Whatever you do, don't whistle at the Aurora
Above they swirl like magical ribbons of colour from another world. A tapestry of purples, greens and reds shimmering across the dark sky — the spectacular Northern Lights. Looking up at these electric giants is like staring into a dream. It’s easy to see stories, even whole worlds in their vibrant dance. Indigenous peoples have been inspired by this cosmic play for thousands of years.
When he was just a child, growing up on the vast and virtually untouched Mackenzie Delta in the Northwest Territories, Gerry Kisoun’s parents warned him not to play with the swirling lights overhead. And especially don’t whistle at them. Otherwise, the lights would swoop down, cut off your head and play football with it. “We remembered that as small children and into our teenage years,” says Kisoun, who is a guide with Tundra North Tours and an Elder of Inuvialuit and Gwich’in descent. “The Aurora would just be bouncing around. We’d whistle and it would start to come down and we’d run home.”
The Dene of the Northwest Territories place the origins of the Aurora in a fire built by the world’s creator. It’s believed they remain in the sky as a reminder that the creator is still watching over us.
Cree legends say the Aurora are the spirits of the dead who remain in the sky, trying to communicate with their loved ones here on Earth.
Inuvialuit legends, like those Kisoun grew up hearing, also say the lights are the shades of those once living, playing soccer with a walrus skull — or a human head.
Some say the spirit you see dancing in the Aurora is someone you’ve lost. A close family member or friend who’s passed on. Joe Bailey, a lifelong Northerner and operator of North Star Adventures, says they’re sending a message back to Earth. “I’m OK up here now. No need to be sad. Enjoy your life, do good and one day we are going to see each other again.”
He remembers standing under the Aurora with one traveler from the United States, telling her this legend he grew up hearing. “She just started crying because she was supposed to make the trip with her best friend who passed away from breast cancer,” recalls Bailey. “She said, ‘Joe, that’s exactly what I felt.’”
The science behind the phenomenon
Scientifically speaking, the Aurora Borealis are electronically charged particles that flare up in colour when they hit the Earth’s atmosphere. But that scientific definition is lacking in the majesty. Born in solar storms from the heart of the sun, Aurora explode towards Earth at a speed of up to three million kilometres per hour. They bounce across the skies, dancing in an incandescent display of dynamic hues.
In the Northwest Territories, the Aurora are visible for up to 240 nights per year. That’s nearly every single night of the late summer, autumn, winter and early spring. Why so frequent here? Because the Northwest Territories enjoys crystal-clear skies, ultra-low humidity and is perfectly situated beneath the band of maximal Auroral activity — what astronomers call the Auroral Oval.
It’s what brings travellers from all over the world to see these Northern Lights. Gerry Kisoun remembers one Australian couple he toured around the Delta a few years ago. Despite the minus-40-degree weather, they couldn’t get enough of the lightshow overhead. The couple laid down in the snow for half an hour just to watch the Aurora skipping and jumping. “We’ll warm up tomorrow,” they told him. That’s the real magic of the Aurora!
As a teenager travelling across the Delta with his dog team, Kisoun would often see the lights. It was just something they grew up with, he says. But that didn’t mean they ever became commonplace. Even today, when he looks up, he feels something spiritual. Something true. “I just think, it’s a good day to be alive.”
Further information on the Northwest Territories can be found at www.spectacularnwt.com.