On cold clear winter nights in Canada's frozen north, the sky catches fire. Ribbons of neon green dance overhead, punctuated by occasional flashes of red.
Locals say it pops and fizzes in eerie silence. It is this fireworks display, the Aurora Borealis, that I have travelled more than 12,000km to see.
There are no guarantees of course. Solar and weather conditions have to be just right, but this part of Canada's Northern Rockies is within the North Pole's Auroral Zone and also has virtually nothing in the way of man-made light pollution, so your chances in the winter months from September through to March, are good.
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A prime viewing destination is the Muncho Lake and the nearby Liard Hot Springs in Fort Nelson. It's more than 1500km from Vancouver, but that distance can be covered in a matter of hours with two short, regional plane hops, followed by a 250km trip north along the Alaska Highway.
Fort Nelson was once a booming mining and gas town but now, like so much of rural Canada, it is having to reinvent itself. Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, it was reaching out to tourists, launching an annual Northern Lights Festival held every March. Its tagline is "Welcome to your #bucketlist adventure" ... when the world returns to normal, the town will have even more need to bolster its tourism industry and you should definitely consider adding a trip to your list.
In the interests of retaining its character and appeal, the town has been careful to preserve its pioneering heritage and wilderness lifestyle, thanks to some dedicated locals, like Marl Brown.
Now 87, he worked as a mechanic for the Canadian Army in the1950s not long after the Alaska Highway was built. He began collecting items the Army discarded, including some very large machinery, and by the seventies, he had so much stuff the town got involved and fundraised to build a museum to house his treasures.
It has expanded so much it now consists of more than eight buildings and includes not just machinery, but wildlife artefacts and items that underline the harshness of conditions for the fur traders and prospectors who established Fort Nelson in the early 1800s.
Despite the town's efforts, Marl still has a surplus that can't fit in the museum buildings. His yard is full of mining and construction machinery — in the winter months, barely visible under several feet of snow.
Visitors will often find him rambling around the museum — he loves to talk to people and has a story to tell about every item in his vast collection; he's also been known to pop a 45 into an old juke box and dance to it to amuse his guests.
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Another of Fort Nelson's famous sons is champion dog sledder Terry Streeper, who raced for several decades before handing the reins to his son Buddy. Earlier this year Buddy won the Open World Championship for the eighth time. Terry's main role now is running the family kennels, home to about 100 dogs. He will always make time to chat to tourists and take them on a ride behind one of his dog teams.
They're mostly some kind of English Pointer cross, and are bred not just for stamina and speed, but also for temperament to get on with humans and other dogs. They love to run — the sight of people approaching gets the dogs excited, with a cacophony of barking, leaping and straining on their leashes, euphoric at the prospect of being hitched up to the sled.
It's a thrilling ride — we are loaded three to a sled, sitting one behind the other on wooden seats with a grip rail in front to hold on to. Once given the command to go, the 10 dogs stop yapping and take off, loping along two abreast, pulling the sled at around 14km an hour. That's roughly half the speed they'd be doing if racing, but the object of the training run is to build stamina, not speed.
Following a clearly marked trail carved knee deep into the snow, the banks on either side are topped with a fresh powdery layer. It's relatively comfortable, but I'm glad I have a good pair of mittens to keep my fingertips warm.
The sled dogs are not the only animal attraction in this part of the world — wildlife abounds, even in winter. On our spectacular drive along the Alaska Highway from Fort Nelson to The Northern Rockies Lodge at Lake Muncho, we wind alongside frozen rivers, between snowy mountains and through untouched woodland, keeping our eyes peeled for bison, moose, deer, lynx, wolves, caribou, stone sheep — a particularly nimble animal which can climb cliff faces — and owls.
The bison are easy to spot; they're huge animals and don't seem at all spooked by vehicles stopping alongside as they swing their great heads to shovel snow aside to get to the grass buried beneath.
Moose are relatively common, and we catch a glimpse of two before they turn their backs and slip into the fir trees lining both sides of the road. We're glad they're beside the road, not on it — these large animals are responsible for a number of road deaths. The largest moose can weigh more than half a tonne and do a lot of unintentional damage if a driver rounds a corner and fails to stop in time. The moose does not fare well, either.
Our last wildlife sighting is by far the most exciting and rare — a wolf. Our driver is almost as excited as we are — he tells us he has been travelling this road for 12 years and has only seen a wolf on three occasions. We feel incredibly lucky. Perhaps this means we'll be lucky with the Aurora Borealis as well?
While we wait for night to fall, our guide takes us a short way up the Baba Canyon trail, one of numerous hiking trails in the Rocky Mountains. Some are extremely challenging but many require only a moderate degree of fitness and ability. Baba Canyon is a relatively easy 5.5km round trip within Stone Mountain Provincial Park. In the summertime, waterfalls and rock pools abound. At this time of year they are frozen into stillness but remain incredibly beautiful. Stout, waterproof walking boots fitted with crampons are a must to give traction on the icy ground.
When we're not outside in the frozen landscapes, we're cocooned in comfort at the Northern Rockies Lodge, which lies on the shores of a deep, glacial lake within Muncho Lake Provincial Park. The lodge has been owned by Urs and Marianne Schildknecht for more than 30 years, a Swiss couple who emigrated in 1979 and established an air charter business before buying the lodge.
Urs is passionate about flying and takes every chance he can to soar over the mountains and valleys of his adopted home, taking tourists with him when he can. He'll drop you at remote hunting and fishing lodges in the nearby Nahanni National Park, or simply give you a bird's eye view of the landscape below. In winter, he lands his planes on Muncho Lake, frozen solid and able to bear a weight many times that of Urs' light planes.
The couple built the current lodge in 1995, modelling it on Swiss log cabins which makes it look quite in character nestled among the snow-dappled trees in the icy, white landscape. This is an isolated part of the world, far from the convenience of Uber Eats and corner stores, but Urs and Marianne have worked hard and spared no expense to ensure visitors have all the essential comforts.
Diesel generators operate day and night to provide both light and heating, there's free wi-fi, and my second-floor lodge suite is spacious and cosy, with a small balcony affording a view over the woods to the mountains beyond.
The food is something special. The owners' son, Daniel, trained as a chef in Switzerland and is a whizz at combining Canadian and traditional European cuisine. He mixes cheese fondues with fresh produce and creates masterpieces with local rainbow trout, halibut, beef and pork, as well as locally grown berries, such as cranberry, blueberry and juniper.
There are plenty of activities to choose from, including ice-skating, snowshoeing, a snow-mobile tour, and a sauna to ease any aches and pains at the end of an over-exerted day.
At night, we enjoy mulled wine around a campfire lit on the shores of the lake. We find the ice bar — carved from huge blocks of ice chain-sawed from the lake — still in tact on this late winter evening. The warm wine is served in shot glasses formed from ice and has to be downed before the liquid melts the container.
As if the lodge experience isn't magical enough, a package stay also includes a drive to the Liard River Hot Springs. We sit in beautifully clear spring water, naturally heated by thermal activity to a very warm 42 to 52 degrees C while all around, the ground and trees are covered in a layer of frozen, winter white. The air is so cold, wet hair freezes, but the water is warm enough for the body not to notice.
The only drawback is the changing sheds, which have no heating of any sort. I'm glad I heeded the advice to bring jandals to provide a layer between my feet and the snow for dashes to and from the sheds and the steps leading down to the pool.
For two nights we gather at the lodge's campfire, chatting and laughing congenially around the flames while gazing skyward waiting for the sky to dance. We urge the cloud cover to clear, but it's so heavy we can't see even a single star.
On our last night our hosts drive us north, as far as the hot springs, in case the sky is clearer there — but to no avail. The Northern Lights are there, we just can't see them.
Nature is a fickle thing. The Aurora Borealis is a very common, almost nightly sight in the winter months in this part of the world, so much so that locals take it for granted. We're not as lucky.
Time does not allow us to stay another night to see if our luck will change, but I still want to see the sky catch fire. One day I may just have to make another winter journey to the Northern Rockies to chase the night sky.