I can’t recall how old I was the very first time I heard about the aurora borealis, but I can tell you that I’ve been obsessed with seeing it ever since I learned of it as a young girl. The very name of the thing has retained its power to conjure up excitement and beauty in my mind, and the multitude of spectacular pictures I’ve encountered over the years has done nothing whatsoever to dispel my powerful urge to stand directly beneath an undulating ceiling of green, red, purple and yellow photons.
Scientists tell me, via their magical tool the internet , that the atmospheric effect that you may know better as the Northern Lights follows a bell shaped activity curve that peaks every 11 years with 2013 being the apogee of the current cycle. When I started making noises about what I’d discovered, Mark reminded me gently and sweetly, “Shiree – you’re not getting any younger – better not to wait any longer.” I of course didn’t need all that much encouragement and immediately began studying up on how to optimize my chances during the two week window I had elected to spend chasing my colorful chimera. February/March turns out to be one of the best times of year due to ample darkness in the far northern climes along with the increased likelihood of gentler (and clearer) weather. I selected February so as to avoid the madness of the spring break season and triangulated in on a date by ascertaining the dates of February’s new moon. For destination, I selected the capital city of the Yukon territory, Whitehorse.
Here is a link to a nice map of the Yukon with Whitehorse clearly marked if you'd like to get an idea of how damn far north we're talking about.
The distance from Austin to Whitehorse is a respectable 3500 miles, which requires either a roughly 20 hour day of travel or the much more civilized option of a layover in Vancouver. Since I’m beginning to get a bit soft and old, I chose to overnight in a city I knew from previous visits I would greatly enjoy spending time in. Vancouver is very similar to Austin in size and temperament, only with the nice cool air of the Pacific northwest to recommend it further still.
From my hotel near the airport, I rode the bus downtown to shop for a few last pieces of cold weather gear that were impossible to locate in the balmy south and then stopped for dinner at a uncommonly delicious Chinese bakery where I feasted on exotic steamed buns such as the sticky rice concoction seen at left. As I savored my delicate treats, I eavesdropped on a nearby conversation that an older gentleman (who bore more than a passing resemblance to actor Pat Morita from The Karate Kid) was having with his dining companion, a young fellow who had apparently been involved in a shooting and needed legal advice. The older fellow, who sounded to be a lawyer, instead regaled the lad with tales of rebellion and intrigue, at one point bragging that he’d “lost so many jobs for telling the truth” that he couldn’t keep count. Whatever, dude.
My stay in the melting pot of Vancouver was unfortunately over in the blink of an eye and the next morning I boarded a little 16 row airplane for a brief flight (2.5 hours) north to Whitehorse. Very shortly after we departed, I looked out my window to see a surreal and lovely sight (see top of the page). The cloud deck we had risen above settled beneath us like a cottony white ocean, spreading out as far as the eye could see in every direction. What made it really spectacular was that it was breached by the very tip top peaks of mountains in the Canadian Rockies range, just barely poking up above the sea of white. We flew directly over mountain tops that probably hadn’t ever been trod on by a human, the snow laying deep and perfect on the craggy peaks. The effect was absolutely lovely and happily (since I’m definitely an experience junkie) one I’d never before witnessed. I was on a roll! I had also had the pleasure on my previous day's flight of seeing a atmospheric phenomena that I had just read about for the first time the day before - something called a glory.
As we rode along, my seatmate started a jovial conversation. (I have now decided that the Canadians should be added to a very short list I keep of peoples I’ve found to be as friendly as those of Texas: Australia and Iowa being the only other two award recipients to date) as she busily knitted a gorgeous set of mittens for her niece. I quickly found out she was a musher (dog sled driver) and began a conversation on the topic that lasted the entire trip. I plied her with a multitude of questions, and she was more than generous in her responses.
Linda lives in a tiny town three hours drive from Whitehorse named Destruction Bay, so named because the incessant wind blew down structures erected by the military during highway construction in 1942-43. Linda had arrived there a little more than six years ago to assist a friend with training his mushing dogs because his wife had left him and he needed help, and Linda found that she not only fell in love with the dogs, but also fell for the musher (Walter) and never left. They currently have 20 dogs and dogsled merely for the fun of quiet touring rather than any sort of competition. She told me a number of engaging stories, culminating in a tale of a time her husband had been out walking several of their dogs in the area near their home when one of them had bound ahead, out of sight. When Walter crested a hill and caught up with the dog (a huge Malamut) he found it pinned beneath an enormous grizzly bear, whimpering and baying madly. The bear, while fearsome, was soon deterred by the cacophony produced by the arrival of Walter and his other dogs, lumbering off for a less quarrelsome meal. Happily, the dog had received only minor injuries(including - yikes - a punctured lung) and rapidly recuperated. Walter, reports Linda, was skittish about going out for walks by himself the remainder of the year.
Linda works as a geologist in the gold mining industry, riding around in a helicopter while she sleuths for geological evidence indicating the possible presence of gold. The Yukon was the area, you may remember, that started the whole rush for gold in the 1800s and is once again being criss-crossed by fortune hunters eager to strike it rich once again, golden rich.
By the end of the flight, Linda had me convinced that I should trying mushing myself and recommended I get in touch with a fellow named Frank Turner who ran one of the best kennels in the area. As we were waiting for our luggage on one of the two (!) airport carousels, Linda chirped “Shiree! There’s Frank the musher I was telling you about!” I went over and introduced myself and arranged to call him later in the week so we could set something up. He remarked, “Well, you’ve certainly got more than enough character for the sport!” which tickled me no end.
After bidding a fond farewell to Linda and procuring a rental car, I was soon on my way into town. I had mapped out several stops (I LOVE the internet for travel planning!) and my first stop was a place called Yukon Meat and Sausage where I immediately laid hands on a package of an in-house treat that had been praised widely on Yelp: double smoked bacon! I was enthralled by all the exotic sausages and charcuterie I encountered, most of which I’ve never even heard of! In addition to the double smoked bacon, I settled for some Kaiserfleisch bacon, a pair of delicious looking sausage rolls and a northwestern desert bar called a Naimo.
For my lunch, I selected a reindeer hotdog dressed with mayo, mustard, jalapeno jack cheese and sauerkraut, topped by a generous sprinkling of jalapeno slices. Only they say “hala-PEEN-yos” in this neck of the woods, which never fails to make me smile. The hot dog was delectable, and I can’t wait to go back and try some of the other regional specialties like this curious looking dried musk ox. Definitely not something you see every day in Texas.
After a subsequent provisioning run to a huge, well-stocked grocery store, I set out on the 30 kilometer drive north to my lodging, a place auspiciously named the Sundog Retreat (a sundog or parhelia is a fabulous atmospheric effect – click here for a good picture and definition). The Sundog Retreat is well north of the city lights of Whitehorse and lies about a mile and a half from the huge historic lake Laberge on 160 pristine acres of Yukon wilderness. My cabin is one of only six on the property – just the right amount of civilization, i.e., a little, but not too damn much.
When I arrived, I found a comfortable and charming cabin open and waiting for me (it’s the sort of place where they don’t even feel the need to give you a key) and soon set about unpacking and moving in for the duration. After lining my nest with sweat pants and camera equipment, I drove down to the lodge so I could use the wi-fi network. In the course of an hour, I met not only a friendly group of four local ladies who changed into bathing suits and scuttled outside to use the outdoor hot tub for a soak, but was also able to meet one of the owners Andrew Finton, who generously offered me some local pale ale for my cabin and then took me on a tour of his adjacent woodworking shop. As I admired his handiwork, he stooped over to open a cabinet, and produced a four foot length of what I soon learned was a mammoth tusk. A mammoth tusk! Apparently, as miners are digging out hillsides in the area with high powered water jets, the tusks emerge time to time from the newly exposed earth. He let me hold the piece and it felt a bit like being entrusted with a sacred object. He showed me how he used small slices and carved them for inclusion in his beautiful wood turning pieces. He rewarded my awe with a lovely 3 inch crescent he had carved into the shape of a feather. I’d only been in Whitehorse for half a day, and I already felt like I’d hit the jackpot. I’ve decided that even if the fates conspire to deny me seeing an aurora, the trip has already been made worth it. What generous and friendly people there are here!
I went to bed without a thought of stalking the aurora - I would be getting up early the next morning to be at a park in downtown Whitehorse in time to meet some mushers and their dogs and watch them begin one of the most grueling dog sled races in the world, the Yukon Quest. And besides, MY dogs were barking!