You know it’s arctic cold when your cheeks sting with needlepoint pricks, and snot glues your nostrils together with each breath.
It is late December and we’ve made it to Yellowknife, a small town in the Northwest Territories. Yellowknife is in the Auroral Zone, the narrow band that circles the crown of the globe, and one of the top spots in the world to view the Aurora Borealis.
From Yellowknife, we’re flying out to Blachford Lake Lodge, a remote wilderness lodge, and 100 miles away from any light pollution. Not your average flight, this one takes off and lands on a frozen lake.
In the lounge of the float base, we are greeted by John, who brings in boxes full of parkas, mittens, boots, pants, warmers and hats in all sizes into the waiting area. “I want you all to take a parka. And snow pants. Mittens too. You’ll need it. And wear it all on the plane. It’s cold.”
Heavily clad in winter gear, I breathe like Darth Vader as I trudge over the ice to join the others. I greet the first person. “Mom, it’s me!” I hadn’t recognized my own son, hiding deep in that huge parka.
The plane is a ski-fitted De Havilland Twin Otter. Standing on the wing, the copilot brooms the ice off. Barrels and supplies are loaded on the plane, along with the suitcases of the seven guests going to Blachford Lake.
The ice beneath my feet looks ominous black. “You’re lucky,” I hear someone say. “It’s only -20 today.” Mentally I feel my eyebrows shoot up at this remark, but physically they stay frozen where they are. We climb on board the plane, buckle up, and listen to the instructions coming from the copilot, visible behind the stacked luggage and propane cylinders in the front of the plane. I rip the earplugs from their plastic when the engines roar up. The plane starts to slide, turns, revs its engines, and takes off.
I feel a sense of adventure carve a smile on my face.
It’s hard to see where the empty white wilderness ends and the grey sky begins. Will we see the Aurora tonight, is a question on everyone’s mind. Aurora dances best in total darkness against a cloudless sky, but today the sky is overcast.
We land on frozen Blachford Lake 25 minutes later.
The ladder is lowered, and we clamber down onto the ice. Mists of breaths plume around everyone. The scenery greeting us is unreal for an Arctic-novice. Everywhere we look, the world is white. Even the huge lake we landed on is covered in thick layers of powdery dry snow. You can walk over to nearby islands, where slow-growing trees are smaller than their age suggests. A boreal tree, we learn, stops growing in winter.
Blachford Lake Lodge is a timber construction with five bedrooms upstairs, and an open-plan communal area downstairs. Two strategically placed wood-burning stoves keep the entire lodge pleasantly warm. There are cosy corners with comfy couches both downstairs and up, and long tables to share meals. Next to the tall Christmas tree, the mounted head of a muskox brings the Arctic world inside. His colleague is upstairs, draped over the railing.
Run by volunteers from all over the world, there is a laid-back conviviality that makes you feel at home. Volunteers sign up for 2-3 months working at the lodge in exchange for board and bed. They take care of maintenance and daily runnings, but also interact with guests giving photography tips, yoga classes, or even take you cross country skiing or skating.
Blachford Lake Lodge started with the purchase of a fur-trappers cabin. Another one nearby was found abandoned, without a trace of its last occupant. Fur-trappers and gold prospectors used to come out here. The prospectors left many core samples, labeled and stored in an open-air archive, right there in the snow between the fresh tracks of a fox that we saw earlier that morning, hurrying across the ice.
The lodge is eco-friendly. The main building is oriented so it keeps cool in summer, and warm in winter. All waste is composted. Solar panels provide most of the energy. Water is pumped directly from the lake. Mike the owner explains that he seeks a balance between a wilderness lodge and adding “luxury amenities” for comfort. Hot showers, for one, but also a sauna down by the lake, and a hot tub right outside.
We’re here for New Years Eve. Tim the chef has been cooking all day, preparing lobster tails, shrimp, strip steak, salads, apple crumble, cream puffs, and pastries. Tim is a resourceful chef, using every bit of leftover to create something new. Leftover lobster and shrimp make a comeback as seafood chowder. Bread is cubed, baked with custard, and served as pudding. In the summer, he tells me, the lodge grows its own produce in two large greenhouses.
The clouds finally clear just before midnight. We go down to the lake for fireworks and champagne on ice – literally. In no time, the bubbly is slushy in my glass. Spectacular as the fireworks are, all eyes scan the sky for Aurora. And then, as if on cue to ring in the new year, she appears. Minutes after midnight Mother Nature herself lights the sky with the best fireworks ever.
Like a genie released, whitish streaks with faint hints of green and purple take over the star-speckled night sky. It is everywhere. Above, in front, behind. We don’t know where to look, and I nearly topple over craning my neck backwards to look up. It lasts for hours, at times but a faint streak, and then full-blast dancing again. I have not, ever, been so struck with awe.
The next morning, before the sun rises at 11 am, the snow reflects in shades of orange, and the trees stand stark. It is surprising how “white” can reveal so many different colors. Blueish dark at night, orange-hued in the morning, or quartz rose when the sun sets.
In the early afternoon, we go for a short dog-sled spin around the lake. Felix the dog musher, assisted by Adrien, straps seven dogs in front of a wooden sled. The dogs go mad, howling “runrunrunrun“, or so it sounds. They bark and pull, ready to drag the sled off its anchor and go. “The first run will be fast,” the musher warns. And it is. The moment theanchor comes free, the dogs fly. We speed through the sunlit scenery, quiet and serene. All I hear is the sound of the sled dragging, and the patpatpat of the dog feet running, damp mist hanging around their lean muscular bodies.
We’re staying two nights only. As much as time seems to stand still in this frozen world, the second night comes way too soon.
As if she knows we’re leaving the next day, Aurora puts on an even bigger display on our second night, again just past midnight. This time, she starts with a dance of twirling green streaks. Within minutes, the streaks grow into an expanse of white-green shapes and flashes with brushes of red. We bang on every door with a “wake me for Aurora” sign on it.” Dressed in nighties and slippers, we all seem to forget that it’s -40 out.
Our flight back to Yellowknife is the next day. How I wished I had more time in that beautiful frozen world. Blachford Lake Lodge is paradise in all its Arctic wilderness rusticity.
Yellowknife: direct flights from Edmonton and Calgary. We stayed at the convenient Explorer Hotel. Must visit: Prince Of Wales Northern Heritage Center.
You can’t book this lodge early enough: with limited plane and lodging capacity it gets booked out fast! Blachford Lake Lodge website: www.blachfordlakelodge.com.
Photos by Raymond Franssen. Do not copy without permission.