After a few days acclimatising to Canada, we jumped on a flight to Yellowknife, which is a mid sized town about 400km south of the Arctic Circle. At this time of year people go there for one thing: to see the Northern Lights. Whilst seeing the Northern Lights, you get to do one other thing; get fucking freezing. The coldest it got was -37c, and for those who have not been in this kind of cold, this means it is really, really cold. Snot freezes, I got a nosebleed, exposed bits of skin go red, lakes have ice metres thick covering them and ice roads become a normal thing. And no matter how cold it is, when you say to a local ‘This is fucking freezing’, the say ‘This is nothing, you should be here when it is really cold’. After 7 months in sunshine our bodies asked ‘WTF?’.
It is a strange but rather wonderful place to go. To survive up there, people do things differently; they dress differently, rarely walk anywhere, drive cars that need to be plugged in at night and seem to have lots of live music.
They also go curling, which is a very cold version of lawn bowels. We went to visit a curling club, which is like a very cold version of a bowlo in Oz; cheap beer and a mixture of the very serious and the very amateur.
Out and About in Yellowknife
We had two goes at seeing the lights. One was with an Aurora Hunter and involved a 45 m drive to the middle of a frozen lake and parting with a significant amount of cash. The other involves Sandra driving 10 mins out of town, alternating between sitting in the warmth of the car and standing on a lake looking skywards.
Nature doesn’t care how much you have spent to see something and generally does its own thing, so on night one we had an ok display and night two, with just the 4 of us in the car, we had a much better display.
It is a very special experience, to stand in the freezing cold, watching the green light swirl about in the sky, peeing in the snow whilst a fox sniffs about (‘Is that a sodding wolf?’) and I am very glad we did it (not so much the peeing in the snow with a furry audience). I was also reminded how lucky some of my army experience was. In 1996 I was based on the prairies of Alberta at BATUS and spent many nights under the stars. I remember one night waking up and seeing an amazing show of colour above me, swirling and shivering like a bad effect on the 60s version of Lost in Space (if it had been in colour). I had no idea what was going on and had to ask someone. It’s only now I fully understand the lengths people will go to to have such an experience.
The other thing I was reminded of is that I like North American bars. They have more in common with UK pubs than Aussie ones in so much that both men and women go in roughly equal numbers and they just feel friendly. You can sit at the bar and chat to people without seeming like a weirdo for doing so (though some may conclude you are a weirdo after doing so) and it feels like a comfortable place to be.
I took a liking to the Black Knight bar, as it had everything a simple man like me needs: good beer, good service, proper pub food and atmosphere. We had a lovely experience on our first visit, when on asking for our bill after chatting to a local at the bar who left before us, we found that he had bought us a round. How friendly are Canadians!!
One of our visits coincided with a open mike music night upstairs which featured some great acts, so great that when we heard some were moving to another place to play, we followed them there, watched some great line dancing and local drunkenness and nearly followed then to the after, after party…….
A musical highlight was a visit to The Northern Arts and Cultural Centre to see 2 DJs, who together are know as Miraj, play an ‘Ambient Trance’ set, complete with light show. Sandra booked this. Now, at 48, I was the youngest of the group and the oldest had more than 30 years on me…. From the outset I wasn’t convinced that everyone really understood what ambient trance was, and knowing Jodie’s taste in music was pretty convinced only I would enjoy this. I was mostly right. As I sat with about 40 other people in a hall that could take 800, with 3 people dancing oddly (one of whom was obviously a man who needed help), watching two people put together reasonable music on a stage decorated with pot plants and and lava lamps, my appreciation deserted me after about 45 minutes.
It didn’t last too much longer, though no one was sure about that. In fact, the end was so un distinctive, they came back on stage to tell us all it was over, took some applause then started packing up their pot plants. Larry had the right idea; Larry slept.
The Music Scene
Far better than the DJs was a trip to see the ice cave, pulled over the frozen lake by a pair of husky’s. It’s amazing what these creatures can do; just hanging around in -20 something without lots of cloths is a feat in itself, but add to that, pulling a beer and fatty food fuelled man, and it’s nothing short of a miracle.
Whilst the change in temperature was a little extreme, it was a fascinating way to spend a few days and I would recommend it.