BY THE TIME I finish dressing and walk into the lobby of the Explorer Hotel in Yellowknife, it’s 9pm. There is a crowd of Japanese tourists wearing identical red parkas and black polar boots the size of toasters. Outside, in the black Canadian winter night, four yellow school buses pull up. The Japanese group fills the first three, and the rest of us, a mixed dozen from several countries, climb into the last.
The bus bumps onto the dark highway. It is February 2020, and it’s almost as cold inside as out; the windows are already icing over from our breath. Our guide is Céline, a petite Frenchwoman. “The prediction is clouds tonight,” she tells us. “But a prediction is just a prediction. So we will be hopeful.”
After about 20 minutes, the bus turns down a narrow road toward Aurora Village, a collection of teepees and small buildings beside a frozen lake. The few lights are dim and downcast to protect our night vision. We follow Céline’s blinking red headlamp, the only way we can tell her apart from the crowd. More than a hundred people are plodding from the parking lot along hard snowy trails between dark trees. As we emerge from the woods, Céline points out the path to the heated, 360-degree rotating recliners (extra fee required). We find our teepee at the edge of a field—a place to warm up and rest, but not to stay. We aren’t here to be indoors.
The clouds lift. The teepees are in a small bowl, and trails lead through the trees to low bluffs with longer views. I join a crowd of silhouettes. I shift from foot to foot. All winter, Portland, Oregon, where I live, had been unseasonably warm. I longed for cold, the kind that would make me sit up and pay attention. I went north for the aurora, but also this: the dark, the sky, the ice.
“Is that it?” someone asks, pointing at a small dome of brightness on the horizon. I think it is Yellowknife. The city has dark-sky compliant streetlights, but the town is plainly visible from a distance.
“Is that it?” somebody else asks, pointing at a pale flash on the opposite horizon. But it is just headlights from the highway. We don’t really know what we are seeking, what we will see. We may see nothing at all. The aurora follows its own subtle schedule, and aurora tourism runs on hope, on expectations manipulated by Instagram and travel websites. Thousands of edited, enhanced photos of emerald-green drapery and quivering ruby-red arcs make false promises. I’ve tried to keep my own expectations tightly bound.
We watch, and over about 20 minutes, a cloud grows into a fine white arc stretching across the lower half of the sky, brightening until it is a river of pearl. Céline and I lie back on a pile of packed snow, watching the glowing track cross the sky like a painter’s brush. It changes without changing; a fraction dissolves and reappears, slides away, returns. The river cleaves into two puddles of ghostly milk. I can’t see it changing, yet it changes. Soon the two wide swathes thicken and then burst, flooding the banks until the entire sky is filled with vibrating light. A hundred voices shout from the darkness all around. Fluttering sheets of pale light, pinkish folds shifting as if from a breath, shimmering rays, and billowing golden clouds, liquid and shining in all directions. Now, I know.
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