora will not be rushed.

Thursday is colder and clear. Oh, if only this holds through the night. Midday temperature in town is -5F. A breeze is blowing and they say with windchill the effective temperature is -25F. Bob and Claire are off to dog sled this afternoon. That's another $100 each for a 30 minute ride and a chance to play around Aurora Village in the daylight. Angela and I put on our parkas and head off for an easy walk around town. Easy that is until the cold sets in. Boy howdy, it is much colder than before. Locals walk around without head covering, so I start out that way. Half a block later I have my toque on and by the end of the block my parka hood is up too. It is now so cold that my legs are feeling the freeze through my jeans and long johns. I pull my iPhone out of an inner pocket and take off my glove for a quick photo here and there. Each time my fingers can really feel the cold. 

We've been out about ten minutes when we decide to head right back to the hotel. My teeth are starting to hurt from the cold. I think we would have been absolutely fine if we had worn our rented wind pants and mittens. But we had not. For us it was back to the lobby couches for coffee and a book. 

It Is Here

Thursday evening begins in the same as Wednesday evening. Sometime after the return from our walk the clouds have come back in. Hopefully if they came in this quickly, it might also clear up quickly. Dinner at 6. Suit up for the bus trip at 9. Sitting in a teepee by 10. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Our new friends from last night are here again, a few more and a few less; every day some part of the crowd turns over. One hot chocolate leads to the next and the next. At least no one is smoking. The cloud cover remains. Midnight is approaching and we have to decide if we want to pay the extra $30 to stay. I question the guide in our teepee about last night. "Did the aurora come up after we left?" "A little," he says. He says they saw a blurry green glow above the clouds. That is not what we came to see. Still, we did come all this way...

Hot soup and bannoc on a cold night.
[photo by Bob]

I'm ready to go out and see it.

She's ready too.

I pull out my credit card to sign up for the extended stay. Our teepee guide is from Japan and is very polite and officious as he adds us to the night's "extras" list.

While he writes a receipt for me I say, "Aurora Village is a gold mine."

He pauses and turns to me. "Yes, you are correct. This area used to be a very big gold mine. Much gold was found."

"No," I reply as I tap my finger on my AmEx card. "Aurora Village *is* a gold mine."

He looks to my card, back to me, understanding in his eyes. "Ah yes. A real gold mine," he says with a smile.

Evidence of minus 17 Fahrenheit Recharging with warmth from the stove Is that it?     [photo by Bob]

We're fidgeting. We go outside and stare at the sky. Could that be a star over there? Maybe over there too? It's too dark to see the clouds, but the lack of a massive star field indicates our view is still obscured. Most of the tourists leave at 1AM. Just 20 or so are left in this small teepee. Nothing to do but sit. The big dial thermometer is showing -17F. It is significantly colder than last night. Luckily there is no wind. Even so, standing or sitting outside for a time means spending more time in front of the stove later.

A scant 15 minutes after the others leave, our teepee guide touches the radio in his ear and straightens up. "The aura is here. Please to go outside now." You bet!

We suit up quickly and jump through the flap door. Where? Where? Oh, over there! A big fuzzy green glow in part of the sky. Not too spectacular, but at least we can see it. As we watch it gets brighter, and brighter. Soon it is a big, oval green blob. Then it begins to coalesce into the more familiar green serpentine brush stroke across part of the sky. And then it fades away. Wow. What? Over there? Another line of green. When did that show up? Then another. Then nothing. Black sky. Show's over. Things had happened quickly, so we all stand staring at the sky, waiting for it to come back. Gradually it dawns on me that I'm too cold and I head into the teepee. Everyone else comes in too. Has this been it? We've seen the aurora, but like one small bite of a chocolate bar, I am not satisfied.

Mittens off, crowding the stove and the hot tea thermos, I don't want to give voice to my "oh well" attitude. The tent flap opens and some people step out. I sit in quiet contemplation working to commit to memory what I have just seen.

A petite Japanese guide is staring through the flap door at me in a cherubic way. I stare back. She looks at me, puzzled. "The aura is up!," she says. "Please come see it now." Oh! Knowing how tenuous the experience can be, we are out in a flash. A wonder greets us as we reenter the night.

A huge green area of the sky brightens and morphs into a paint brush stoke of fluorescent green. The stroke slowly floats across the sky, subtly changing shape as it moves. I watch it drift along when Bob grabs my attention with "over there!" And I watch another thread form and float. My peripheral vision catches another line and I turn to see one more large arc directly overhead. My god, they are now continuously forming and fading out all over the sky. Sometimes just light wisps of green. Other times bands as wide as my palm stretch from horizon to horizon directly across the sky. I'm acting like a kid in a snowfall, arms out, looking straight up, and slowly turning in circles. "wow, wow, wow" is all I can keep saying. This is an unbelievable show of the power of the universe, right before our eyes.

One time a green line splits and fizzles like a lit fuse until a gap as wide as my outstretched fingers appears. Then the broken ends grow quickly towards each other, curl around, and reattach into a continuous line again. It all happens in two seconds. "Wow," I say yet again. There are no other words.

Looking toward the teepees I can see a wide swath of glowing green rising behind them into the sky. Silhouettes of the trees remind me of a green forest fire in the distance. More green comes and goes and comes again. All around me I hear the squeaking of crushed snow and the squeals of delight as everyone stares in wonder at this spectacle of nature. The display is often bright enough to light the frozen lake as if a full, green moon were above us.

We went on like this for 45 minutes, dancing and staring at the sky. And then it all fades away. I think it slowed down and then faded out, but I'm not sure. One minute I was staring into the sky transfixed in complete awe, and the next it was dark and I was back on Earth. We practically pranced back to our teepee, the energy of the crowd matching what we saw in the sky. The aurora borealis was over for this night, and we returned to our hotel at 3AM. Despite the long day and late time, I lay awake another hour thinking about I had just witnessed.

I am not religious. I am not a mystical person. I do not put crystals around my desk at work. Friends would say I'm pretty well grounded in reality. And yet, I can only describe this time as a spiritual experience. Like looking into the beating heart of the universe. I'm writing this after being back home two weeks and I'm excited again to relive that night. My pulse accelerates and my mind wanders thinking about the aurora display we saw. It seems so magical. It's hard to explain the experience in words. In the last weeks I've likened it to standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon. A thing so big that you can't take it all in at once. A thing so big it pulls you into it. If you've been there then you know how hard it is to tell others about that feeling. Imagine now standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon and watching it move before your eyes, squirming across your entire field of vision as it melts from one abstract form to another. Prolonged lightning without the fierceness. This is a gentle, calming experience.

A week of travel, a bit of cash, a lot of cold, all for just a 45 minute light show in the sky. Well, well worth it.

One grainy view of what we saw. Note the tree. 
[photo by Bob]

The digital camera does not capture the spectacle we saw. Here you see one of the teepees. [photo by Bob] The Canadian Space Agency AuroraMAX web site archives sky views. This is from one day before we showed up.  Wow.

I would call this the experience of a lifetime, except that we may go back. 2012 and 2013 are expected to be solar maximums with lots of CME events. If we hear reports this summer of stunning activity on the Sun, then we may be back again in November or December. Traveling there was easy. The accomodations made our stay pleasant. And the Aurora Borealis was an exerience I want to repeat.