Aurora in Kluane National Park, Yukon
Image: Chris Carr courtesy Serena PR
I press my face to the airplane window and take in the vague green blob that hovers below the flipped-up tip of the Boeing 737 wing. I’ve flown 1,500 miles to Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory and then in a second jet a few hundred miles more to the Arctic Circle at 1am to see this very fuzzy orb of green: the aurora borealis.
Almost half a million tourists make their way to the Yukon every year, a territory that sits atop British Columbia and backs into Alaska. Whitehorse truly is a city; with more than 25,000 residents it can boast an actual downtown, multiple museums, and more than one vegetarian restaurant. But the main attraction is the enigmatic, all-natural light show that comes out at night, sometimes, mostly in winter. The northern lights.
Not every tourist destination stands as still as the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty; no guarantee could ever make the ephemeral lights show up on schedule. The thrilling uncertainty feels familiar to a Pacific Northwesterner, given how Mount Rainier may pout behind the clouds just when you reach the perfect viewpoint or the orcas go absent during a whale-watching trip.
The specially chartered night flight out of Whitehorse, a tour called Aurora 360, tries to minimize the chance of an aurora goose egg. I moved down a few main-cabin rows to where a photographer had set up a high-powered camera on the light show, its display screen rendering a fishhook of yellow and green, the color seeping upward slowly like a slow-
motion hourglass. As I cup my hands around the camera screen I keenly feel the separation, several layers of glass between my naked eyes and the thing I’d come to see.
The night before I stood in bitter cold about 12 miles north of Whitehorse, on one edge of a clearing among several canvas tents with wood ceilings. Well past 11pm, anyone outside danced a bit even in puffy coats that went down past our butts, furry snow boots doing a shuffle on the snow on a one-night tour from Northern Tales.
“We tell people that based on our experience, the lights show every second to third night on average,” says company co-owner Torsten Eder. Inside the fire-warmed huts guides serve hot chocolate and cider, snacks and books and storytelling. Chatter turns to the current cold snap, hitting 22 below (Celsius, though it sounds just as bad in Fahrenheit). Someone relays a story of locals who were stranded in the cold the night before, forced to light their car on fire to stay warm enough until morning. “Cars just stop working below about -20,” a guide shrugs.
Eventually we can make out a vague glow across the open field, and those with advanced camera settings manage to catch photos with a green tint; from the naked eye and my cell phone camera, though, it doesn’t look like much. Spending a night enveloped among the dark trees, feeling that otherworldly cold—it was undeniably cool. But a light show? Not really.
What makes the northern lights, or aurora borealis, so special also renders them frustrating in tourism terms. The phenomenon appears when solar-charged particles barrel toward the earth and excite atoms in the atmosphere, causing them to light up. Think of it as the sound of an ice cream truck wafting through the neighborhood, causing the kindergartners in your backyard to rev into hyper mode—the cause may be blocks away, but you see the affect right here.
“Some people are always thinking it’s like Disneyland—you flip a switch and you get everything, all the colors,” says Anthony Gucciardo, a registered nurse who launched the annual Aurora 360 chartered flight. Those blockbuster photos of the northern lights? They may only reflect what a camera can see. The plane’s ability to chase the lights makes it far more successful than land-based aurora hunting, but after Covid canceled the 2021 flight it’s unclear whether it will return.
Whitehorse has plenty to recommend itself during the day, from dogsled rides to the SS Klondike, a sternwheel boat that once ran the Yukon River. The Yukon Wildlife Preserve gathers a truly spectacular collection of animals, making for easy viewing of lynx, muskox, and arctic fox. Teena Dickson, owner of Who What Where Tours, notes that her extended family has been leading tourists around the region since 1903, just after the gold rush; the wide, cold Yukon landscape itself can predictably provoke awe.
Still, the unpredictability of the aurora is undeniably part of the charm. “That’s why we call it hunting. We’re all hunting and fishing and gathering up here,” says Dickson, who cites her own “seventh sense” more than the aurora forecasts that try to translate space weather and cloud cover into the likelihood of visible lights. As an Indigenous Canadian, she was told as a child to be quiet when aurora dances across the sky, that the lights were ancestors come to visit. When the phenomenon appears to her clients, she’s witness to how humans respond in weird and wonderful ways.
“Some cry, some dance.” Australians tend to pour more Kahlua, she says. People drop to their knees for wedding proposals. “Miss Aurora might come out for a showing,” she says. “She might come out for five minutes and then the curtain will drop…the exciting part is you need to be ready.”