“Where you folks from?” asks a weathered-looking woman standing at the front of the airport shuttle, eying me up and down as though already quite certain of the answer.
Hailing from Toronto, I am for all intensive purposes what residents North of 60 would consider a ‘Southerner’. It’s not that our kind is unwelcomed here in the true north strong and free, so much as a bit of an anomaly. “What brings you to Yellowknife?” she probes further, “Throw a dart at a map and here’s where it landed you, did it?”
It certainly feels that way, as I watch the slightly depressed uptown limp by through the window. Like most travelers passing through Yellowknife, I have come to witness the magic of Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights. But I have heard whispers of something else – rumors of a magnetic force that calls people north to this place, never letting go. You’ll meet them in the pubs and small businesses around town; transient types who come for a season only to fall in love with the land, its people, and a simpler way of life. And now here I am, bundled and determined to peel back Yellowknife’s flannel layers to find out if the whispers are true.
Anthony Fallot started building snow forts with his children on Great Slave Lake over twenty years ago. One of the original house boaters, Fallot owns one of the quirky cottage-like dwellings that add a pop of colour to Yellowknife Bay. In true hippie fashion, house boaters have lived rent-free, tax-free, mortgage-free since the eighties, bobbing happily a short boat-ride away from the comforts of civilization.
Today Fallot is known around town as the SnowKing, mastermind and overseer of the construction of an adult-sized castle made of snow and ice, the focal point of Yellowknife’s internationally acclaimed winter festival.
Walking through the castle doors is like walking into a scene from Disney’s Frozen. Cathedral ceilings give way to stain-glass windows constructed out of four-foot blocks of ice cut from Great Slave Lake. An ice bar serves up hot chocolate and ginger snaps, while the ice slide entertains young and old alike outside in the courtyard. When night falls, the castle transforms into a concert venue, welcoming musicians from Yellowknife’s thriving art community.
I find the SnowKing himself wandering his realm of snow and ice one afternoon, sporting a faded yellow parka and a grizzled beard. His eyes are icey blue, and grow a little brighter when I ask him about the impulse behind his creative masterpiece. His response is simple, yet sincere, “I want to show people how great our city is.”
Later that night, I head back to the castle for one of the many concerts scheduled for the week. The scene could be straight from any Queen Street venue in Toronto, except that the hipster toques and full beards feel like they have a real purpose here amongst the ice and snow. The SnowKing welcomes the crowd, reminding his guests of the house rules. “No open bottles folks,” he shouts from the stage, “Let’s keep it discreet.” It’s then that I notice thermoses in almost every hand, which, judging by the liveliness of the gathering in these sub 20°C temperatures, likely contain a variety of hot beverages laced with liquor. I make a mental note to come more prepared next time.
Tonight, the castle is hosting Terje Isungset from Norway. Using blocks cut from the lake only days before, he has built all of his instruments himself…out of ice. The lights dim, and the crowd draws a collective breath in anticipation. Isungset lifts a hand to what looks like an ice piano and begins to play. The notes have a xylophone-like quality to them, and mix with the haunting voice of a female singer. The duo goes on to play percussions (which have the distinct sound of boots crunching through snow on a cold winter’s night), chimes, and even a horn carved out of ice. As the sound echoes off the castle walls, and I find myself marvelling at this unexpected art scene, and at a community so undeterred by sub Arctic temperatures they have redefined what it means to embrace winter.
“I have never heard ice sound like this before,” Isungset announces, with genuine astonishment, after his set. “I think yours must be the best.” The crowd explodes in agreement, their applause stifled by mitten-clad hands.
The cold seizes my throat immediately, sending me into a coughing fit as I struggle to warm the air travelling to my lungs. I pile quickly into Joe’s 15-seater van, squished together with fellow hopeful aurora hunters like multicoloured marshmallows in our down parkas.
Joe is a member of the Dene First Nation. He grew up on Yellowknife’s infamous Ragged Ass Road, skirting the shores of Great Slave Lake. In 1999 he left his government job to chase a dream and a better title: Chief Aurora Hunter of North Star Adventures.
Today, North Star Adventures is one of the few aboriginally owned tour companies in Yellowknife. Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Taiwanese investors have long been capitalizing on Yellowknife’s natural wonders, and you are more likely to find operators offering tours in Mandarin and Cantonese than either of Canada’s two official languages. Set against such a remote backdrop, the diversity of Yellowknife is striking.
Thirty claustrophobic-minutes later, we reach a frozen clearing and pull off the road. All is still except for the soft glow and curling smoke of a cabin in the distance. The forecast is calling for clear skies and strong electromagnetic activity over the 60th parallel, perfect conditions for chasing one of Earth’s natural wonders. My neck immediately cranes upwards in search of a flicker of green, but the sky is still.
“COME ON, AURORA”, Joe bellows, as if summoning the spirit of the North.
Still nothing. The thermometer reads a cool -39 outside, coating exposed flesh in a thin layer of ice. I blink rapidly to keep my eyelashes from freezing shut. As the minutes turn into an hour, I retreat to the warmth of the van to wait.
And then, without warning, a shriek.
I roll outside the van in my Pillsbury doughboy suit and shoot my gaze upwards. A river of green is flowing across the night sky, one moment undulating in rapids, the next falling in sheets like a waterfall. Far away from city lights, the stars have been given permission to shine. They pierce through the river of green like shimmering pebbles.
It is pure magic. I lie down on my back in the snow, ignoring the cold and watching the history of the world being written across the sky in ancient calligraphy.
This is, without a doubt, reason enough to come North. But dig a little deeper, and you might discover a magic beyond the aurora, one that keeps calling you back and inviting you to stay a while.