The shuttle bus pulls over to the side of the winding, bumpy road leading to the Aurora Village in the boreal forest outside Yellowknife. A passenger feels nauseous and needs some fresh air – there’s no shortage of that around here – and as we idle the driver calls the rest of us to the windshield.
Directly ahead of us, shimmering amid a blanket of stars, is a vivid veil of greenish-white light that pushes the “probability of aurora” from 70 to 100 per cent.
Thousands of visitors come to Yellowknife each year, especially in fall and winter, to catch a glimpse of charged particles colliding with atoms in the upper atmosphere. So, based on cloud cover and recent aurora activity, hotels provide a daily POA.
We file out of the bus and gaze into the cold night sky. I’m thrilled to get a full dose of the main attraction before even reaching the world’s largest northern lights viewing complex. But it makes me wonder: Does the world really need the Aurora Village? Like stargazing, all I have to do is cast my eyes skyward, right?
To be fair, the village’s lounge, gift shop and dozens of woodstove-heated tepees – the latter reserved for groups of two to 20 – provide a welcome respite from the chill.
But it gets weird in a hurry. The lounge, for instance, resembles a rustic small-town Legion, except that it’s occupied mainly by taciturn couples. Turns out the Japanese visit Yellowknife, and the Aurora Village, in droves. In Japanese culture, seeing the northern lights is considered auspicious, and a child conceived under them is believed to be lucky and healthy. The takeaway here: Do not wander into the wrong tepee.
In the garishly-lit gift shop, aurora-themed jewelry and apparel are available for princely sums, while a stuffed elk (in repose) oversees the transactions from an elevated platform. When I inquire about purchasing the taxidermal wonder – my kids have always wanted one – I’m politely rebuffed by the clerk.
“Does the elk have a name?” I ask.
“Elk,” comes the stone-faced reply.
And the tepees? They glow alluringly, and delicious maple-buttered bannock is served inside. But the fluorescent lighting and folding chairs – also like something out of a Legion – don’t encourage stove-side relaxation.
The sensible-versus-surreal theme continues onto rocky hilltops and wooden platforms connected by lantern-lit pathways. On one hand, these provide unobstructed views of the wonders overhead, and are crowded with murmuring groups carting camera equipment worth considerably more than a whole herd of stuffed elk. On the other, two of these vantage points are outfitted with swivelling viewing pods that look like abandoned back-woods bumper cars.
All this quirkiness culminates in the “Giant Slide.” It’s exactly as advertised: After taking some slippery stairs up a two-storey tower, I peer down the precipitous plywood chute. Sadly, or perhaps thankfully, the top is boarded up.
Could it be that the slide is designed to entertain guests when the probability of aurora is zero per cent? It is a reindeer launch pad, perhaps?
That night, I vow to discover the true purpose of the Giant Slide. And then, to kidnap the elk…