Helen Patrice heads north in search of a celestial wonderland
I thought that if there was no Sun and no Moon, there would be only the stars and the darkness between them. That the Earth would be black and nothing would move upon the face of the waters.
Not true. For I have been to a place of no Sun or Moon, and there were stars, and the darkness between them. The Earth was white and a dog called Loki moved about, eating frozen fish.
Full Moon over Honolulu was beautiful on New Year's Eve. A clear warm night, freshened by rain, which stopped before midnight. From early evening, fireworks exploded over various parties in the hills ringing Waikiki. At midnight, a huge display of fireworks, akin to Sydney Harbour same evening, rent the sky over the ocean.
Days later, with the Moon waning, I travelled north to Whitehorse, in Canada, to see the Aurora Borealis. Yes, seeing the Aurora Australis would have been less trouble. But I had the chance, so I went.
Moon dark found me bundled into arctic clothing. Cotton socks, followed by woollen socks. Undies, bra, silk long underwear, jeans, shirt. Then came the arctic overalls, with jeans tucked into arctic boots that resembled black moon boots, and made my feet six sizes larger than they really are. Arctic parka, woollen beanie, pull up the parka hood. Tuck a scarf around the face. Look in the mirror - Michelin Man.
Sit in the foyer of the Gold Rush Inn and overheat. Welcome to clothing-induced hot flushes - with full knowledge that going out in the cold will mean the sweat freezing on my body, if there's a careless gap in my layering.
How anyone could discern I was female was beyond me, but somehow, the smallness of my boots must have given it away. The men had bigger boots. The ratio of men to women in the Yukon is still disproportionate. Weirdy beardies of all ages and sorts eyed me up.
"I killed a bear once, you know," said one, by way of introduction.
"Good for you," I said.
"Want to see the skin?"
The Yukon equivalent of etchings, I supposed.
"Perhaps later, "I said. "I'm going out to see the aurora."
Another man, fresh from the bar, leaned over me minutes later. "I can remember my grandfather telling me about electric corsets."
Not a lot else one can say to that. At least they were more original than "Do you come here often?"
And meanwhile, it had been dark since 4pm, I'd had to endure another meal in a pub not catering to vegetarians, I was overheating in my puffer clothes, it was snowing, it was open mic night in the bar and someone had asked me to perform a duet (another pick up line of the X Files sort), and I wanted to be seeing spectacular, strange light displays in the sky.
The last thing I wanted was sun-deprived men asking me on dates. All other approaches were greeted with me sort of grunting at them. I was becoming as peculiar as them. Finally, the great big 4WD pulled up, and Stephan and his dog Loki loaded two New Zealanders, a Canadian and me in, and took us 45 minutes outside of Whitehorse. There was a wooden and canvas hut, with welcome pot-bellied stove, a selection of teas, and party nibblies. A familiar sight. Every night for a week, we'd gathered in this hut to await clear skies and northern lights, from 9pm onwards.
Inside, we could take off parkas and hats, sit on wooden benches and wait. This was our last night on the tour. Previous nights had been too cloudy. This night, the sky was clearing. Stephan assured us that there was some chance tonight, even if we were in a notoriously low sun spot and flare activity period, due to peak again in six years.
A curse upon the sun. How could it have been so bright and constant in Honolulu, and so lazy up here in the sub-arctic? I was a witch. How dare the elements betray me, after all I'd done for them. Ahem. My inner two year old was throwing a tantrum, while my outer 46 year old knew that sensible witches did not seek to control the weather, and could not command the Sun, the Moon and the Stars.
Stephan and Loki took us out to do some star gazing. Orion, the Big Dipper, Cassiopeia, the Pleiades, Taurus, Gemini, Aries already set, a futile hunt for Cancer, and we thought we could see Leo. Stephan had an electronic constellation detector that was telling him that Orion was not in the sky at all, but the Southern Cross was visible at this time.
Each of us kept stealing glances at the northern horizon. Could we see a faint green glow, or were we kidding ourselves?
We returned to camp and sat around a campfire. 30 degrees below zero, Celsius. All of us wrapped up to the eyeteeth, and opting to sit outside, under the open sky, and stare at a fire. We listened to Loki running about in the dark, and crunching on her evening meal of frozen fish.
Even in the dark night, the snow still glowed white around us and the few clouds in the sky were a hazy grey.
This is how our ancestors spent their evenings, seeing shapes in the fire, and looking up at the stars, hunching their backs against the dark and the cold and leaning forward into light and warmth.
By 2am, there was still nothing but an almost imaginary greenish tinge on the horizon so we called it quits. That's the way it goes. Sometimes it's there, and other times not. I stood in the open field, white as far as I could see, and thanked Earth in the form of snow, the freezing Air, Water in the form of snow again, and the cold Fire of the stars for their dance of life. I thanked the God and Goddess for this opportunity - an Aussie girl from the land of Sun headed north into the great cold.
And then back into the van and back to town, with the sound of Loki snoring in the back seat. I may not have seen the northern lights, but I got something greater - a sense of the Earth's diversity. That in itself is worth preserving.