A Travellerspoint blog

Late Nights and Cool Lights

overcast -25 °C
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The wildlife, the cool souvenirs and the tasty fish meals were nice, but they were not the inspiration for the cold trek to Yellowknife. The star attraction was the promise of a glimpse of the beautiful and mysterious Aurora Borealis (aka the Northern Lights).

The science is interesting. The sun shoots off solar flares comprised of vibrating protons and electrons, they hurtle through space sometimes reaching the earth where they get caught in the atmosphere. When these charged particles collide with oxygen molecules they energize it and they spark green (the most common colour) and red when they strike nitrogen molecules and so on. The displays are most common in the northern latitudes because this is where earth's magnetic field is strongest.

For three nights, we bundled up against the -30C cold and headed out to a cozy cabin on a small, frozen lake a short drive outside of town. We had really good weather, the nights were clear and the inky sky was brightened by an almost full moon. We set up our tripods on the frozen lake, and from 10pm until 2am, we huddled in the cabin playing silly games, nursing hot chocolate and eating treats while waiting to see if the aurora would come out to play.

The first night there was nothing, nothing, nothing. Just when our guide was suggesting we return to town, the aurora dropped in for a short visit. That night, they were faint. If I didn't know better, I would have mistaken the aurora for a band of white clouds streaked across the sky. It quickly became clear this streak was different. In a millisecond, it would fade, widen, narrow, or glow a little brighter. Sometimes the streaks would lengthen into arcs (like a rainbow) over our heads, glitter gently and then just fade away. Taking pictures was super fun! The camera lens captured more than my eyes and the crazy streaks in the images would appear in varying shades of limey green.

We came out the second night full of anticipation, and we did not have to wait long before the fireworks started. To the soundtrack of cheering and applauding tourists from Hong Kong, the aurora danced! First, it assumed the form of a shower-curtain waterfall as it rippled across the sky. Then another streak appeared, swirling through the air with grace, like a ribbon skillfully flicked by a rhythmic gymnast. It was impossible to soak it all in. There were multiple arcs interacting, arcs would fade in one place and pick up behind you, or over your head. I felt like a dog chasing its tail! The sense of movement was spectacular and the colours were more pronounced. In the more active displays, striations of limey green were visible with the naked eye. In one thick, glittery streak, I could see a strip of pink and a smidge of yellow. Wow!

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The third night was much more subdued. Out of nowhere, after we had packed up and were getting into the van, we got a sweet kiss good-bye. A mini aurora curtain appeared out of nowhere and then a snakey ribbon spun itself into a tornado before fading into glitter.

Just got home after an unexpected extended layover in Calgary. Happy to put away the long johns and the ski pants!

Posted by Caro369 20:10 Archived in Canada Comments (0)

Winter Fun

Wildlife and making the most of frozen lakes

sunny -10 °C
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Being close to nature adds to Yellowknife's charms. The plethora of small frozen lakes in and around Yellowknife facilitate other activities besides building ice roads to bring supplies to the diamond mines. Given their flatness and lack of obstacles, frozen lakes are perfect for snowshoeing and taking out the dog sled.

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We gave snowshoeing a go on a sunny perfect afternoon. We worked up a sweat making our own trails on the lake and playing in the snow. The dog sledding was easier on the cardio, but harder on the bum. The kennel piled 7 of us in a long thin sled (it was cozy), attached 14 very enthusiastic dogs, and off we flew -- mush, mush!! Once on the move, the team was the epitome of focus - no barking, no bird chasing, one dog had his entire pink tongue flapping out the side of his mouth in concentration as he ran! Bumity, bump, bump we went over the frozen bog with the wind whistling in our ears before careening onto the packed-snow trail around the lake. Our lean, toned dog team took it all in stride, running at full tilt in unison. When the sled skidded around a curve, banking up the side of the snow track, the sled ended up offset to the team of running dogs. They didn't flinch or slow down, they just seamlessly adjusted. At several points, I was sure one of dogs closest to the sled was running at a 45 degree angle!

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In between our day activities, as we drove next to the boreal forest of pine, spruce and poplar, our guide gave us a mission - to seek out ptarmigan (a white bird/grouse, smaller than a chicken, with feathers on its feet). It didn't go well. The running jokes started and we began to think the creature was mythical! But on our last day, the stars aligned -- at the entrance of the ice road across the Great Slave Lake we stumbled on a ptarmigan convention! Groups of chubby ptarmigans perched on glitttery snow banks, skittering across the road, munching on the buds from the willow bushes and purring as they went. Just when we thought the group had moved on, another wave of birds emerged from the bushes. Yippee!

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Unfortunately we were not so lucky in our quest to see big game. We drove 3 hours along the Great Slave Lake (see map at top of blog) to Fort Providence to the Mackenzie Bison Sanctuary to see bison. No bison. There weren't even bison tracks! The closest I got to a herd was the bison burger I had for lunch at the local diner. Fortunately, the souvenir shopping at Fort Providence - a Dene First Nations community - made the trip worthwhile. There were graceful carvings from moose antler, unique crafts with patterns made from bunches of dyed moose hair and porcupine quill, and warm winter accessories made from shorn beaver fur.

Late March is "relatively" warm and it appears to be the festival month. A group of volunteers builds a castle of snow and ice on Great Slave Lake near the centre of town. It contains children's slides made from ice blocks, snow carvings, and a small stage for performances. I also checked out the Longjohn Jamboree with a food tent, ice carving, children's activities and the highlight - a big dog sled race! The crazy, chaotic, start of a big dog sled race was fascinating! The dogs are so excited! They pull at their harnesses in anticipation, leap into the air, bark and howl. The mushers are the opposite -- intently placing the dogs, hooking up the harnesses, and quickly breaking up dog tussles between teams. Then they are off!!

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Posted by Caro369 09:49 Archived in Canada Comments (0)

The Big City

Ice and Cold

sunny -15 °C
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Hello Everyone,

Yellowknife is a small town by my standards (20,000 people) so I was not expecting too much. In my head, i pictured a dumpy rundown stand of trailers or maybe log cabins with a few diners to grab a greasy breakfast or a burger. Nope. This is the big city and the supply centre of the North, and it shows.

Originally, the town depended on the gold industry, but fortunately for the Territory as the mines started to close in the 1990s, they discovered diamonds in ruggeed areas north of Yellowknife (think - Ekati (polar bear diamonds) and Diavik). A regular Joe can earn $80,000 per year living and working in the isolated camps which are only accessible by ice roads for 2 months of the year (typically January and February). Yellowknife has a "diamond sheen" with modern stores, new schools and recreation centres, side streets lined by neat, freshly-stained houses with big windows and solar panels. Many clustered on the shores of large and small lakes or on the hills over-looking the town with shiny half ton trucks parked in front. I did see trailers, but they had new siding and wrap around decks!

I went into the grocery store expecting milk to be $20 for 2 litres and was surprised to find that food prices were the same as at home.I picked up half a pint of raspberries for $3.50! Yellowknife is north of 60, but below the Arctic circle and I suspect just has better air and other access to supplies than other communities in the North. That is not to say restaurant meals are cheap. I have been paying $20 for a cafeteria-style meal and $40-50 in a restaurant. Service is slowish, but the food is good. Yellowknife is located on Great Slave Lake which is the 9th biggest lake in the world. There is fresh fish galore as well as people who know what to with it! Last night at the local, cool but kitchy log-cabin pub/bistro, I devoured fresh, tender coney fish (like a trout) pan-fried with a smattering of minced coriander, ginger and a dash of soya. It melted in your mouth. We did have to wait 20 minutes in -20C to get in, but that was quickly forgotten.

I can imagine how beautiful the town is in the summer. In addition to the old town next to gynormous Great Slave Lake, the new town is built in the land between a number of other lakes. My hotel is located between two lakes. My window overlooks a small one, but the star of downtown is Frame Lake (across the road. The NWT legislative building, the museum and the city hall are perched on the shore. You have to use your imagination right now because the lakes are frozen and they essentially look like snow covered fields.

We've had amazing weather - clear and sunny days with a high of -10C. The nights are colder - -25C - but last year at this time, it was more like -40C so I can't complain. The days are really long compared with home. The sun is up around 8am. ! I was laughing yesterday, because the glorious golden sunset started around 4pm, but yawned and stretched and rolled around hanging on with pick finger nails until 9pm!

Will sign off for now, but there is lots more to tell! Yellowknife is located in the beautiful Boreal forest and at night there is the promise of the most amazing lights show -- the Northern Lights.

Posted by Caro369 16:36 Archived in Canada Comments (0)

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