The Aurora Borealis is an incredible light show caused by collisions between electrically charged particles released from the Sun, during sunspot or solar flare activity (referred to as coronal mass ejections) that collide with the oxygen and nitrogen gases in the Earth's atmosphere. Driven by solar wind these particles enter the Earth's atmosphere through the north or south pole where the Earth's magnetic field is weaker. A roughly oval shaped area near the north pole called the Auroral zone offers the best viewing opportunity and, in Canada, one of the most perfectly located viewing spots is Yellowknife.
It was a perfectly clear night when we arrived and the Aurora started as soon as it was dark. Driving out of town to get away from any streetlight we were quickly overwhelmed by the display that shimmered and danced across the heavens with incredible speed. Constantly shifting shape, as if an unseen hand was stirring up a cosmic light show, we never knew where to look from one moment to the next.
The next day we were up bright and early to go dog sledding, an exhilarating activity with roots that go back hundreds of years. Snugly tucked into a sled being pulled by 6 Alaskan huskies, that could hardly wait to impress us with their energy and speed, we were off through a trail in the forest at quite a clip and marveling at how easy the dogs made it all look. Expecting some sort of massive dog team to be pulling us we were surprised at how lithe the Alaskan husky is in comparison to the more familiar Siberian or Malamute breed of old and to learn this is now the favoured breed for high endurance racing.
The original sled dogs were chosen for size, strength and stamina and were used for bringing in supplies over the winter to the gold camps, and delivering the mail. Weighing on average 100 lbs each a team of 8 - 10 dogs would pull a sled carrying 500 - 700 pounds of mail. Modern dogs are half the weight and, bred for speed and endurance, are able to reach speeds of up to 28 mph and can cover 100 miles a day. Lovingly cared for by their owner these dogs are extremely affectionate and, next to pulling a sled, their favourite activity is posing for photos.
After all that "mushing" the only thing to do was return to the famous NWT Brewery for a proper lunch and to mingle with the locals who seem to come from all over Canada. Yellowknife has a certain cachet to it that seems to attract young people with different backgrounds and education looking for adventure and wanting to experience life in a northern city that also has a good selection of cosmopolitan entertainments. Couldn't ask for a more congenial atmosphere or a better place for engaging in stimulating conversation.
But as pleasant as it is to be indoors, the locals seem to prefer the outdoors, especially as the days start to get longer. One of the main events of the season is the annual Snow King Winter Festival which has been running every March for 22 years and each year presents the residents with a spectacular new Ice Castle. Built over a period of 2 - 3 months by a team of dedicated volunteers, this amazing piece of architecture becomes the principal attraction and venue for a month of performances by musicians, comedians, and other entertainments.
For kids the most popular feature is of course the slide. There are also ice sculpture displays, snow carving competitions and a film festival. But it's mostly just about roaming around the parapets and walkways exploring the marvelous layout, people watching, and enjoying the view of the frozen Great Slave Lake.
On the second night we were ready for another session under the stars but wondering how Ms. Aurora was going to top off her last performance. We need not have worried as once again the sky was lit up with yet another spectacular display of rapidly moving curtains of light. Northern lights are mostly green in colour caused by the interaction with oxygen at approximately 60 miles above Earth but they can also be purple at the edges and at an altitude of 200 miles they can be red.
The biggest elephant in the room of course is Great Slave Lake, the 10th largest lake in the world and, at 2,000 feet, North America's deepest. Covering an area of over 10,000 square miles it offers almost limitless room for folks wanting to go ice fishing or snowmobiling and, with Yellowknife so conveniently situated on its western shore, this is exactly where most people can be found on any given sunny weekend. That goes for summertime as well.
It was an exhilarating experience flying over the frozen lake with no speed limits or traffic to worry about. When we stopped for a break we even had a curious fox come by to check us out and pose for some photos. "Couldn't let those huskies have all the attention," he said.
Yellowknife is sure a different place in winter than in summer. All the pretty houseboats are frozen into place on the lake and the lake itself becomes part of the famous ice highway for truckers hauling supplies back and forth to the diamond mines. Standing on the lake you can also look back to the bush pilot's monument.
People practice building igloos, carving ice sculptures, and finding alternate ways of getting around. The museum always has an interesting exhibit and, on our last evening, we went to a Dene lodge to eat bannock & white fish and participate in a drumming ceremony.
All in all a fabulous return getaway to a very unique city and, like the inukshuk is trying to point out, "if you're going to Yellowknife you're sure going to meet some friendly people there".