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A dogsled passes through a winter landscape in the North West Territories in March, 2015.Gawain Jones/Supplied

The neon temperature gauge in the SUV ticks down past –30 C. I crack open the passenger door and step out into the black night, my hair hardening with frost and boots squeaking on packed snow. I’m aurora hunting just outside Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories and 2 a.m. in the depth of winter is our best chance of spotting the Northern Lights. “We just need a bit of patience,” says Joe Bailey, founder of North Star Adventures, an Indigenous-owned and operated tour company.

I set up my camera tripod, my numb fingers fumbling with the dials. This is our last stop of the night, and I’m about to retreat to the warmth of the truck without a glimpse of the aurora, when a faint pink light flickers above the inky silhouette of trees. Quickly, the lights turn green, unfurling across the indigo sky like party streamers. The sky is alive with colour. “Woo!” says Bailey, punching the air. “A beautiful fishnet aurora,” he adds, the lights now a swirling, cyclonic vortex overhead.

While I stand awestruck, Bailey shares the aurora’s meaning in Dene culture. “In the Denesuline language, we call the Northern Lights ya’ke ngas, which means, ‘the sky is stirring,’ ” he says. “We believe when the aurora is dancing, it’s our loved ones on the other side, sending a message that everything is okay, they’re at peace.”

It’s hard to imagine that seven months later, in August, 2023, that cold, clean air was engulfed in suffocating smoke. Wildfires tore across the territories at the end of summer – part of more than 18 million hectares that burned across Canada this year, the hottest year on record globally – displacing a record number of people and releasing 97 megatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Bailey and his family had to leave their home, fleeing on the one road leading out of Yellowknife, along with the rest of the region’s residents.

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North of 60 Aurora Adventures offers dog-sledding excursions and aurora viewing, as well as a Dene cultural tour that includes traditional food and storytelling.Supplied

“I miss seeing the aurora,” Bailey said in an Instagram post shortly after he was evacuated. “The Northern Lights have been with me since I was a baby,” he later told me over the phone.

Not only did Bailey miss showing travellers this moving natural phenomenon, but his business lost $65,000 in revenue. “First it was COVID, now this. It’s been hit after hit,” Bailey said. Now that the Northwest Territories is again welcoming travellers, it’s more important than ever to support local businesses.

Indigenous tour operators, who tend to focus their offerings on nature and wildlife experiences, are often hit the hardest. Half of the NWT’s population is Indigenous, and they are disproportionately affected by climate-accelerated disasters, according to a recent report by Health Canada and studies by the United Nations. Not only do Indigenous peoples live in communities and health regions that often lack the funding and infrastructure to deal with the impact of natural disasters, but climate change threatens their traditional land and food supply, according to a 2020 report by Human Rights Watch.

“As Indigenous people, we have a symbiotic relationship with the land, the animals, the air, the water, we co-exist with it – even the aurora,” Bailey said. “There are definitely impacts that we feel more because our whole tourism philosophy is based on the land, with the land, about the land, and when something like the wildfires happens, it has a direct impact on us.”

While in NWT, I also stopped by North of 60 Aurora Adventures. The family-owned business offers dog-sledding excursions and aurora viewing in a cozy dome, but I spent the afternoon on its Dene cultural tour.

Plumes of smoke from a small fire built in the snow billow into the white winter sky. Larry Clarke and his son, Tyson, show me how to twist bannock dough – a dense, heavy traditional bread – around a stick to roast over the flames. “This is how it would have been cooked when my grandparents were on the trapline in the winter,” Clarke says. We move inside a large canvas tent and pull the steaming bannock off the stick, smothering it in homemade jam, while Clarke tells me more.

The trapline was a route running up to 100 kilometres in length along which hunters would trap animals, travelling by dog sled and often camping along the trail. Although dogs aren’t used along traplines any more, the memory of this way of life is preserved through dog-racing events held across the territories during the winter, and dog-sledding tours offered to visitors. Tyson works as a musher on the tours, showing guests how to harness the dogs, and guiding the sleds across frozen lakes and through snow-cloaked forest. “That’s the main goal, to keep their traditions alive,” Clarke says.

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The Northern Lights dance in the late-night sky above Aurora Village – which includes 20 tipis with wood-burning fireplaces dotted around a private lake – in January, 2016.

In August, the destructive fire came within a few kilometres of their property. Clarke evacuated with all 50 of their dogs, retreating to a cabin with his wife, Kelly, while Tyson stayed with family in Calgary. Luckily, their business was spared, and Yellowknife managed to emerge relatively unscathed, unlike other towns such as Enterprise, which was almost levelled. But the Clarkes still lost out: 50 per cent of their bookings for the fall season were cancelled, even though the travel advisory for NWT was lifted the following month. “People didn’t realize that it was safe to travel here again,” Clarke says.

Don Morin, founder and CEO of Aurora Village, had a similar experience. Morin, who grew up in the Dene and Métis community of Fort Resolution, opened Aurora Village – which includes 20 tipis with wood-burning fireplaces dotted around a private lake – in the hopes of giving people a glimpse of traditional Indigenous life. Elders stoke the tipi fires at night, where visitors escape the cold in between aurora viewing, and share traditional drumming as well as cultural stories with guests at the same time.

The lake is surrounded by spruce forest threaded with trails for dog sledding and snowshoeing, and it’s here that I finally get out onto a sled. “It was important for me to have the dog mushing, because my brother had a dog team, and up until the seventies, everybody trapped by dogs, hunted by dogs, travelled by dogs,” says Morin. I nestle into the sled wrapped snugly in a parka, fur trapper hat and wool blanket as the dogs begin to trot up ahead. Soon, we’re flying along the hilly forest trail – the swish of the sled on ice, the panting dogs, my breath in the air and a blur of trees slouching under shimmering snow.

It’s the kind of winter memory I’ll relive for years, shaking it up like a snow globe in my mind. Now that the air has cleared and the snow is falling, I hope other travellers will experience the same magic. People like Joe Bailey and the Clarkes are waiting to share it.

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The writer was a guest of Northwest Territories Tourism. It did not review or approve the story before publication.

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