The Northern Lights have seen Queer Sights


By Alan Sirulnikoff

Atlin, BC - It was at moments like these - fishtailing on the ice and snow of the Alaska Highway - that I wondered what the hell I was doing here, and if this was the price of impatience. Despite the previous night's snowfall that continued into the morning, I quickly gathered my things, left the warmth of the motel room, and headed out into the crisp -15 degree C air of Watson Lake.

My eagerness was understandable, as I was within striking distance of Atlin, the base for my photographic quest for the northern lights. Through poor judgement or obsession, I ignored the weather and steered my puny, well-used car into the undefined white that passes for spring in these northern parts. The new day was just dawning and the plows had yet to visit this stretch of highway, where road was barely distinguishable from shoulder or ditch. But all of this mattered little as my hatchback careened wildly down the highway.

I didn't panic; I instinctively knew that I shouldn't touch the gas or brake pedals. Fortunately, no other vehicles crossed my path, and about the time that I gave up the notion of escaping the ditch, I found myself at a stop at the road's edge with no damage done. I muttered to myself for a few minutes, allowed the frantic beating of my hearty to calm, and continued, slowly, on my way.

Though I had seen the lights on previous occasions, this trip north was different: it was a journey that I was undertaking specifically with the hope of photographing the aurora borealis. I had yet to spot the celestial version, but I had passed the Northern Lights restaurant (Pizza and Greek Dishes), the Northern Lights Deli, and the Northern Lights Space and Science Centre in Watson Lake; the last was closed at this time of the year, early March.

I reached Jakes Corner without further mishap, and it was there, poised to leave the Alaska Highway and head down the final 97 kilometres to Atlin, that a sense of isolation hit me. The road was mostly gravel and wound and twisted its way south, and was further complicated by patches of snow and ice. By the time I reached my frigid cabin I was exhausted, as if I were jet-lagged after a long flight.

I unloaded my mound of gear and sat sullenly until the cold spurred me into action. I lit the wood stove, and the sharp crackles of the fire, with its promise of warmth, helped me to settle in. A short time later I took a few glances out my window to the sky above Monarch Mountain. No northern lights were in view, and it was just as well, as sleep was all I could think about.

Atlin, once a boomtown, is today a small settlement of about 500 scattered residents. Back in 1898 during the Klondike gold rush, more than 8,000 people lived here, drawn by the discovery of gold in nearby Pine Creek. Some hardy individuals still work placer mines, but tourism seems to be Atlin's future. Winter draws heli-skiers to the surrounding 2,000-metre peaks while summer attracts kayakers and hikers, among others. As well, the summer entertainment often includes a play and dinner held on the Tarahne, an old paddle wheeler that is now a permanent fixture on the lakeshore.


My accommodation was at the Atlin Centre, an art school (summer only) about four kilometres from town and reached by a steep winding road that ends at the base of Monarch Mountain. Though it was a cozy cabin with a wonderful view, I soon discovered that my bargain rental wasn't the best place to search the night sky. I was too close to the mountain. Though a good northern-lights display would probably show up overhead, the view of lesser events would be blocked.

Days passed with only brief sightings of pale-green aurora. I spent the daylight hours scouting out good viewing locations and cross-country skiing. On occasion I headed into town to check the Internet for northern-lights forecasts from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The site includes predictions of when the particles emitted from the sun's storms will hit Earth's atmosphere and what level of intensity can be expected.

With a promoising forecast in hand, I headed out at dark, driving to a lonely section of the Surprise Lake Road.


It was a clear, cold night: perfect viewing weather. I huddled in my sleeping bag, prodding myself to stay awake in anticipation of the promised show. All was for naught. With a hint of light showing in the eastern sky, I straightened my rumpled body and began the 20-kilometre drive back to the cabin.

As I neared the town site I spotted something running in the ditch parallel to the road, and in my sleep-deprived state I wondered what that long-legged person was doing running at this time of day. It was a moose, startled by the car lights. It veered into the trees and was gone.

My heart fluttered briefly as the incident brought to mind the story a gas-station attendant had related to me in Watson Lake, about the propensity to charge the headlights of cars: "A friend of mine collided with a moose. It hit her front end, knocked out the windshield, and as it flipped over the roof its back legs knocked out the rear window. Then it got up and ran away." Remarkably, the people in the car were not seriously injured.

Even if my success in photographing the aurora was wanting, I was gaining something of a reputation for my pursuit. People came up to me in the street and greeted me. "You're the northern-lights guy, eh?" Someone said her son referred to the aurora as the "magic of Mother Nature". As well, many felt compelled to tell me their stories. Rose related that the previous spring, during a particularly dramatic display, people phoned each other at 2 AM, and those still lingering in the pub of the Atlin Inn poured out to look at the show.

About the time I was giving up hope of witnessing a spectacular display, it happened. I was sucking on a beer at the Atlin Inn, enjoying the music and ambience while chatting with some new friends. Derek, one of the local RCMP officers, tapped me on the shoulder: "Alan, the northern-lights are out." I raced outside to witness a bright, multi-coloured display that made me jump in my car and drive wildly down the Surprise Lake road.

This was the show I had been hoping for. The lights moved across the sky, fading out in the north only to reappear in the south, or overhead. Red mixed with green; at moments it was as if the sky was bleeding. Finally, after about three hours in the chilly air, it seemed that the show was over. When I reached my cabin the northern had recharged for one last display in rays of muted green and red. After some final photos I climbed into bed to sleep through the approaching dawn.

By the time I left Atlin in late April, spring was in the air. Though the days were too long to offer good northern-lights viewing, there were were consolations: I could savour the lingering sunsets, and because the roads were no longer covered with ice, my mind was free to wander. Already I was anticipating my next northern-lights journey.


ACCESS: Atlin can be reached by land or a combination of land, sea and air. By car from Vancouver you reach the Alaska Highway at Fort St. John. You can travel to Whitehorse on the bus. Check the Greyhound web site at: www.greyhound.ca.

Ferries leave from Port Hardy on Vancouver Island for Prince Rupert (www.bcferries.com). From there you can travel on the Alaska ferry system to Skagway (www.ferryalaska.com). It's possible to travel by land from there to Whitehorse.
You can fly to Whitehorse on Air Canada (www.aircanada.ca) or with Air North (www.flyairnorth.com).
Other sites: Atlin Centre web site: www.atlinquest.com, or www.atlin.net for the town's site.
Aurora forecasts are at www.gi.alaska.edu.


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