A travelougue on the beauty and magic of the north.
Spirits of the North
It had taken more than an hour from Fort Resolution to reach this remote outpost on the shore of the Great Slave Lake. The sun had just set but the immense sky was still filled with intense hues of red, orange and blue, interspersed by splashes of dark grey. It was early October and the night was descending on us quickly, blanketing the fiery forests of the fall.
“Here is our boat, just the kind you wanted,” announced Fred Liske, my guide, without pointing to any particular direction or object.
Scanning the water’s edge, I could make out the silhouette of a few wooden planks tied to some irregularly shaped poles. This must be the jetty from where we would depart. But there was no boat of any kind in sight.
Sensing my uneasiness, Fred waved towards a bushy area. A closer look revealed the outline of a canoe turned upside down. It was carefully camouflaged behind a thicket of horsetail and sedges along the edge of a dense, tall stand of spruce, alder and willow.
Leaving my gear by the trail for a moment, I helped Fred to turn the canoe over and then push it through the grassy area all the way to the lake. Once on the water, the canoe came to life – it looked light but sturdy and ready for the mission.
“My old man built this canoe all by himself,” said Fred, with a big grin on his face.
“He made the body from birch barks and stitched them together with watape. Used pine resins to seal the joints.”
“What about the ribs and the gunwales?” I asked.
“White cedar,” replied Fred. “Even the paddles were carved from solid wood.”
“Super!” I liked Fred’s attention to details. I didn’t want to hire a loud engine-boat that would shatter the peace and tranquility of this quiet northern evening.
We quickly loaded up the canoe. Fred settled for the bow seat, and looking over his shoulder, asked me to use the paddle to push the canoe away from the shore.
With a gentle ‘hoosh,’ the canoe slid through the dark and glassy waters of the Great Slave. The distant calls of goshawks and grouses and the incessant chirping of the crickets gradually faded away behind a dense blanket of fog.
Soon the warm evening glow started to fade into a purplish grey backdrop against which the familiar stars began to emerge. Tonight, the moon would have a very late appearance leaving the center stage to the more distant performers.
It would take a couple of hours to reach the tiny uncharted island we were heading for. This gave me plenty of time to take in the sights and sounds of this magical world. The lake now looked like a giant mirror mimicking the show that had begun to unfold on the vast canvas of a clear northern sky.
It was a stellar party I had never experienced before. The brightest and closest performer hanging barely above the horizon was Jupiter, quickly gliding away towards the north-east exit. Capella, on the other hand, took a gentler course and lit up half the sky with its brilliance. The majestic Great Bear crossed the meridian in full grandeur with Hercules following its trail. Later that night, the Gemini twins looked particularly impressive. And who could miss Princess Vega, waiting for her lover Altair who, unable to cross the Milky Way, stood helplessly on the other side?
As we moved deeper into the lake, the beauty of the cold subarctic night took us over. I heard Fred chanting in a low voice but couldn’t make out what he was saying. He was probably chanting in Chipewyan or Cree. Or, perhaps his old man had taught him the secret language the spirits of the north spoke. It seemed his soul had left his body and was dancing with the spirits into whose territory we intruded.
Like an ancient mariner, Fred let the stars above guide and bring us to the uncharted island. The spot was just perfect, spacious and open, with no tall trees blocking the view. Fred gave me a hand in setting up a couple of sturdy tripods fitted with cameras. One was for mapping the star trails with a very long exposure; the other to capture the most magnificent show on earth – the dancing of the northern lights.
At first it was just a gentle glow here and there, which turned into intermittent flares of violet and blue more like fine mists of colors sprayed along the horizon. Soon bold strokes of yellow and green crisscrossed the sky. Turquoise-blue swirling eddies stretched for miles into the upper atmosphere. And flashing strokes of amber and red danced across the celestial dome.
The shape and size of those patterns were changing quickly and randomly. I focused on the northwest part of the sky, which seemed to be most active. Making a few quick adjustments to the settings, I began to shoot.
“Oh! Look at the throbbing blaze of purple, opal and gold!” Click, click click.
“Here comes the blue-white serpent again!!” Click, click click.
“Can’t miss those rippling curtains shimmering across the sky!” Click, click, click.
The frenzy went on and on for over an hour before slowing down; only then did my heart-beat return to normal. My hands shook in excitement as I previewed some of the images. I was pleased with what I saw but no image could convey the intensity and beauty of what we had just experienced.
“Perhaps we should pack up now?” I asked Fred.
There was no immediate response from Fred. The glimmering northern lights revealed parts of his face; he looked spellbound and possessed. Now I knew what kept him coming back to this sacred place year after year.
Tomorrow, I would be flying back home and the thought of leaving this magical land saddened me. Suddenly, deep inside me I felt a warm and reassuring touch of the spirits of the north. I was not going home alone.
“Hey Fred, when are you gonna arrange the next round of trips?” I asked.
“Round Christmas and New Year. That’s when most folks like coming here.”
“Well, book me in!”