Okay, folks, loosen up. Today’s challenge is a biggie. We’re going to pick a stunning place to visit, take in a breathtaking, awe-inspiring, once-in-a-life time mind-altering sight. And we’re going to do it without taking a photograph. In fact, you have to leave your cell phones behind and depend on your memory to remember what you’re about to see.
Are you kidding me?
I know this sounds unreasonable, even mean. But it’s not forever. It’s just for this one time when we’re going to look at what’s in front of our eyes, not down. No randomly poking at the screen muttering disrespectful things about technology when you open the wrong app or accidentally shift to an incorrect setting . What you experience has to stay in your head in order to be remembered, not stored in a photo stream.
I was forced to abide by such instructions on a recent trip to Yellowknife. It was late September, a time of year so predicable for top rated high Northern Lights activity that the city of 20,000 had absolutely no vacancies. Most of the tourists traveled as tourists so often do—their faces glued to their cell phones as if it was dangerous to look directly at the view. Whether we walked forest trails or climbed high above Great Slave Lake’s shore line, it was the same—the scenery was viewed through some kind of electronic device.
Photographing the aurora? The jokes on you
Mother nature does get her kicks, especially when it comes to taking photographs of the Northern Lights (a.k.a. aurora borealis or just aurora). Sure, there are ways to do it using tripods, advanced settings and enough Google research to make your head spin. But for most of us mere mortals, taking a photo of the aurora feels a bit like taking a photo of a ghost (assuming that too is possible). You hold up your phone to the green and rosy lights that arc and dance across the sky, but when you take the photo, all you have left is a blackness. Plus, by the time you look up, the lights have moved to a different section of the sky, or left altogether while you were sucked into your mobile device. Trying to be helpful, those around you comment, “Did you see that! OMG!”
Bottom line, you have absolutely no choice but to actually experience the lights without a camera, a notebook, even conversation. All you can do is just be, and take in what is pretty much beyond words, and literally, out of this world.
Our first sighting of the Northern Lights was on the airplane at 30,000 feet (8 miles) above the Northwest Territories. The lights of the aurora general extend anywhere from 50 to 400 miles above the earth’s surface, so viewing from an airplane means you’re literally engulfed in streams of light that make the airplane seem insignificant – and everyone else, for that matter. As I watched with my face stuck to the airplane window, the lights stretched far above, and below the airplane like giant sweeps of punctuation. What a welcome to Canada’s north!
For 3 of the next 4 days, we’d continue to see spectacular displays in the late evening while traveling across Great Slave Lake to our lodgings on the mainland in my son’s tin motor boat .
I’d like to show you but I can’t
The science of it all also dwarfs the science we rave about in our little cell phones. The lights of the aurora are actually collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth’s atmosphere. They are seen above the magnetic poles of the northern and southern hemispheres because that is where the earth’s magnetic field is weaker. Because of Yellowknife’s proximity to the North Magnetic Pole, the surrounding area is an excellent location for viewing .
Yellowknife is the first community in the world to have its own space weather alert system. The Northern Lighthouse Project provides the community with information about the incoming gusts of solar wind call Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) that could have an effect on Yellowknife’s aurora forecast.
I’ve got more stories from Yellowknife (stay tuned). But experiencing the Northern Lights is pretty much on the top of the list. I can’t prove it, however. I have absolutely no photos (although I can show you a few photos of totally back sky). The good news is that I won’t need cloud backup. My memory is going to have to be good enough.