My adventures during the Winter exchange in Canada were full of endless mountain scapes and snow-white peaks that seemed to stretch endlessly towards the sky. The prime position of the University of Alberta on the doorstep of the Rocky Mountains had allowed weekends away in a wilderness vast and beautiful, spurring on spontaneous road trips through the cordillera of cloudy peaks.
However, even this beauty could not prepare me for the pure magic of the Aurora Borealis. After years of being transfixed by stunning photographs, as well as a teasing attempt to sight a glimmer of the Aurora Australis off the coast of Bruny Island in Tasmania, I had to grab the rare opportunity to witness them only a few hours plane flight away.
Before attempting to convey the magic of the adventure that followed, I would first and foremost like to thank the superb organisational skills of our lovely Uni of Alberta international exchange crew. My general complete ineptitude at planning was saved by your hard work; Lara, Meli, Arthur, Lasse, Marion, Anastasia and Hannah, you guys are the real heroes! I really appreciate you making it such a great experience for all of us, especially our house; Will, Nic, Mer, Eleonora and Julia!
Our late night departure from Edmonton airport began as all good things do, with a yummy takeaway box of noodles. Tummys full, we boarded the small plane bound towards the Arctic Circle. We were headed to potential temperatures colder possibly than the home front in Edmonton where -20 was starting to be considered a good day for a stroll. Up in the air, one of the major fears regarding a view of the Northern Lights was offset by a few excited photographers across the aisle. The major fear being that to see the tremendous spectacle in its full wonder, there must be a fair degree of magnetic activity only present in certain months of the year, as well as a perfectly clear, cloudless sky to match. A perfect pair, we were informed through the giddy smiles of the middle-aged aurora-chasing photographers, was highly probable on this very weekend. You beauty.
And then in the first hour of the flight, seemingly out of nowhere, it just happened. Right next to us, we were informed by the stewardess, was the dancing Aurora Borealis itself. Roused from light naps or the telling of bad jokes, we all crammed at the back window of the plane, faces pressed against the plastic in a mad rush to bear witness to our own private magic show. The great green magnetic arches of the aurora cloud were sitting above a lonely town in the middle of the white expanse, it moved in a mesmerising wave, the neon flashes perforating in cascades across the darkness. What a preview it was, and as we slid past the arms of light above the township, a bubbling excitement spread across our group in anticipation of the weekend ahead.
Yellowknife itself was a lovely quiet town situated in an expanse of icy prairies, which lended itself perfectly to all the winter activities you can imagine. As locals brave the cold and head outside all rugged up, it is common to see a puck sliding around on an outdoor rink, snowmobiles whirring past on frozen lakes and rare sightings of a few earnest joggers plodding through the snow. For us, the day-time activity before a viewing of the Northern Lights had to be grabbing onto another opportunity of a lifetime; mushing through the forests of the Northwest Territories on dog-sleds!
In preparation, an essential hearty breakfast at the local café was had. Of particular note was the soup which had been prepared earlier that morning by a travelling British chef who was quite interested in any possible feedback for his signature dish, pretty good we reckoned. Caffeinated and bellies full of pretty good soup, we readied towards our pick up point for Husky sledding! On the hour bus up into the snowy forests of Yellowknife, we were given our safety chat and a form to list any concerns or fears relevant to the upcoming dog-sled tour. I cannot take full credit (cheers Meli) for the hilariousness of botching this column of our exchange crew member Nic, who owned up to having not only a general fear of dogs of all varieties, but also cats just for good measure.
Dad jokes achieved, we arrived shortly afterwards at the Husky company’s site which was set up as a large kennel space for around forty gorgeous Huskies, and even a few adorable puppies. We were introduced to our tour leader, who continued to prove true the mantra that when travelling, you simply cannot escape bumping into another Australian. A Northern Territory horse-breeder, she had transferred her love of animals to caring and raising Huskies in Yellowknife for general transport needs, tourism opportunities and for the epic ‘Yukon Quest’; the 1000 mile sled-dog race from Yukon to Alaska. She paired us up and sent us to our very own sled and team of highly excitable Huskies, pictured here is my absolute, unabated joy at being trusted to drive my very own sled (kudos to Nic for trusting me);
We raced around the forest and across a few frozen lakes, with most of the control being the powerful strides of the Huskies and much less the skill of a few newbie sled drivers. On our return to the kennels, we given time to cuddles with the puppers, enjoy some hot chocolate and frolic around the isolated forest location while the rest of our exchange crew took their turn on the sleds.
As the afternoon drifted into its twilight glow, we were driven back to town with our thoughts turning to the evening ahead. A quiet excitement started to grow, flickering the corners of a smile, as the magic of the Canadian North was almost upon us. The plan was to drive an hour and a half further north of the town itself to Madeline Lake, a frozen ice sheet that would be perfect seat for the great power-play of the magnetic skies.
Armed to the brim with handwarmers and layered with every thermal piece of clothing we possessed and then some, we jumped in and blasted 80s disco in the car the whole way up. Curls of green on the horizon started to creep onto the horizon, sweeping up to meet a bunch of eager exchange kids continuing to realise how just how cool a Canadian Winter could be.
While it is hard to describe just how gorgeous the light show before us was, I hope a few of these photos and a poem I wrote later that night is able to do it justice. I also hope that this can provide motivation to anyone considering a Canadian exchange, especially those worried about the cold. The Canadian Winter is like nothing else, and with experiences such as these I cannot recommend it higher!
‘Returning from the Northern Lights; at the top of the staircase – 07/04/2018’
A sprite alive in the Ancient North
Caressing a canvas of stars
Dancing in whispers
Along the eternal night,
To a slow, distant reverie
Stretching souls reach high
To float with such beauty
It’s beams of emerald dust
Of all that’s good in light
Felt in this dark
The yawning bows of green
In slow sway above the quiet
Fills the heart’s chest
Like an old faith forgotten,
Its passion and its fear
Witness the emerald tempest
As it showers
From what is surely that heaven,
A magnificent, magnetic bloom.