The sound of the logs popping and crackling reverberated off the barrels. Inside, the fire burned brightly, the flames light playing out through the vent onto the snow. As the fire built to a climax, the 55 gallon barrels glowed red, radiating intense heat to anyone that was cold enough to stand nearby. In two weeks, there’d be a full moon. Its light and the snow would cast shadows about the mountains and the trees below, creating an environment not unlike that fostered by the sun. But now, the moon had yet to rise. In its place was a night sky free of clouds, showing the thousands of stars visible to the naked eye. The big dipper lay above and to the north. Its handle pointing off towards the North Star. Inuit people of Canada had said that the big dipper was a dog team chasing after a bear. The same was to be said of Orion’s belt and Pleiades, both of which shine brightly above the spruce trees to the south. To them, each star was a part of a larger story, a narrative about some aspect of everyday life of the past.
I pace back and forth, stomping my feet. I’m wearing all the right gear. Bunny boots adorn my feet, coupled with a down parka and puffy pants. Yet, standing around on top of the snow for hours at -20 degrees or colder, the heat eventually finds a way to escape, leaving the cold to settle among my bones. As I move, I continually glance at the sky, searching for any sign of activity. Anything out of place could signal the start of a new show. A faint display of light over the cabin begins to coalesce and gather strength. The faintness disappears as the light extends and expands overhead. The brightening of color is often a sure sign of a strong display to come and this appears to be no exception. Glancing up once more, I run inside alerting the others that the show is about to begin.
For over 10 months, I worked as an aurora guide leading guests on aurora viewing tours in Wiseman. Each night, I’d pick the guests up at 10:30 pm from the inn in Coldfoot then proceed to ferry them up to the Harry Leonard cabin in Wiseman. My arrival in the area had been timed just right (through no planning of mine). The sun was just exiting its solar max, still producing strong flares and sun spots, creating great displays of aurora. Night after night, the guests and I were graced with clear skies and light shows that danced across the sky. By the second part of winter (Jan-April), the aurora regularly produced large displays. Nightly, there were bands that shone brightly across the whole sky, bursting out into a variety of shapes and shades of green, yellow and pink.
All nights aren’t aurora nights, some are filled with clouds. Some of the guests and I would stand outside nonetheless, peering and hoping for any kind of break. Occasionally, we’d be lucky and the lights would shine through, a testament to the strength of the display overhead. More often we’d stare above, hoping for a gap or a clearing that was never going to arrive.
The nights without aurora weren’t without their own treasures. Almost two years ago on a night in February, I led an aurora tour of about 9 people. Clouds filled the sky above, high enough to allow us to see the mountains but thick enough to minimize our chances of seeing what they desired. Nonetheless, we stood outside around the woodstove, waiting and wishing. The guests became amiable, chatting with one another while they sipped their hot chocolate.
An hour after arrival, beyond the din of conversation, I heard the sound of the north. The lone howl of a wolf rang out from the other side of the valley. I ran inside to grab the others before edging out to listen once more. The lone howl became the howl of a pack as they moved out of Minnie Creek and south down the valley. What the guests thought was usual was anything but. Rarely do we hear wolves and even rarer are that of a pack. They continued to howl as they made their way south. Later on, one of the wolves, that was resident to the area, howled in response out of the north. It didn’t appear as if the alpha male in the pack responded well to that as he traveled back up the valley and let out a deep, guttural howl. Off and on these howls continued for a span of three hours. There was no aurora that night, but it still remains one of the most memorable of those I spent outside.
I was often asked by guests if I stayed up and watch the aurora when I wasn’t working. Unless there was a large display, the answer was always no. I could sense some disappointment, the thought arrived that something so entrancing and magical could become commonplace. The aurora remains special, something that never offers the same display. Even though I rarely spend full nights outside now that I don’t do tours, I look back on that period fondly. Each night I was presented with an experience that people spend all their savings or wait their whole lives to see. I watch the bands now as I brush my teeth, thinking back on those nights spent waiting out in the cold, staring up at the night sky. The aurora continues to elicit wonder and I remain thankful for its presence.