It’s midnight, 2 degrees Celsius, and we are sitting in a hot tub under a cloudless sky while thin wisps of greenish light arc overhead, floating and shifting like giant strands of ghostly fairy floss.
Welcome to Yellow Dog Lodge in Canada’s remote Northwest Territories (NWT), a place to fish, hike, escape, and see one of the most remarkable natural phenomena you’re ever likely to witness: the Aurora Borealis or ‘northern lights’.
These electrically charged particles from the Sun are blown over Earth’s magnetic poles all-year-round but it’s only at certain times, particularly in autumn and winter, that conditions are just right.
Around us the other guests – a group of young Korean students – are literally squealing with delight as the heavenly show builds in intensity. Fortunately, waking the neighbours is unlikely: the nearest people are 50 kilometres away.
Perhaps it’s this sense of remoteness that draws so many to this stunning part of the world. It took us a day to get here from Vancouver, with flights to Edmonton and Yellowknife, NWT’s diamond-mining frontier town capital, where nearly half of the region’s 44,000 people live.
Then, after a brief tour of Yellowknife’s quirky old town, we stepped aboard a 1957 DeHavilland Beaver five-seater seaplane, and donned our aviation headsets so we could communicate above the engine noise.
With more than necessary ‘rogers’ and ‘copy thats’ we took in the landscape 300 metres below, which unfolded like a sublime watercolour. Forests of green pines dotted with stands of bright yellow autumnal larch gave way to grey, moss-covered rock (known as the Canadian Shield, it is among the oldest on Earth); deep blue freshwater lakes are so numerous they make the distinction between water, land and island pointless.
After a brief pass over the lodge our bushy bearded pilot, Daly Cook, lands on water and cuts the engine. The crisp NWT silence is almost jarring as we drift in to the pontoon, where Yellow Dog Lodge owner Gord Gin and three dogs Joey, Jax and Toby wait to meet us.
Trained as an oil and gas pipeline engineer, Gord bought the lodge in 2006 and renamed it Yellow Dog, a portmanteau of two local First Nations tribes, the Yellowknife and the Dogrib. He operates the lodge from June to the end of September, living here with his excellent, down-to-earth staff Frankie, Aaron and Alisha. The lodge sleeps up to 32 and the comfortable wood-fired cabins cost $350 per person per night, including meals; seaplane transfers are $600 per plane load, one-way.
For the next three nights we marveled at the aurora, ate hearty food, warmed ourselves in hot tubs and saunas and told tall tales in the lodge’s fully stocked bar. During the day Gord took us on hikes through the wilderness where we snacked on wild cranberries and hunted for moose and caribou ‘sheds’ (discarded horns) and learnt about the strange rock sculptures known as inukshuks, built here as markers by First Nations people.
The fishing, however, was a revelation. We began on day-one trawling on Graham Lake (the lodge sits on a dam between two lakes, the larger of which is called Lake Duncan). In a sheltered, shallow bay I caught the biggest fish of my life: a nearly metre-long northern pike. Unless you’re fishing for dinner the policy here is catch-and-release, so this huge fish got another chance.
The next day we took the bots out on Duncan Lake, catching 10 huge lake trout between us (the lakes are also known for walleye, whitefish and arctic grayling). Gord and Aaron filleted them for chef Frankie, who cooked up a delicious meal back at the lodge. The leftover fish were prepared for smoking.
By the end of our stay at Yellow Dog our lungs had been filled to bursting with fresh NWT air, our eyes dazzled by the remarkable northern lights and our hearts bewitched by the warm hospitality shown by Gord and his crew. It was an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime experience for us all.
This story first appeared in travel industry news magazine karryon.com.au.