Aurora in Yellowknife, Canada: The quickest way for Australians to get to the Northern Lights

It starts off a mere wisp on the horizon. It could be a patch of smoke or rising mist. But within a few minutes it has expanded and spread, making its way over our heads and, eventually, to the opposite horizon, stretching out across the entire sky.

I've glimpsed the Northern Lights once before, during a visit to Sweden, but the weather was mostly unfavourable and after a brief sighting during dinner, the lights disappeared, hidden for the rest of the trip by low cloud and occasional snow storms.

This time I'm in Yellowknife in Canada's remote Northwestern Territories - essentially the outback of North America - to see the natural phenomenon that regularly tops polls of travellers' bucket lists.

But the ephemeral nature of the lights means it's not always that easy to see. And the intensity and length of the display can vary wildly based on the many factors that come into play - how clear the sky is, the temperature and the solar activity.

I've come to Yellowknife because it is considered one of the best places in the world to see the aurora (and, according to locals, it's unequivocally THE best). As such, it's the main reason why many visitors come to this small town in the wild north of the country. It also has one of the longest seasons for viewing the aurora, starting as early as September, when the lakes are yet to freeze over.

I'm here in March, when the temperature is still extremely cold by Australian standards, but the sun rises and sets at a reasonable time (it gets dark in the mid afternoon here in the depths of December, but now we're enjoying spectacular sunsets at 6.30pm).

For Australians, it's also one of the quickest ways to get to a northern lights location. While other sub-arctic aurora hotspots in Scandinavia will mean three or four long hops from Australia, reaching Yellowknife requires just one stop, in Vancouver, after a non-stop flight from Australia's east coast. The town is just two hours further on.

Home to about 20,000 residents, Yellowknife was established through the discovery of gold in the 1930s. The city sits on the enormous Great Slave Lake, the world's 10th largest and the deepest in North America at 614 metres. In winter, with the lake frozen over, locals drive across an ice road, creating a shortcut from one part of town to another (Yellowknife is also where several of the original cast of Ice Road Truckers were based - driving on ice is a way of life out here).

Although the gold mines have now closed, Yellowknife's main industry, aside from tourism, remains mining. Diamonds were discovered in the 1990s and now wealthy visitors fly in from around the globe to purchase the precious stones from local jewellers.

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But I'm here for a less expensive natural wonder. The town makes the most of its association with the Northern Lights - every second business seems to have the word "aurora" in its title. And while it is possible to see the aurora from the city itself, the light pollution from the buildings and street lights greatly reduces the intensity.

So I head out to Aurora Village, about 30 minutes outside the city, to enjoy clearer skies with little artificial light. I'm also able to view the aurora in comfort. The village consists of a series of 21 large teepees, each housing an open fire and able to accommodate between six and 48 people.

But things are a little more cosy in our teepee. I'm among the first to enjoy the village's new signature experience - a private teepee for two (the "V.I. teepee" they've called it) where meals are brought in from the village's restaurant (other guests can dine in the restaurant building before heading out to their teepee for the aurora viewing).

With the skies now dark, we head out and climb a small hill to give us a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside. It's from here we first see the lights appear on the horizon and slowly make their way over our heads.

It's impressive, but not as spectacular as one might expect for something that generates so much hype. After attempting to snap a few photos, I head back to the teepee to warm up and get a meal.

Soon after, I hear a commotion from some of the other guests outside. Stepping out of the teepee I see the lights have changed - they've become much brighter and are moving more quickly across the sky.

The "dancing" of the lights begins, as energy visibly pulses through the aurora creating a spectacular display. At one point the aurora swirls and curls into such a strange shape that I feel like it's about to spell out a word in the sky.

"Magic" would be appropriate.

Five tips for viewing the Aurora Borealis

1. Learn how to use your camera properly. Capturing the Northern Lights on camera can be challenging and auto-settings generally won't work. Do some research on how to get that shot to avoid disappointment (and use a tripod). Staff at the Aurora Village can help you set up your camera correctly.

2. Pack or rent warm clothes. Winter in Canada is cold. Really cold. Your Aussie ski gear probably won't cut it when you're standing outside for hours in the middle of the night. You can rent heavy-duty winter gear in Yellowknife.

3. Nap during the day. The aurora appears at different times and that could mean staying awake for most of the night in order to get the best experience.

4. Look at the lights. Don't spend your whole time looking through a camera's viewfinder trying to get that perfect shot. Look up and be present in the moment.

5. Don't give up. Even if it's cloudy or snowing, the weather in these regions can change quickly - you may only need a few minutes of clear sky to have your chance to see the lights.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/canada 

spectacularnwt.com 

FLY

Air Canada has non-stop flights from Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane to Vancouver with connections to Yellowknife. See aircanada.com

VISIT

Momento Holidays has packages to stay at The Explorer Hotel available from $A450 per person twin share, including two nights accommodation and two nights aurora viewing at Aurora Village with airport transfers and taxes included. For bookings call 1300 300 713 or visit momentotravel.com.au 

Aurora Village offers various packages for aurora viewing along with other activities including dog sledding, guided snowshoe walks and snowmobile drives. The village is open from August to mid-October and from mid-November to April. A single-night viewing experience, including hotel transfers, costs $C126 for adults. See https://auroravillage.com

Craig Platt travelled as a guest of Northwest Territories Tourism.

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