It was our last night in camp (excuse the cliché, it actually was), and as the sun set over the distant tundra the colours reflected off the helicopter window in a dizzy hue of orange and red. It had been nearly three months in the Canadian bush; working in a camp only accessible by a tiny Single Otter apparently functioning on shear will and copious amounts of Duct Tape. The camp itself was situated 190km Northeast of Mayo, a remote and surreal town in the centre of the Yukon Territory. This really doesn’t say much, as with a population of just 200 or so it has little to offer but a small runway and a few basic homes for those brave enough to withstand the harsh winters this far north.
It was nearing September, and slowly the 24-hour summer daylight began to give way to the autumnal return of night. It was getting cooler too. Mornings became crisp and frosty and the wood-fired stoves inside our canvas tents were working overtime to ensure we different have incredibly uncomfortable nights.
As the sun set earlier and earlier we’d began to keep an eye out for one of the most significant benefits of working this far north; the Northern Lights. Thus far, not even a glimmer of colour had shown itself on the horizon despite my constant checking throughout the nights and it seemed like we were going to leave the camp slightly too early in the season to witness one of the most spectacular natural sights one can ever see.
So here’s the cliché, as we slowly turned in for the evening having dismantled what we could of the camp prior to tomorrows departure, a slight hint of colour was just visible above the spruce between the mountains to the northwest of the runway. It wasn’t much, in fact we weren’t even certain this was the aurora and if this was all we were to see then it was somewhat of a let down having anticipated this for much of the summer. By the time we had settled there was a slightly brighter, more discernible green colouration and it was definitely what we had been waiting for, albeit still a despondently weak glow.
It had grown however, and as my bed lay in the corner of the tent facing the northwest I was able to lift up the corner and steer my head out into the chilling night to keep an eye out as to whether the Aurora Borealis was finally going to show itself in full. The hours passed, and I hadn’t really slept. Every hour or so I had an alarm set to remind myself to check and as the time slipped by the colour grew and grew and appeared to be closing in on our camp.
It wasn’t until about 2am that it was worth getting up. I woke a couple of campmates who I knew wanted alerting if the situation improved, and as we stood shivering outside our tents it was as if a switch was flicked. At about 2.30am the growing mass of colour built itself above our heads, and as it shifted itself directly above us, the colour visibly dropped out the sky. It is truly an indescribable sight. Greens, blues and pinks fell around us shifting as candle smoke in a breeze and it was largely considered one of the best displays it is possible to see. It feels as though it should make a noise. It is tangibly vast and its surrealism is only emphasised by the fact that this huge spectacle is accompanied by complete silence. Besides the fluttering of spruce branches in a shifting breeze we stood completely motionless and without noise for nearly an hour as the Aurora displayed itself above, only 4 of us in witness. It is, and remains, the single most incredible thing I have ever witnessed and I cannot emphasise enough how everyone should endeavour to witness a truly brilliant Northern Lights display in their lifetime.
As the display slowly waned we retired to our tents, stoked the stoves and tried to sleep before flying out the following morning. It was the best memory possible to take away from what had undoubtedly been a long, hard, and remote summer working in the far stretches of the Canadian bush. It is an unrelenting part of the world, and it will spit you out in an instant. However, as if in some final reward, the North had offered us a single night that would make the entire ordeal worthwhile. Without that isolation, that harshness and how fragile the bush makes you feel, the reward of such a spectacle would not have been as great. I’m just thankful we got to witness it, just the once, because that’s all it needed to prove what an awe-inspiring and naturally beautiful part of the world this is.