Foreign correspondence: Head to Canada for nature's light show


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Posted Online: Jan. 26, 2013, 5:40 pm
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By John Bordsen
What's it like to live in a far-off place most of us see only on a vacation? Foreign Correspondence is an interview with someone who lives in a spot you may want to visit.

Max Johnson, 56, is a London native who has been living in Canada since 1980. For the past 36 years he has assembled Arctic travel packages for the Great Canadian Travel Company (www.greatcanadiantravel.com), including one for viewing the northern lights -- aurora borealis.

Q: What's the weather these days?
A. I look out the window now at Blachford Lake Lodge, in the Northwest Territories, and it's minus-25 Celsius; about the same in Fahrenheit.

Q: And you have the northern lights.
A: Exactly. The peak season is mid-January to mid-April. It's possibly the most spectacular sight you can imagine. "Awe-inspiring" is overrated as a phrase, but there's a feeling when you stand outside and the entire night sky is dancing with greens and purples, and there's a sort of hiss that comes across the landscape.

Blachford Lodge is away from anywhere; there's no sound made in the middle of this natural environment. This is quite extraordinary.

Q: Hiss?
A: I'm not a physicist, but I guess it's static electricity jumping and bouncing in the sky. The northern lights are static electricity -- solar flares create these light spectacles as they hit Earth's atmosphere.
It's a background hiss -- not an aggressive noise. It's a sibilant sound that seems to dance all over.

Q: Do the northern lights vary from year to year?
A: Yes, but it's more over a 12- or 15-year cycle. In places like Yellowknife -- the city's about a 15-minute flight from Blachford -- it's more a question of 70 percent versus 90 percent brightness.

Q: There are cruises to see the northern lights in places like Scandinavia. Why would people go to the Northwest Territories?
A: The Yellowknife area has predictably colder and drier weather. Churchill, which is on Hudson Bay, has fantastic lights, but much more cloud coverage. The same goes for anywhere in the north where there's water: Sometimes you can't see a thing. The Yellowknife area has clearer skies.
People choose Blachford because it's a delightful lodge and away from city lights.

Q: How long are the nights right now?
A: Probably about 20 hours. It starts getting dark around 3.p.m.; the northern lights normally come out around 9. I remember being out there one night watching the lights for three hours.

Q: What do people do the rest of the day?
A: There's snowshoeing, snowmobiling, fishing, reading, talking to others ... complete relaxation.

When Prince William and Kate toured Canada and California, they stopped at Blachford. They wanted a day away from everything, and Blachford seemed to fit the bill: Fine food, activities, all-inclusive and so on. The lodge accommodates 15 to 20 people at most.

Fifty percent the people who come for the lights are from the U.S.; of the rest, half are Canadian, half are European. The standard northern lights package costs $1,864 U.S. from Yellowknife.

Q: When the northern lights are going full-tilt, do they light the sky from horizon to horizon?
A: When they start you'll see just a flicker in the sky, usually green. The best way to describe them is by comparing them to flames -- which you can see but which flicker and more around.

Think of a log on fire in a fireplace: You're not really sure where the flames come from or if there's a pattern to them. You'll see a couple licks, then look again and see four or five. Sometimes you'll have a small show that covers 20 percent of the sky; sometimes 50 or 60 percent. They'll suddenly disappear ... and come back again.

Q: Do the animals out in the wild notice the lights?
A: Yes. We've seen caribou out there watching.

Q: Are there native people out where the lodge is?
A: In the area, yes. They believe the northern lights are a very powerful spiritual part of their lives. Curiously, so do the Japanese, who believe a child conceived under the lights will be blessed. There are northern lights tours from Japan. They're out under their blankets, wearing booties, under the lights.They don't do that at Blachford, but they do that at Yellowknife.

Q: Outdoors?
A: You hear amusing rumors about people renting cars. We don't head out with flashlights. We don't speak Japanese, anyway.
Know someone who lives in an interesting city or country who would like to give us the inside line on visiting there? Email, in English, jbordsen@charlotteobserver.com.














 




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