I have wanted to go to the Arctic for as long as I can remember. 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 but it’s not a travel destination that many share. When I suggested that I wanted to spend my birthday ice diving in the arctic, Matt just laughed at me. So I went to the Yukon instead.
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 camera and tripod, my warmest toque, and the Pacific Northwest equivalent of a parka and 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 first, we landed 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 out of 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 an 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 twice). Aside from eating and drinking, all this doesn’t take very long and it still wasn’t dark yet so we added in a drive across the ice road and hanging out with some sled dogs. And then we had a nap.
Finally, it was time to head out into the night. We bundled up went to a mountain top outside of town notable for its height, lack of streetlights, and good view of the sky show. It was all of those things and also seriously cold. I set up my camera on the tripod, hopped up and down a few times to get warm, 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 they have become dull and common with overuse. So we have no words for what happens when the sky comes alive and dances with colour. The Inuit have a myth about the lights being spirits of the dead kicking a ball (or walrus skull) around the sky, and others have mentioned aliens in an attempt to understand the phenomenon. Staring skyward for the better part of the night with my friends, it all seemed believable. It was one of the most profound experiences of my life.