Blachford Lake Lodge, Yellowknife, Canada: The truth about seeing the northern lights

When it comes to the aurora borealis, photographs can't tell the whole story.

"I can't really find the words to describe this," says Andrew, a young man from Pennsylvania.

I know what he means. We're standing on the edge of frozen Blachford Lake in Canada's remote Northwest Territories, in the small hours of the morning, watching one of the world's most spectacular natural phenomena unfold.

Above us, a shimmering form ebbs and flows like water running through some unseen channel in the sky. Suddenly it will change direction, flicker and pulse - dancing like something that's alive.

These are the northern lights, the aurora borealis, putting on a display the likes of which I've never seen.

The truth about the northern lights is that photographs make them appear both better and worse.

The lights are a bucket list item for many travellers, but they're an item that's not always easy to cross off. Hopefuls need the circumstances to be just right - the right time of year, the right weather and the right amount of solar activity.

With this in mind, I've come to Blachford Lake Lodge, near the town of Yellowknife, to hunt the aurora. The region is renowned as one of the best places in the world - possibly the best - to see the lights, thanks to its northerly latitude and favourable weather.

Yellowknife is a remote town, but our lodge is even more remote. There are no roads out here - the only way in is via a 25-minute flight on a float plane (which, at this time of year, uses skis as landing gear for the frozen lake). With no other buildings or residents within cooee of the lodge, we're free from virtually all light pollution.

The accommodation is split between a handful of rooms in the main building and several smaller private villas. I'm in a double room in the main lodge, with panoramic views over the lake and to the pine forests beyond.

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First opened in 1981, the lodge has won awards for its eco-friendly operation - power is mostly generated through solar panels and a wind turbine, while the site is largely plastic free with all food prepared onsite by the in-house chef. Notable guests include Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge, who dined on a tiny island in the middle of the lake during their visit.

During the day, we occupy ourselves with activities like hiking along snow covered tracks, ice fishing (we don't catch anything), snowmobile tours, a dip in the outdoor hot tub or just hanging around the lodge reading. It's all fun, but everyone is here for one reason: the lights.

The region's aurora season runs long, starting around September and going through to April. The northern lights are reportedly visible an average of 240 nights a year up here. Locals say visitors who spend at least three nights in the region during the season will have a 90 per cent chance of seeing the lights.

Guests here are each given an alarm buzzer, similar to the type you get from cafes in food courts to tell when your meal is ready. Throughout the night, there is always a staff member on aurora watch. If the lights appear, the buzzers go off to ensure we wake up to see the show. To make doubly sure, the poor staff member has to run around and knock on every door to make sure no one sleeps through the alarm.

It's March, so daylight hours are reasonably long. While this makes for pleasant days compared with the northern Canadian deep winter when the sun disappears in the mid-afternoon, it also means we have to wait until at least the middle of the night before we'll have a chance of seeing the aurora. To make matters worse, the moon is extremely bright over these few days, so we'll need to wait for it to set before the lights can be seen with any intensity.

The moon is up until close to 1am on our first evening and there's little sign of solar activity so we decide to get some sleep. On our second night we head out to the lodge's teepee, where the staff have prepared a roaring fire complete with marshmallows and hot chocolate for us to enjoy while we wait for a display.

Tonight the show starts early, about 11pm, with a beam of greenish light in the south stretching from the horizon up to the heavens. It's pretty, but it's not exactly thrilling.

As it turns out, this is merely an appetiser for the main event, which arrives a couple of hours later. We've returned to the lodge and are in the process of removing our boots and many layers of clothing when one of the staff comes in and tells us the lights are back with a new intensity.

We quickly re-dress and step outside to be greeted by a spectacular display over the lake.

The truth about the northern lights is that photographs make them appear both better and worse. Better because they appear brighter and more colourful on camera than they do to the naked eye, and worse because photos can't really convey one of the most spectacular things about them - the movement.

The common phrase is to say the lights "dance" and it's not a bad description, though perhaps not complex enough to truly describe them. They shift and swirl, but within them pulses of energy ripple through. Occasionally they seem to drop like a curtain or pour like a waterfall. Even time-lapse photography can't quite capture these quick, elegant movements.

Starting over the lake, the display appears to gradually make its way towards us and eventually ends up directly over our heads. It feels like the lights could fall down on us at any second.

The guests are spread out across the property, some of us down by the lake, others up on the hills. It's so dark it's difficult to tell who is who.

I'm madly adjusting my tripod to follow the display, hitting the slow shutter in the darkness to try to get a decent shot of what I'm seeing. Andrew from Pennsylvania helps me get my lens clean, which has frosted over after I forgot to put the cap back on.

Eventually it occurs to me that I'm spending more time trying to capture the moment than I am trying to enjoy it, so I stop and simply stare up at the heavenly event.

It's at this point, when the shimmering beams of light hit a crescendo of movement, Andrew says that words have failed him.

I know what he means. But I'm a writer - it's my job to find those words.

"It's like seeing music," I say.

It's not an attempt to coin a phrase, it's the simply the only phrase I can come up with to describe it. And it seems perfect.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/canada

spectacularnwt.com

blachfordlakelodge.com

FLY

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

VISIT

Momento Travel offers a combined four night/five day Yellowknife package including return flights from Vancouver to Yellowknife and on to Blachford Lake Lodge. The package includes two nights at Blachford Lake Lodge (including all meals and aurora experiences), two nights at the Explorer Hotel in Yellowknife, plus a teepee viewing aurora experience in Yellowknife with transfers from your hotel to Aurora Village. From $3750 per person. For bookings call Momento Travel on 1300 300 713 or visit momentotravel.com.au

Craig Platt travelled as a guest of Northwest Territories Tourism.

See also: The 10 best places to see the world's top bucket-list experience

See also: The 10 things Australians need to understand about Canadians

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