A front-row seat for a heavenly show

By Diane Daniel. Published May 5, 2002, in the Boston Globe.

FORT SMITH, Northwest Territories – It was 9:30 on a Saturday night in late March, and Beverly Salfi returned from a quick check outside to casually report, “The northern lights are out, eh?”

She knew I had come to subarctic Canada hoping to see the lights, a frequent sight in this small town just over the Alberta line and 675 miles north of Edmonton. But she had no idea how obsessed I had become with the aurora borealis since I first saw them 12 years ago outside Bar Harbor, Maine.

I had been brought to her cottage in Salt River, about 20 minutes outside of town, by Fran Bourque, who with her husband, Charlie, runs Alcantara Outfitting, offering fishing at remote camps reached by air or water. Bourque had organized this “girls’ night” with two friends and me at Salfi’s cottage, where I would be away from the city light, as faint as it was.

With Salfi’s announcement, I tore outside and looked up. I saw a narrow beam of light, like a promotional laser. How can she tell this little thing is an aurora, I wondered, feeling let down. I followed it up and over, to the other side of the sky – and gasped.

There they were, mostly white and constantly changing shape and intensity. It was as if spotlights, floodlights, track lights, and sunlight were competing for attention. They arced and twisted and shimmered, slowly and gracefully, some horizontally, some vertically, from heavens to horizon. By the time I returned my gaze to where I had first looked, that dark and starry part of the sky had filled with light as well.

I ran inside, shivering from the zero temperature, and suited up as quick as a firefighter when the alarm rings. “I’ll be back in a little bit,” I said, hurrying back out. This time I was wearing a snow suit, snow boots, balaclava, and extra thick mitts. Up the dirt road I walked, away from any light, and plopped down on my back in the snow to get the full effect. The celestial kaleidoscope continued, and I stayed there, entranced, until I was shivering again.

In winter, Fort Smith is one of the best places in the Northern Hemisphere to see the aurora borealis, which is caused by charged solar particles being pulled to the earth’s poles. Their energy is released in the form of light, sometimes white but often green, pink, red, or purple, depending on such factors as gas and energy levels, altitude, and weather. The ones I saw started out white but eventually turned soft green.

By the time I had arrived three days earlier in Fort Smith, a town of 2,500 people, I had made so many inquiries about lodging, food, northern lights viewing, and other activities that it seemed half those people knew I was coming. Winter visitors, especially from the United States, are not common.

“You have to come back in the summer,” was the oft-repeated comment.

The other repeated question was, “How did you find Fort Smith?”

I learned about it in Backpacker magazine, which in December 1999 featured “best places for northern lights viewing.” A map of the Northern Hemisphere showed “the auroral zone,” a belt that encircles the polar regions. Of all the places marked – including Maine, Alaska, Nunavut, and the Yukon – Wood Buffalo National Park, adjacent to Fort Smith, was at the top, with a nearly 100 percent chance of seeing the lights on clear, dark nights. There, the dark est nights occur from October to March. (Though the locals live for summer activities, the sky never gets dark enough for good aurora viewing.) I chose March, knowing the early spring would be a little warmer than the below-zero winter. And I was lucky enough to have three nights of clear skies, two of which were graced with the aurora.

Meanwhile, everyone had a theory about when the lights would appear. Or not appear. “You should have come in February.” “You’ll have to stay up until 1 a.m.” “You should have visited last year, when they were more active.”

Away from it all

Until 1967, Fort Smith, on the west bank of the Slave River, was the territorial headquarters. It was a portage route and fur trading post. But when road transportation overtook waterway transportation, the capital moved 332 miles north to Yellowknife, which has become an urban center of 18,000 people and the unofficial tourist headquarters for aurora borealis viewing.

But Fort Smith is the place to be if you want to get away from the aurora hype, the gift shops, the cappuccino, and the cellphones (though they’re not far off). Half the population here is aboriginal or a mix of native and nonnative. There remain many issues around tribal and nonnative rights, but that doesn’t play out at the tourist level. The region is starting to promote its ecotourism offerings, of which there are many. But, as one official described it, tourism in Fort Smith is in its infancy, which is both its charm and its frustration: You need to hire a guide for everything or work out a do- it-yourself schedule.

I found plenty to do during my five days, including dog-sledding, cross-country skiing, walking in silent, snow-covered woods, and hiking across a frozen river to rapids so strong the freeze does not fully stop them. I experienced many firsts: a drive down the winter- only “ice road,” seeing a lynx in the wild, sampling moose and caribou meat, being shown how to sculpt tufts of moose and caribou hair into art. And, of course, there was the aurora, much more impressive here than it had been in Maine.

It sounds cliched, but because I saw no other tourists, at times I felt as if I were on the set of “Northern Exposure.” That started with my Canadian North flight from Edmonton to Fort Smith. There’s one flight a day (you get a hot meal on the 90-minute flight!), and the plane lands at a one-room airport where everyone seems to know one another. The town center is basically an intersection with a four- way stop sign, a large church, and a few stores, restaurants, and municipal buildings. In two days I was seeing familiar faces and picking up on the local lore, and even the gossip. At the two restaurants (picture banquet rooms with tables), solo diners, who were mostly men, would walk in and join anyone they happened to know.

One day I visited some of the local artists: writer and photographer Leslie Leong, photographer Bob Langevin, wood and tusk carver Sonny MacDonald. Call them and they’ll invite you over to see their work, which is for sale. (It’s OK if you only look.) You can also find regional crafts at the Taiga Tour Co. and the North of 60 Books, an outstanding bookstore run by friendly Ib Kristensen, a Danish transplant. Ask him to point you to his impressive collection of regional titles.

I was lucky enough to be the audience for a personal craft show that Saturday night at Salfi’s house, where I also was treated to a meal of breaded caribou (too gamey for my taste), bannock (a sort of native biscuit), and roasted vegetables. Salfi, Bourque, and their friend Marion Berls showed me their homemade moccasins, dresses, coats, furs, jewelry, and photographs. Berls’s daughter Courtney gave me a keepsake of a rabbit-fur scrunchie for my hair. They (and several others in Fort Smith) demonstrated the fascinating art of tufting, where caribou or moose hair is dyed various colors, affixed to a backing, and then sculpted with scissors into various shapes. Most every home and business I visited displayed at least one framed tufting.

Of animals and ice

For most visitors here, however, the action is outdoors, if not seeing the northern lights then at the world-class rapids of the Slave River (some unpassable), at rentable private cabins, and at Wood Buffalo National Park, 15 miles south of Fort Smith and the area’s biggest draw. Even so, the world’s second-largest national park – 11 million acres – gets only 1,400 visitors a year, the vast majority in summer. This is a primitive park with one road running through it, one campground with only 12 sites, and very few facilities. Stop at park headquarters, in the center of town, before you visit. Exhibits, a slide show, literature, and maps give a terrific and necessary background to this vast forested and plains region.

The park offers special tours and presentations when scheduling allows, and there are some self-guided tours through the woods and the salt plains in the summer, but park officials strongly recommend the use of guides in the back country, which encompasses most of the land.

The mammoth park straddles the Alberta-Northwest Territories border and was created in 1922 to protect the last herd of wood bison, now the largest free-roaming herd in the world, at about 3,000. The boreal forest (meaning north country with cold winters and warm summers) includes plains, shallow lakes, and bogs. Two rivers flow through Wood Buffalo, the Peace and Athabasca, forming one of the world’s largest fresh-water deltas, where many people come for bird watching. From the delta, the Slave River, which is the park’s eastern boundary, flows north into Great Slave Lake. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983, the park is home to muskrats, moose, lynx, caribou, wolves, and black bears, and is known for being the last natural nesting habitat of the rare whooping crane. It lies under all four North American flyways, so in spring and fall huge flocks of migratory birds can be seen passing through. Tourists also seek out the park’s extensive salt plains and what is the continent’s best example of gypsum karst topography, a limestone landscape of caves, fissures, and sinkholes.

A lot of that you cannot experience in the winter, but the off- season holds treats of its own. I used the services of local guide Brad Bourque, who specializes in park tours. (He is Fran Bourque’s cousin, and both are distantly related to former Bruin Ray Bourque.) In the summer, Bourque, 37, takes tourists to the park’s Sweetgrass Station, on the Peace-Athabasca Delta, accessible only by boat. His groups stay at one campsite and take daily hikes, looking for birds, wolves, and other natural sights. On one trip, Bourque saw 30 timber wolves, and he says some people come just for the wolves.

Winter brings a reprieve from the mosquitoes, which are said to be bigger and meaner here than in Alaska. A park highlight is the drive south to Fort Chipewyan, Alberta’s most remote community, about 2 1/ 2 hours from Fort Smith by boat or car. In summer, the only access to this town of 1,200 is by air and river. In winter, you can take Highway 5 to the winter road, or ice road, through the park, and over frozen land and water. Fort Chip, as it’s called, is also a starting point for delta tours.

Bourque drove me about 15 miles down the winter road, which was soon to close for the season. It was otherworldly riding a temporary road in his pickup over rivers and wetlands and right through the woods. It made a New England country road seem like a highway. We saw a lynx standing alongside the road and passed a gathering place for bison, with tracks and scat but no animals.

He also didn’t believe I’d see the northern lights this late in the season, saying I should have come in late August.

I wasn’t up for winter camping, but wanted to be in the woods, so for two nights I stayed in a heated cabin, thanks to local guide Johnny Desjarlais, who works with Bourque. Desjarlais, 45, grew up trapping animals with his father.

“Activists say it’s a cruel way of life, but it doesn’t feel like I’m killing when I take an animal so that I can carry on,” he says, explaining that he tries to respect old and new ways of thinking.

A cabin in the woods

Desjarlais, who uses both a snowmobile and his dog-sled team for travel and trapping, works the traps less and less as he spends more time with tourists, taking them for dog-sled rides, or on his small motorboat in the summer. A native of Cree and Chipewyan descent, he owns a small house in town and a cabin on his family’s land across the Slave River. He speaks of how his connection to nature saved him from near-death from drinking. (The alcoholism rate in the Northwest Territories is the highest in Canada.) “The land brought me back,” he says.

We spent Friday and Monday nights in his cozy one-room cabin, getting there by snowmobile. Desjarlais kept the wood stove going and cooked simple but delicious meals. I took walks along the snowmobile tracks. Snowshoes are recommended for off-trail walking, which I discovered when we hiked in knee-deep snow onto the river to an area where the powerful Rapids of the Drowned break through the ice.

This part of the Slave River, a nesting area of white pelicans, is also one of North America’s foremost white-water playgrounds, and one of its most dangerous, so it is essential that kayakers use local guides. There are four main rapids along a 15-mile stretch of river (about two-thirds of a mile wide), but there are other rapids and ledges all over. The degree of difficulty ranges from Class I to Class VI – the kind that can kill.

Friday night was clear and cold, with a full moon that lit up the woods and brightened the snow. But no aurora. The next night, though, was the glorious light show over Beverly Salfi’s cottage.

And on Monday, my final night in Fort Smith, I lucked out again. As soon as it turned dark, the lights came out to play. Desjarlais and I spent hours going outside to sky-gaze and inside to warm up. In the cabin, we would put out the lantern so I could watch from the windows. But outdoors, surrounded by light, was better, where I felt like a dancer in this ballet of heavenly light.

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One Response to “A front-row seat for a heavenly show”

  1. Dispatch: Curling and skiing in Canmore « Places we go, People we see Says:

    […] I’d seen a brief demonstration of curling when I was in the Northwest Territories in 2002, but hadn’t recalled much about it. I stopped at the rink, combined with a golf course (!) […]

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