I have wanted to go to the Arctic for practically my entire life. When I was a kid my aunt and uncle went to Tuktoyaktuk (in the Northwest Territories) for a year to work with Inuit artists and they came back with two huskies, a cool nickname for my cousin and a pack of stories – I’ve been hooked on the north ever since. It’s not a travel destination that many share, however. When I suggested that I wanted to spend my 40th birthday ice diving in the arctic, Matt just laughed his ass off. So instead I went to the Yukon.
It’s practically the Arctic…parts of it are. A few good friends had taken serial trips to Dawson City to photograph the Northern Lights and I figured that my penchant for taking photos (mostly with my iPhone), combined with my fondness for adventure plus my obvious expertise as a Nat Geo explorer wannabe made me an obvious candidate for the trip. I packed my DSLR, my tripod, my warmest toque and the Pacific Northwest equivalent of a parka but fast forward a few months and I found myself on top of a mountain at 4 AM, jumping up and down with my fists jammed into my armpits trying to keep warm.
It occurred to me – not for the first time – that I am not cut out to be a landscape or wildlife photographer. Too much sitting around. I am more the type of photographer that takes a selfie out of a train window on a mountain switchback and hope it works out.
But let’s back up to a few weeks previous. I went down to the beach by our house to try and glean as much photographic knowledge from my husband as possible. He made a valiant effort but per usual I was more interested in the nighttime beach happenings than the dials on the camera. I knew that my eye for detail was not going to help one whit with nighttime pics but eventually I decided to wing it anyways and set off for a little-visited part of the YVR airport.
When my friends and I arrived in Whitehorse I was surprised by the desolateness and big-town-in-the-outback feel. Instead of advertising the usual spas and kiddie attractions, the brochure in the hotel room was a mining directory. There was also a Tim Hortons, a CIBC bank, lots of government buildings and monuments and, of course, a bar. It’s called the Dirty Northern Bastard and we spent the majority of our time in the city there – all of us keeping watch on the cloud cover and refreshing the NOAA forecast for the Aurora Borealis in the hopes that we would get lucky.
The first time I went to Las Vegas I drove from Phoenix and the city appeared in the desert like a lit-up oasis. To compare Dawson City to Vegas would be ridiculous but the surprise reveal was similar; after driving for hour through a bleak and desolate landscape, we turned a corner and entered a gold rush town, revived. I roused myself from the nest I’d made in the back seat and started oohing and ahhing at all the old buildings.
The top 10 things to do in Dawson include drinking at Diamond Tooth Gerties’, looking at Robert Service’s log cabin, visiting the Jack London museum, walking by the S.S. Keno (an historic steamboat displayed beside the river), walking by the dilapidated St. Paul’s Anglican Church partially sunk into the ground due to the permafrost, and eating at the Greek restaurant (one of the only places open through the winter. we went there twice). Aside from eating and drinking, this doesn’t take very long so we added in a drive across the ice road to take photos from a bluff and hanging out with some sled dogs that were in town for a race. There’s not much open over the winter in Dawson.
But after a short rest we bundled up and headed out to a mountain top outside of town. Notable for its height, lack of streetlights and relative proximity to the sky show, it was also seriously cold. I set up my camera on the tripod, hopped up and down a few times, and then stared at the sky. I didn’t have to wait long – a green glow appeared on the horizon, stretched out into a curtain and then hung there shimmering. It was utterly magical.
Words like ‘awesome’, ‘mind-blowing’ and ‘extraordinary’ were invented for wonders like the Northern Lights but have become dull and common with overuse. So we have no words for what happens when the sky comes alive and dances with color. Aliens have been mentioned and most Inuit have some folklore around the lights being spirits of the dead kicking a ball / walrus skull around the sky…staring skyward for the better part of the night with my friends, it all seems believable. One of the most profound experiences of my life.
The next day we ate at the only restaurant that was open, explored the dredge and then took a nap so we could do it all again.
Check out the story I wrote for Steller stories: