Ever since I was a kid I was always fascinated by the northern lights and hoped to see them in person one day. Poland is too far south/densely populated to spot them, though, so it wasn’t a very realistic dream. In 2009 I did move to Sweden, but still, this was Stockholm area, so my chances might have been bigger, but not by much (plus only been there for a year). Eventually I ended up in Canada… however, I live in a SW Ontario which is actually roughly same latitude as San Sebastian or Marseille. Latitude isn’t the only factor though and if you look at the maps of ‘aurora zones’, North America is actually a bit more fortunate than Europe. We’re supposed to get them in Ontario once a year or so, but I’ve never been lucky/persistent enough to witness them despite staying up until 2-3am and driving out of the city.

If you search for ‘best locations to see aurora’, 9/10 the resulting lists will include Yellowknife, the capital and only city(!) in the Northwest Territories. Northern Lights are famously capricious, but supposedly, if you stay in YK for more than a few days (in the right season), you’re almost guaranteed to see “something”. Yellowknife happens to be in Canada as well, which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s close, quite the contrary, but a few years of living here made me look at distances in a different way, nothings really ‘close’ in a European understanding of the word anyway. My father is a big fan of Jack London and I was growing up reading his books, so it was yet another excuse to visit the true Canadian North. Eventually, in August 2017 I got my tickets:


I stayed there for 4 nights and was lucky enough to see aurora on 2 of them (to be perfectly honest, the first night where it was supposedly the strongest I was too tired and went to sleep early). When seen by the naked eye it’s actually much more subtle than pictures. It’s fully understandable if you remember most aurora photos are very long exposure (15+ seconds) and your eyes (hopefully) refresh with a decent frequency. Super strong auroras (level 5) actually animate and change colors, but these are rare, even in Yellowknife. In any case, mission accomplished, can cross it off my bucket list, but I’ve a feeling I’ll be coming back.

Aurora (Thursday)
Aurora (Thursday)
Aurora (Saturday)
Aurora (Saturday)

Other than watching auroras, I walked around the town a lot and also rented a car to drive along the Ingraham Trail to the Prelude Lake Territorial Park. It is a quite surreal experience. City itself isn’t that much different than other small/medium North American settlements. There’s maybe more little lakes/ponds in the area, but if I woke up there one day and had to guess where am I, it might as well be random town in northern Ontario (well, Great Slave Lake is a bit of a giveaway, but you don’t really see it from every point). It has all the usual pillars of civilization like Tim Horton’s or McDonald’s (no Starbucks, though!).

YK Bay

It’s not until you leave town (or look at a map) that you start realizing how isolated it is. On my entire trip to the park (~45kms one way) I’ve only seen a few houses/trailers, no other signs of civilization. If I kept going, it’d only get more and more rugged and empty. Yellowknife is the biggest community in the area by far. There’s Dettah on the other side of the lake (accessible by the ice road in the winter), but it’s far far smaller. If you travel south by car, you’ll have to drive for at least 16 hours to reach the nearest bigger city (Fort McMurray), it’s over 1600km away(!). I guess you get used to it after a while, but it kept breaking my brain. There’s really no reason for YK to be there other than gold and now diamonds.

Prelude Lake
Didn't go there
30km outside Yellowknife, off the grid

Weather in August was actually pretty good, only a few degrees colder than in Ontario and sun setting after 9pm. Days were getting shorter very rapidly though (only few weeks left to equinox!) - as mentioned I’ve only been there for a few days and the day got shorter by over 20 minutes(!) during this time (Wednesday->Saturday). The other thing that’s logical if you think about it, but still felt weird as it was my first trip that far north – sunsets take forever. I did visit the Bullock’s Bistro and can confirm their fish and chips is amazing.

Sun setting over Frame Lake

It’s a hauntingly intriguing area though and I’d love to come back. After returning home I started compulsively reading / watching anything that was even remotely related, an incomplete list below:

  • Bones Are Forever - a crime novel taking place in Yellowknife,
  • Down The Wild River North - a real-life story of mother and her two teenage daughters canoeing all the way to the Arctic Ocean
  • pretty much anything by Jean Aspen, I especially liked Arctic Daughter, but they’re all very good. Jean is one of the daughters from “River North”, she writes about Alaska, not NWT, but it’s all great stuff.
  • Late Nights on Air - another novel taking place in Yellowknife, I feel this one amazingly captures the spirit of the place
  • Voice in the Wild
  • Alone Against the North - this one’s about northern Ontario, not NWT, but very good book nonetheless. Adam Shoalts describes his expedition down the unknown and unmapped river in the Hudson Bay Lowlands. It’s quite eye opening, I’d have never thought it’s still possible this day and age to find places which are pretty much untouched by human foot
  • Ice Road Truckers - season 1 takes place in YK and local diamond mines
  • Ice Lake Rebels - a documentary concerning houseboat dwellers in the Yellowknife Bay

More pictures here