Chasing Auroras III

Photos by Avi Prasad
Videos by Brian Schultz Media

Golden light flooded through the glass walls as the four of us sat around the table, cupping our miso soups in both hands, as if we were still near the Arctic Circle.

It was Tuesday at 11:36AM

We had just gotten back from the Yukon the night before and all of us were in a haze of awe-induced exhaustion. It was the kind of whirlwind weekend that takes a few days to really sink in. We were only gone for three days and yet so much had happened. There were so many moments. It had felt like we had done so much and were gone for so long.
 
In the midst of our conversation, our two other friends that hadn’t joined us mentioned the way their weekend felt like quite the opposite. It was the mention of a different kind of haze. Their weekend just seemed to pass them by. The kind that quietly leads you from working late on Friday, to an even later night out, to sleeping in on Saturday, then laundry, lounging, and before you know it you’re rushing back to work on Monday morning just to do it all over again.
 
As they spoke, I was left sitting there, wondering how so much could have happened for us and so little for them, all in the same amount of time. As I looked around the table, making eye contact with my travel partners, Brian, Avi and Steph, I knew they felt the same.
 
As we sat there recounting the trip, I felt grateful.
 
It felt like we'd uncovered a fresh landscape and a vast secret we only had a small grasp of just five days before.
 
If you had talked to any of us the Thursday before, none of us would have told you this was about to happen.
 
What started as an casual comment about how wild it would be to chase a geomagnetic storm – the kind that causes big auroras – quickly turned into an off-the-cuff message to Yukon Air. The kind of “hail mary” that you believe has exactly zero percent chance of actually happening.
 
“Hey Air North, we have a bit of a crazy idea that just popped up between a couple of us and we would love to chat with you. It’s time-sensitive but involves actually chasing the geomagnetic storm that’s about to hit…”
 
A “seen” message quickly turned into a friendly and curious response – something we’ve come to realize is built into the DNA of Air North. We were met with genuine intrigue into what we had in mind and as the conversation rolled deeper, that hail mary started to transform into something that somewhat resembled a plan.
 
A few messages back and forth, a quick call to discuss how we were going to make it happen, and Air North’s willingness to take a chance on some people they just met (they even brought in their friends at Northern Vision Development to give us a place to stay), before we knew it there were four of us sitting in departures at YVR, getting ready to board Flight 536 from Vancouver to Whitehorse, Yukon on Friday night.

 
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Friday, 7:50PM – Wheels Up

There’s that moment in every flight where a feeling washes over me. I can’t help it. The plane turns towards the runway and begins to accelerate. As I get thrown back in my seat and start to feel the wheels pull up, I can’t help but feel like some part of this is still magic.
 
How we can sit inside what resembles not much more like an aluminum can with wings and in mere hours be teleported to places that feel so foreign and remote from what we call home.
 
This time was no different, and as we lifted upwards I could see the city lights of Vancouver fade away. The Howe Sound sprawled underneath us and the green landscapes quickly turned to a faded white. The brightness of the snow-capped peaks of the Tantalus wrestled with the last bit of daylight.
 
As we hit cruising altitude, the cabin lights dimmed and the horizon darkened. Out of the small plane window, I could see a faint green glow dancing on the horizon and as what I was looking at began to sink in, the whole crew perked up.
 
This was it! We weren’t even 30 minutes into the flight and we were getting what we came for.
 
Well, a glimpse of it anyways.
 
Brian, our videographer, quickly asked for a blanket from the stewardess so he could cover his head and get a clear look at the storm we were chasing. Sitting beside him, Avi, our photographer, pulled out his camera and started snapping photos.
 
As for Steph and I, we just kind of sat there, staring out the window, fixated on seeing the Northern Lights from a plane for the first time.
 
The whole plane ride lasted just two and a half hours and we landed in Whitehorse at 10:35PM. Not bad considering we were at work just 5 hours earlier. As we unloaded, Steph, Avi, and I had thought it made sense to head to the hotel and check-in, but Brian already had other ideas in the works.
 
Hours before takeoff, he had reached out to a couple of locals over Instagram and one of them, also named Bryan, offered to show us around the city and check out some places where we could catch auroras.
 
We grabbed our rental car from Driving Force and followed him high above Whitehorse, to a place called Jackson Lake, where we proceeded to wait out for an aurora storm. One of the most genuine people I’ve met, which seemed to be a common theme in Whitehorse, Bryan gave us the history of Whitehorse and told us about what it was like to grow up there.
 
As we hung out, waiting for the auroras to show, a faint glow on the horizon peaked up. It lasted about 20 minutes before fading and we got nothing more.
 
As 1AM hit and the temperature dropped below -15°C, we found ourselves cold, exhausted, and without an aurora. With two nights still ahead of us, we decided to pack it in and found our way to the Best Western on Main. By the time we checked in, it was well past 1:30AM and the friendly attendant guided us to our rooms to make sure we were taken care of for the night.
 
It couldn’t have been more than five minutes before all four of us were out like a light.

 
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Saturday, 6:47AM

I wanted to sleep in, but Brian and Avi once again had other plans.
 
As I fought the idea in my head, lying in my warm bed at The Best Western Whitehorse, my weak argument for five more minutes was cut short by Brian’s six-word response: “We’re only here for 72 hours…”
 
Checkmate.
 
A quick shower, teeth brushed, and jackets on, the four of us were out the door in less than 30 minutes to explore what Whitehorse was all about.
 
As we passed through Whitehorse, we realized that the “friendly stranger” vibe we felt from Bryan last night was a common theme. People on the streets were purposely making eye contact and saying hello. Coming from a big city, it was a crazy feeling to have people acknowledge each other everywhere you go.
 
Something about it just felt right. It felt human.
 
Our first stop on Saturday morning was to meet with a man named Phil Gatensby (aka “Yukon Phil"). He's a Native Elder of the Klingit and is the definition of the phrase “salt of the earth”. Phil has the kind of infectious energy that makes people gravitate towards him. You can see it on everyone’s face when they are around him. We sat there for just over an hour, sipping coffee and listening as he dropped some stories, cracked some jokes, told us what it was like growing up in the Yukon, and set the right tone of exploration and respect as we headed out.
 
"Just do me a favour”, he said “Create a trip you won’t ever forget, okay?"
 
Roger that.
 
We spent the rest of the day honouring that request and exploring spots just outside  Whitehorse.
 
We hit up Miles Canyon, a 50 foot deep canyon that has been carved over millenia by the Yukon River rapids. During the Gold Rush it was a required passage to move gear down river and thousands of boats loaded with precious supplies were lost.
 
Next, we ventured up Vista Road to the radio tower, to see what Whitehorse looked like from above, catch sunset, and set up shop for the night to hopefully to catch auroras.
 
With the skies free from clouds and the KP Index still high, it was looking good and you could feel the energy in the crew.
 
But as the sun sank and night took over, we waited patiently in the cold for hours. Nothing. Again were snubbed by the fickle nature of the northern lights.
 
With midnight nearing, we once again decided to pack it in and head back to the hotel to warm up, catch some sleep, and be cozy.

 
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Sunday, 6:32AM

As Sunday rolled in, we decided to explore far beyond the confines of Whitehorse, driving 300km round trip, halfway to Alaska, to a little village called Haines Junction. We were in search of a huge ice cave that was formed by water melting a tunnel through the toe of an unnamed glacier, hundreds of thousands of years ago.
 
As we drove out, the wildness of the Yukon really hit us. The vastness of the white landscape unfolded in front of us, as did the towering peaks of the Kluane range. Elk and deer sprinkled the drive and aspen trees filled up every space that wasn’t white.
 
We stopped along the side of the road every 30 minutes to take in the mountain scapes that seemed to get bigger, more vast, and more impressive the further we drove. It felt like this landscape hadn’t been touched in a million years.
 
The hike into the ice caves was a steady 6km hike up a frozen river bed, leaving ample time to chat, take in the landscape, and realize how fresh the air out here was.
 
As we neared the cave, it’s scope and size came into view. The cave was as old as time. A natural landscape shaped only by nature. The towering glacier that formed it sprawled for kilometers behind it, not only dwarfing the cave, but everything around it, including us.
 
We hung around for as long as we could, exploring the intricate details of the non-earth-like formation. It seriously felt like we were on another planet and it made us reminded us how diverse this world, even in our own backyard.
 
As the sun crept across the sky, we didn’t want to leave, but knew time was getting tight and we had a long drive back home.
 
Just before we left, we stood there, looking back at the cave we didn’t even know existed two days earlier, knowing that we had just experienced one of those spaces that your mind will never actually be able to comprehend.

 
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Sunday, 7:17PM

'As the final night came around, there was a bittersweet feeling within the crew.
 
While we hadn’t quite been iced-out from seeing the auroras, we definitely hadn’t seen the full show we were hoping to see when the plan came together.
 
The “storm of the year” wasn’t quite living up to the hype and with an increasing amount of cloud in the sky and no clearing on the horizon, tonight wasn’t looking like we were going to have any luck either.
 
In so many ways though, at this point, it didn’t matter. None of us would have said that taking off, but after looking back on the last 60 or so hours, the whole weekend was about so much more than catching the auroras.
 
In so many ways, the auroras was just the excuse to get us out the door and explore.
 
What really mattered were the millions of moments in between.
 
Moments like the endless hours of car karaoke.
Experiencing the vastness that made you realize how small you were.
The dozens of inside jokes that formed between the four of us.
The feeling of warm coffee on our cold hands.
The conversations that ebbed and flowed from everything to nothing and back again.
The constant rush of adrenaline of getting from one place to the next.
Being surrounded all weekend by people who it’s almost impossible not to laugh with.
The genuine thrill of exploring and taking in new places.
Remembering what “fresh air” really feels like. 
And exploring new landscapes that while they feel far, really aren’t.
 
When looking back on it, it was all those moments that really mattered to me.
 
And with that, as our hours in Whitehorse dwindled into their final dozen, the crew contemplated going out one last time.
 
With clouds filling the sky and exhaustion filling our bodies, there was a slight feeling of hesitation. We’d already seen so much, the trip had already completely exceeded expectations, and with an almost zero percent chance of seeing the auroras, it was becoming harder and harder to convince ourselves to crawl out of our beds and endure another frozen night.
 
As I laid back in my bed, the words of Phil Gatensby rolled through my head again and again.
 
"Just do me a favor”, he said “Make this a trip you won’t ever forget, okay?"
 
The words struck me and I knew I couldn’t stay here. As much as my body begged to be cozy, I crawled out, convinced Steph, Avi and Brian to do the same, and packed our gear for one last shot at this.
 
We drove out of town and up a beautiful windy road for about half an hour, climbing as high above Whitehorse. We ended up at a place called Fish Lake, which on a night like this, held our best shot for catching the auroras.
 
The road led into into what felt like the middle of this massive, perfectly circular, snow-covered lake. The horizon around it was a low, and rimmed with a perfectly even silhouette of trees. If it wasn’t cloudy, it would have felt like we were in the world’s largest outdoor planetarium.
 
We parked close to the lake and walked over to see if it was still frozen enough to walk out onto. As we made our way closer, an odd-sized bump of snow lay out in front of us. As we made our way closer and shined our headlamps, we could make out the lines of a full-on igloo placed perfectly in front of us.
 
What?! It felt surreal. None of us had seen an igloo before.
 
Standing in the middle of a wide open lake, in the middle of the Yukon, beside an igloo – the entire crew just laughed.
 
“Where even are we?” Steph screamed.
 
Between the stoke and gratitude, the landscape around us and the connection between us, a moment of joy washed over the entire crew. It wasn't a "crazy moment" but it was the simple kind of moment that reminds you that you are alive.
 
The kind that tells you you are in the right place, at the right time.
 
Deep down, I knew that this was the kind of moment we were actually chasing – one steeped in shared experience and connection.
 
Within minutes, the clouds were fully blown away and all you could see were stars. Everywhere. More than I had ever seen. A fully woven blanket of them filling the night sky.
 
And as we stood there laughing, looking up towards the clouds, an aurora storm in the shape of a hurricane formed and flowed in right towards us.
 
Together, we stood there, speechless and in awe, letting the Northern Lights do what they do best. Letting go of time. And letting this memory, and each memory leading up to this moment, sink in as something we will never forget.

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