By MARSHA LEDERMAN
Saturday, January 13, 2018
It was the middle of the night and the cabin lights were dimmed as we flew through the Yukon sky. We had arrived without passports, checked no luggage.
We were on a circuitous ride to nowhere; our only destination was a tick off the bucket list. Sipping on green glow-in-thedark cocktails, we pressed our noses and cameras to the glass, seeking the real star of the show, the aurora borealis.
This flight - organized by Tourism Yukon, the Yukon Astronomical Society and Air North - was the first of its kind in North America, officials told passengers at a party prior to boarding. Half a world away, a similar concept is available in New Zealand, offering from-the-sky views of the aurora australis, or Southern Lights.
These flights are part of a growing trend: astronomy-related experiential travel. Or, as some call it, astro-tourism.
We can't fly to the moon or play among the stars yet. But we can travel to places where we can see them better. As was evident with all those tourists heading for the path of totality in parts of the United States during last summer's solar eclipse, people are keen to travel to witness an exceptional astrological event.
The hospitality industry, recognizing the opportunity, is developing experiences that are based not only on once-ina-blue-moon events but on more regularly scheduled astronomical experiences.
Stargazing is a big one; so are the Northern Lights. In Rovaniemi, Finland, for instance, you can don thermal underwear and a head-to-toe survival suit and "dry float" in the icy waters as you watch the Northern Lights (or hope they appear).
In recent months, I have been fortunate enough to give astro-tourism a try in both the northern and southern hemispheres, from the sky and on the ground (and in water). And the experiences were, yes, out of this world.
In November, Air North took off from Whitehorse for its inaugural "Aurora 360" flight, inviting passengers to view the aurora borealis from the sky. At 36,000 feet, you have an opportunity for an uninterrupted - and what's closer to a guaranteed - sighting.
"You're above the clouds, you're above the dust," Anthony Gucciardo, a key organizer of the Aurora 360 experience, told The Globe and Mail. "We're improving the odds; we're removing an entire barrier."
New Zealand is well positioned for astro-tourism offerings, thanks to the absence of light pollution in large areas.
About 4,300 square kilometres of its South Island has been recognized as an International Dark Sky Reserve. And this year the International Dark Sky Association designated Great Barrier Island, about 100 kilometres northeast of Auckland, a Dark Sky Sanctuary - the first island and third place in the world to receive the designation (the other two are in Chile and New Mexico).
In 2017, New Zealand played host to its first aurora flight. The flight, last March, taking off from Dunedin in a chartered 767, was a success - it sold out in less than five days despite pricey tickets.
"The flight experienced the aurora for over four hours and we also had amazing views of the night sky from far south," organizer Ian Griffin, director of New Zealand's Otago Museum, explained from Dunedin. Flight to the Lights II - 12 hours on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, from (and to) Christchurch, travelling over the Antarctic Ocean - is scheduled for March 22 (tickets start at $3,536 for a pair in economy and go up to $5,330 a seat for business class).
If you would rather enjoy the view from terra firma, you can spend a night or two in a PurePod, an all-glass structure that allows for an immersive experience in nature, while also providing shelter from the elements. The PurePods have been erected in several private, isolated locations on the South Island - perfect for all-night star-gazing.
I didn't make it to a PurePod while in New Zealand recently, but I did see my share of celestial bodies, first with Big Sky Stargazing near Mount Cook Village.
Guides laser-pointed constellations and stars for us in the unfamiliar (for me, anyway) southern hemisphere night sky, and focused large telescopes on star clusters and distant galaxies. In Tekapo, about an-hour-anda-half southeast of there, I took part in a new experience at Tekapo Springs: a guided talk with telescopes, after which we put on our swimsuits to do some stargazing from natural hot pools. Floating around on buoyancy pillows, we listened to our guide explain what we were seeing (and some things we weren't able to see) in her mellifluous Glaswegian accent.
It's not a coincidence that Canada and New Zealand launched their aurora-viewing flights in the same year.
There is a connection - and it's a personal one. According to Gucciardo, who is past president and one of the founders of the Yukon Astronomical Society, Griffin - an astrophysist who calls himself an aurora hunter - was in Yukon to film footage of the aurora borealis for his planetarium. But there were some cloudy nights and while he ultimately got the footage he needed, it was frustrating. It got the two men discussing how to overcome those variables - a plane would do the job. Back in New Zealand, Griffin was working on his aurora australis tour - and Gucciardo pitched the idea to officials in Yukon. The Astronomical Society (which is also building an observatory in Whitehorse, scheduled to open next year), Air North and Yukon Tourism signed on and the flight was announced in September.
Gucciardo did the predictive work, coming up with a weekend in late November when the auroras were likely to be putting on a show. Closer to the event, he crunched the data to determine which of the two potential nights showed probability of a higher aurora strength.
For us, it was Friday.
The experience in Whitehorse started with late afternoon talks at the Beringia Interpretive Centre about the aurora borealis and other "orbital shenanigans" as one of the speakers, UBC postdoctoral fellow Christa Van Laerhoven, put it.
Then at 10 p.m., we gathered at the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre in town for the pregame show. As part of the $950 experience, and to celebrate the inaugural flight, we were shown to tables laden with the polar opposite of airplane food: gold-dusted chocolates (this is gold-rush country, after all), butter-poached elk on crostini, an assortment of house-cured game, buckets of sweet Alaska shrimp kept cool with buckets of snow.
Following this, we were treated to an Indigenous dance performance. The troupe's leader Sean Smith, who is of Tuchone and Tlingit (and Irish and Scottish) heritage, offered a warm sendoff. "That's our ancestors that you're going to be seeing tonight," he told us.
"They are an iconic symbol of the north and tonight we will join in their dance," Yukon's Minister of Tourism and Culture, Jeanie Dendys said, at the ceremony.
Then we boarded warm buses for a trip to the airport. There were about 50 paying passengers, as well as dignitaries and media from around the world.
Despite the late hour - it was about midnight at this point - the feeling as we took our assigned seats was electric. Passengers swapped photography tips; many selfies were snapped.
We were not in the air very long when the captain announced that the auroras were strutting their stuff.
They were much more visible on the left side of the plane; I was on the right, missing the initial glow, but enjoying the stars, which were spectacular. Eventually, the Northern Lights did put on a show - muted, but a show nonetheless - for those on the right side of the plane as well. Seatswapping was not officially sanctioned, but many passengers eager for the best view just did it on their own. Still, people seemed satisfied, if not ecstatic. The guy behind me, taking long-exposure shots with his camera, was over the moon with the results.
Potent gin drinks were served with ice cubes that glowed green and glow sticks were distributed toward the end of the three-hour flight. An unnecessary distraction, I thought - after all, this part of the world is a terrific astro-tourism destination in part because of the lack of light pollution.
The Aurora 360 was considered a pilot project, to be reviewed. Debra Ryan with Air North says the airline has been "bombarded" with inquiries from people hoping for a repeat, and she says there will be another flight this year, although a date hasn't been scheduled. "It will happen in 2018," she says.
On the inaugural flight, we had fun and felt like we were part of something big - even if we didn't get the ooh-and-ah bright greens and reds painting the sky fantastic that I had envisioned.
The next night, on a separate adventure, dozens of us were bused out to a dark viewing site to view the aurora borealis from the ground. Alas, they remained out of sight (other than a slight greenish glow to the north I may or may not have imagined). But there was good company, a crackling fire and a cabin full of snacks. And the stars filled the sky - if not exactly the gaping chasm some of us felt due to the absence of the auroras.
Mother Nature is unpredictable and not always co-operative, but she can offer you wonders when you least expect it. The day after the flight, a group of us went snowmobiling at Sky High Wilderness Ranch.
Our guide led us across Fish Lake, then up a hill where we stopped to take a few photos before heading back. As we stood at the lookout snapping pictures, a member of the group pointed west, where two sundogs had appeared. The sundogs - which resemble vertical rainbows - framed the sun, growing more vivid, to our absolute delight, reaching down and bathing the snowy trees below in rainbow colours.
We jumped for joy - we really did.
Some of us (ahem) were near tears. It was that exhilarating. Here, during an experience that I thought would be more about speed and brute force than peace and nature, we found exhilaration in the sky; a cosmic pot of gold.
The writer was a guest of Tourism Yukon and Tourism New Zealand. Neither reviewed nor approved this article.
Air North flies to Whitehorse and other northern cities, including Yellowknife, Inuvik and Dawson City.
Edgewater Hotel: A historic hotel in a great location - on Main Street, near the Yukon River - that has recently undergone a multimillion-dollar renovation. edgewaterhotelwhitehorse.com.
Northern Tales Aurora Borealis Tours: View the auroras (you hope) from a selection of dark-sky areas. northerntales.ca/ aurora-tours.
Sky High Wilderness Ranch: Enjoy snowmobiling and dog-sledding tours in the winter (also snowshoeing); horseback riding tours in the summer. skyhighwilderness.com.
Although the views of the Northern Lights were not quite as dramatic as this particular appearance in the Yukon, top, Marsha Lederman did manage to see them from the plane. In New Zealand, PurePods, above, ensure a sighting by providing unobstructed views from every direction.