She's a bit of a tease, frankly
March 21, 2013 | Aurora, the Roman Goddess of Dawn, called Eos by the Greeks, flies across the sky each day announcing the arrival of the sun, and her name is given to the phenomenon of the northern lights, Aurora Borealis. Last week Jim & Angela, Bob C, and I went off to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, hoping to see a good show.
The northern lights occur when charged particles from the sun encounter the earth's magnetic field and appear as colored light, most visible in the high northern latitudes, and people travel from all over the world to see the auroras in places like Yellowknife. Last December when we were booking our trip we picked March because it predicted to be a time of heightened solar activity, and it fit into our various schedules. As it turns out, we were just a few days off. Here's an image of an aurora seen just after we left Yellowknife!
Image from the Canadian Space Agency's AuroraMax observatory
Worth traveling for, right?
When you go north in the winter — and it is still winter in the north — you have to be concerned about the temperature, especially if you're used to living in the desert! So just how cold was it? One of those big digital signs that displays time and temperature was visible from my hotel window.
But as anyone who has lived in different places knows, temperature is all relative, perfectly illustrated by the "locals" in the picture at left compared to the out-of-towners muffled in every article of clothing at their disposal.
We rented winter clothing from our aurora tour company (Aurora Village) and were provided with a full set of arctic gear: goose-down filled parka, enormous mittens, huge felt-lined boots, layered snow pants, and a face mask. Although some may find it hard to believe, I was very comfortable, even when the temperature fell below -30°C. In fact, it was only after being out for several hours at night that I began to feel a slight chill across my shoulders.
Dress for success. Layers is the name of the game. On top, I wore a base layer of light-weight polyester (moisture management), topped by an insulating layer, topped by the parka; the first night I also wore a flannel shirt as a third layer, but found that simply made me too hot. On the bottom, I started with a base layer of polyester, topped by long johns for insulation, topped by the snow pants. On my feet, I wore a pair of thin moisture-wicking socks, topped by thick wool socks, topped by the insulated boots; toe-warmers, between the two pairs of socks, kept my feet toasty warm. On my hands, I wore thin polyester liners, topped by the fleece-lined mittens; a hand-warmer in each mitten kept my hands warm, as long as I kept them in the mittens! Finally, on my head I wore a light-weight Merino wool balaclava for wind protection topped by a lined wool cap. Sometimes I would also put up the hood of the parka, but it made it difficult to see and move!
We booked our aurora viewing tours with Aurora Village that offered a package deal including aurora viewing and hotel.
Each evening at 8:45pm we would assemble in the hotel lobby to wait for the bus to take us out to the viewing camp on a lake about half an hour from town, far away from city lights. Once at the lake, a guide would escort us to an "English-speaking" teepee where we would settle in to wait for the auroras to appear. The teepees were heated by wood stoves, and hot beverages were available as well. A separate, well-heated dining hall was available where we could get a cup of hot soup and some bannock (essentially a baking-powder biscuit) and use an honest-to-goodness flush toilet if necessary. Those of hardier constitutions could use unheated outhouses scattered around the camp.
Eventually a guide would come into the teepee and announce that the auroras were beginning to appear, and everyone would bundle up and head outdoors to look. Our first two nights, the aurora rose around 11pm; our third and final night, she played hard-to-get and stayed hidden most of the night. That night, the best display was the one we saw as we got out of the bus back at our hotel at 3am!
Normally, the tour would leave for the hotel at 1am, but if you wanted to stay longer you could extend for an additional 1½ hour. We extended on the first night because the auroras were terrific and we didn't want to miss them. The second night we did not extend because, although the auroras were good, we had had two good nights of viewing. The third night we again extended in hopes that we might still see something (we didn't).
I really, really, really wanted to get some photos of the auroras. Accordingly, I took my digital SLR (Nikon D50) and my glorified point-and-shoot (Panasonic Lumix). Everything I read about photographing the auroras said that I would also need extra batteries for the camera and a tripod, so I schlepped those along as well.
In my hotel room I practiced everything: settings for time exposures, use of the remote control to avoid moving the camera by pushing the shutter clumsily, etc. I had it down cold, no pun intended. At the lake, I discovered that no matter how hard I tried, the Nikon's shutter would simply not work. I would push the button and absolutely nothing would happen.
After a second frustrating night of the same thing, I went googling for help. Eventually I found a post on a technical site that reported the same problem: "I push the shutter button but nothing happens." The response to this was "Read the manual. Multiple times." However, a later poster suggested that it might be that autofocus was not turned off. When I reported this at breakfast the next morning, Jim said that was probably the problem: the camera didn't have enough light to focus (doh!) so it just refused to do anything. What's more, he even knew how to turn off the autofocus (he has the same camera).
Aha! The third night I approached the challenge with renewed confidence. Wrapped the camera in toe-warmers (they had stickum so they would adhere to the camera body) to keep the battery and memory card warm (remember, everything is relative). Set up the camera on the tripod. Clicked the shutter. The shutter opened. And immediately closed! Although the camera was set for timed exposures and the shutter should have stayed open until I pressed the button a second time, there was no joy.
Long story short: my most expensive camera was totally worthless and the only pictures I got were with the simplest camera set on "starry skies." Go figure!
Yellowknife was having a month-long winter festival on the ice of Great Slave Lake, and the weekend would be the Longjohn Jamboree, featuring ice carving, dog races, carnival games, snow beach volleyball, flaunt yer skivvies, and other fun events, all out on the ice. Seems reasonable. Right!
With our schedule of late nights, we ended up eating two meals a day: breakfast at about 10:30am and an early dinner.
Each day we met in the lobby for breakfast at L'Attitude cafe in the mall attached to the hotel. Jim and I invariably had coffee from the coffee stand in the hallway while waiting for the others. Thus, there was no need to bundle up in warm clothes to brave the brisk outdoors.
We took one dinner at MacKenzie's, a restaurant/lounge attached to the hotel. Unfortunately, it was very cold in there, and the food was fair-to-middling.
Two dinners were at the Black Knight Pub a short walk from the hotel. One night was Greek Night and the next was Wing Night — good food, good drink, fine folk.
For our last dinner we went up-market. While out for a walk on Thursday afternoon, we passed a French restaurant quite close to our hotel and considered it as a venue for a final celebratory dinner. "It's supposed to be good," someone said, "but pricey." Let's give it a try. Later that evening we walked in to be greeted by a black-clad waiter who asked if we had a reservation. "No? Well, that's OK, as we are not that busy," he said in a very French accent. We were ushered upstairs where two people were just finishing up their dinner and checking over their bill (we later understood why!).
It was a perfectly charming place with an impressive wine cellar, and a personable waitress. We ordered. For me, "yesterday's soup" to start (yesterday's so the flavors would have time to meld), followed by "le vrai cassoulet" (I committed an offense by asking if it was "real" cassoulet rather than some short-cut version), accompanied by a demi-litre of a merlot-cabernet blend. It was all good. In fact, it was all excellent! The cassoulet was cooked to perfection: the beans still had a bit of a crunch, and a whole half duck rested atop the beans! Of course dessert had to be considered. I ordered crème brûlée without realizing that it was a tray of three different flavors! OMG! Suffice to say, I over-ate and paid for it with a restless night as my stomach fought to cope with the shock and awe of the meal.
The slideshow below is comprised of pictures taken by me, by Bob, and by Jim. Angela didn't have a camera; probably best that way.
Last updated on Apr 13, 2018