Northwest Territory: Chasing the Aurora B
Chasing the Aurora Borealis in Yellowknife, Canada
By Trupti Devdas Nayak
Yellowknife, Canada is the closest I’ve come to experiencing temperatures similar to the Arctic and Antarctic. Having lived in Buffalo, New York for a couple years, I thought I knew all about snow and the freezing cold, but Yellowknife proved to be a completely unparalleled experience. I have wanted to view the Northern Lights, also known as Aurora Borealis, for a long time.You might think of places like Alaska, Norway or Iceland when it comes to seeing the Northern Lights, but did you know Yellowknife in the heart of the Northwest Territories in Canada is one of the world’s best places to view the Aurora Borealis? Blessed with clear skies throughout the year, crystal clear scenic lakes and few obstructing mountain ranges, Yellowknife provides the perfect landscape to watch the dancing lights overhead. Winter months are the best time to visit since they promise long dark nights and star studded skies.
Extreme Winter Weather
For those who prefer less extreme weather, spring and fall seasons are also a favorable time to see the Northern Lights in relative comfort. Visiting Yellowknife in winter is an experience in itself. Whether you go for the Northern Lights or for the frozen eyelashes, I guarantee that Yellowknife will soon be on top of your list as one of the coldest places you’ve ever been. Temperatures in winter can drop to lower than -40 degree celsius and most people do not realize how cold this can feel.
We ourselves did not realize this until we experienced it. Firstly, in order to brave these below freezing temperatures, renting winter gear is imperative. No two questions about it, all wise travelers to Yellowknife plan to rent winter gear for their visit.
Of course, unless you intend to pack full-size Canada Goose Down Parkas and military boots that happen to be only three times the size of your regular shoes. Several local companies and tour operators provide winter gear rentals, along with pickup and drop-off directly to the airport or your hotel.
Winter gear rentals usually include everything needed to survive outdoors in Yellowknife; like a Canada Goose parka, thick padded snow pants, military boots, fleece gaiter, balaclava and mittens.
Once outfitted in several layers and all this gear, I could've been mistaken for either the Michelin Man or a waddling Emperor Penguin. Better to be safe and warm than sorry and freezing. The Northern Lights are visible only at night and usually sometime between the hours of 10pm - 4am. The auroral activity usually peaks at around 1am and again around 3am, but these patterns are entirely dependent on recent solar activity. There are official websites which provide aurora alerts via email and share predictions of auroral activity.
Off the Grid Guesthouse
This makes it easier to plan an upcoming visit and be reasonably confident about a spectacular show, provided the weather plays nice. If there is cloud cover or rain, it doesn’t matter how active the aurora is, since most of it will be happening hundreds of miles above the earth’s surface and won’t be visible from the ground. In Yellowknife, we stayed at a lovely guesthouse, Willow Ridge Retreat that is completely off the grid.
It was three days and nights of wondrous excitement as we hiked out every evening to a vast frozen lake that was right in the guesthouse’s backyard, and got to experience the most spectacular show in the world right above our heads. There are several options to see the Northern Lights in Yellowknife. If staying in the city / downtown area, the most popular option is to book a tour and go “Aurora Hunting” with a group of people. There are several great companies which offer these tours nightly and many people love the convenience of not having to drive themselves around.
All the logistics are taken care of and they prefer relaxing in the van or bus as it drives them to places far away from the city lights to view the Aurora. You can read about my experience with the company North Star Adventures in Yellowknife here. The second option and the one that worked best for us, was to stay off the grid at a place away from the city. We were able to see the Aurora right outside the guesthouse and above our heads without having to go hunt for it.
The third option is to get a rental car and drive yourself to far away frozen lakes and secluded public parks to get a private audience with the Northern Lights. This option is recommended only if you know the area well or have a local with you who knows where you need to go. You should also be reasonably confident and comfortable driving yourself around in snowy conditions. The first time we headed out to frozen Prelude Lake for a night of Aurora watching, we weren’t sure what to look for.
Our amazing hosts at Willow Ridge Retreat had kindly set up a wood-stove heated tent for us to stay warm throughout the night, and we went a bit early to settle in and wait for the Aurora action to begin. All of us took turns to stand outside the tent in superlative freezing temperatures and look up every now and then to see if the activity had started. We ignored a hazy white cloud that appeared to be sweeping gently across the sky, thinking it was cloud cover blocking our view of the Milky Way.
Little did we know that we were in fact looking at the initial lights of the Aurora Borealis! Soon, what had appeared as hazy white cloud started turning distinctly green. That is when we realized that the Aurora Borealis was right above us and Nature’s most spectacular show was about to begin. As we watched mesmerized, the aurora spread out all around us within minutes. We were soon engulfed in hazy green streaks which appeared to be taking on a life of its own. Mirroring our own squeals of excitement, the aurora started dancing in the skies above us, wave after wave of luminous green taking over all our senses.
Invisible fingers seemed to be playing unearthly music on long thin keys of green, pink and purple as the Aurora gracefully moved across the skies. Photographing the Northern Lights comes with its own set of challenges.
For handy tips and more information on how to photograph this elusive yet magnificent phenomenon, read more here. One might think that a couple hours of watching the Northern Lights would be enough, especially when it’s -32 deg celsius and below. But we couldn’t get enough of it!
We stayed out for several hours mesmerized by the lights, until it finally got unbearably cold and we could not feel our fingers anymore. That was a sign to head back to the guesthouse at 2:30am.
Around 3 am there’s usually another spike in the activity and it started just as we got back to the house. Rather than go inside the house, we all gathered around in the backyard, looking up at the majesty of the Aurora, framed gorgeously by silhouetted trees. The entire experience is so intangible, so moving, so surreal and so beyond our imagination that even now, when I close my eyes, I can will myself back to that place and time.
And my memories of the Northern lights are sharper and more vivid than ever. Our nights belonged to Her Majesty the Aurora Borealis, but our days were spent exploring all that Yellowknife has to offer. Winter means snow and lots of fun outdoor adventures. Snowshoeing and snowmobiling are some adventure winter activities that come to mind, but there are a couple unique activities that make Yellowknife special.
Dog-sledding is a popular activity and having read about this (thanks to Buck from the book Call of the Wild
by Jack London) but never having experienced it, we were thrilled to bits about going dog-sledding!
Beck’s Kennels in Yellowknife is a popular company offering a variety of dog-sledding experiences, from ride your own dog sled, to a northern outdoor adventure, to a group dog sled experience.
We chose to ride our own dog sled and got to experience both riding in the sled and driving our own dogs! Initial caution gave way to pure adrenaline-fueled fun as the huskies took off at top speed.
Meeting the Snow King
What fun to mush the dogs and yell “go go go!” as they race along on snowy trails lined with evergreen firs. You can read more about my experience going dogsledding here. We also got a private tour of Yellowknife’s famous Snow Castle by the Snow King himself.
Every year the Snow King and a group of his best men gather together and build a palatial castle made completely of solid frozen ice. The castle comes equipped with an ice bar, tables and seats carved from ice, beautifully designed ice windows that let in natural sunlight and even a solid frozen ice dance floor.
The entire town gathers inside the Snow Castle to celebrate the peak of winter in Yellowknife, most locals stay until the wee hours of the morning. With a rental car, you have the freedom to drive around and see sights like the famed Dettah Ice Road which is featured in the Ice Road Truckers TV series!
This road exists only in winter, thanks to solid frozen lakes on which the loaded trucks can transport supplies. Ice fishing is another activity to indulge in for those who love fishing.
Several companies offer guided tours to experience all these unique activities in Yellowknife. There’s definitely no dearth of things to do in the daytime! Yellowknife, Canada is the perfect place to go to realize your dream of seeing the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis).
Even in the freezing temperatures and winter snow, you will feel the warmth and friendliness of the locals when visiting this city in the heart of the Northwest Territories in Canada. Standing underneath the swirling and dancing lights of the Aurora Borealis is sure to be a magnificent experience you will never forget.
Winter Gear Rental companies:
My Backyard Tours
North Star Adventures
Off the grid guesthouse:
Willow Ridge Retreat
Dog Sledding Tour company:
Trupti Devdas Nayakis a Travel Writer and Photographer based in San Francisco, California. She is passionate about travel and writing and has explored countries in Asia, the Americas and Europe extensively. Her greatest joy is when she can combine travel and writing to craft a story that is both compelling and evocative. Trupti’s writing and photography has been published in National Geographic Traveller India, Viator Travel Blog, Viator Things To Do, Snowshoe Magazine, and other publications. Visit her website Exploring The Blue Marble.