“It’s warming up here,” Joe Bailey says with a grin. “It’s only -20 degrees. Getting close to T-shirt weather.” Even over Zoom, Joe has a knack for putting you at ease: a tall man with a warm presence, whose face is often spread into a smile. A warm guy for such a cold place: Yellowknife, Canada, where Joe has lived most his life, is very north; a city on the shores of the Great Slave Lake, North America’s deepest, the winter ice so thick you can drive a car across it. With a similar latitude to Reykjavík, Yellowknife rests in the crown of the Arctic Circle, the ring that overlaps the auroral oval. Night after night, Joe is in the audience for one of the most spectacular shows on Earth—the aurora borealis. A once-in-a-lifetime sight for many of us is as common as a sunrise to Joe, although he has not lost his sense of wonder. The lights have changed many visitors’ lives and have even shaped his own, transforming him from a bookish kid into his alias: the Aurora Hunter.
Joe was raised by his grandparents in Indigenous communities both in Deninu Kue, located on the south shores of Great Slave Lake, and in Yellowknife on the north, until he was five. Each winter, they were up on the trapline for a week at a time, living in a canvas tent in -40 degree weather, where they trapped martin, wolverine, rabbit, fox, and lynx for fur—and once, memorably, a wolf (he escaped). Joe and his little brother were put to work, banking snow around the base of the tent for insulation, stockpiling the wood, and making snares. At night, the tent got so warm, Joe remembers sitting around in his underwear, listening to his grandmother speaking, sharing history in the form of stories.
The lights overhead were constant, and his grandparents taught him to whistle them down—taught him that the lights were the presence of his ancestors, and if you called them this way they would hear you. “Me and my brother were going, yeah yeah, whistle, but we tried it, and all of a sudden—” he looks up, and looks over his shoulder at his remembered co-conspirator “holy—! We ran inside the tent. It looked like it was coming down, coming down to get me.” (Joe has observed and named five formations of the aurora, and that’s one he now calls the fishnet.)
It’s from Yellowknife that Joe operates his tour company, North Star Adventures, which he started in 2007. The company, proudly Indigenous owned, boasts “50,000 years experience,” drawing upon Joe’s Dene heritage. While North Star Adventures offers everything from day hikes to snowmobile excursions to canoe trips on the nearby Mackenzie River, its signature experience is one that brings visitors—around 2,500 at this point, by Joe’s count—to the Northern Lights.
The Northern Lights, the aurora borealis, or ya’ke ngas—which literally translates to “sky stirring” in Joe’s language, Denesuline—are all names that gesture toward the delicate beauty of what they describe. It’s the phenomenon that fills the night sky with formations of green, pink, and rarely, red light, which can flicker out after an hour or go on for many, in the night’s smallest hours. Joe has spent his life under these skies, and since starting his business, become especially attuned to them, relying on a combination of scientific forecasting and personal observation to hunt out the best times and places to view the aurora. His eye is trained for that first tiny flare in the distance that often looks white to visitors, like a cloud. He can see the green of it already and can intuit what it will be like in an hour, sometimes making the call to drive his guests out to a more opportune spot before the lights fill the sky. “Don’t give away my secrets!” he says, and I won’t.
Science tells us that the aurora is the sun’s work. Solar storms send out streams of plasma that, after a couple of days, collide with the Earth’s magnetic field—all that stands between us and annihilation from this lethal solar onslaught. Instead, deflected by the field, the plasma follows Earth’s magnetic lines to the two poles; there, the molecules of nitrogen and oxygen in our own atmosphere become excited, seduced by the unseen solar winds into producing luscious color. Sometimes, a solar flare is so powerful that the shades spill into the skies of the pole’s neighbors; just last fall, the aurora brightened the night for people as far south as Salem, Oregon. But the Arctic Circle remains the most reliable place in the world to witness the sun’s dramatics.
Yellowknife is the capital and only city in the Northwest Territories, a vast swath of land almost three times the size of California, with a population that roughly matches my San Francisco neighborhood, the Mission. Its unique geography—a little over 400 miles to the nearest mountain range, and along the shores of one of the largest lakes in the world, the Great Slave Lake—makes for remarkably clear weather. The light pollution that stymies less remote areas is not a factor here; in 2016, the city put a policy in place to limit it. Because of this, Yellowknife boasts an incredibly high probability of viewing the lights in season. (According to data from Northwest Territories Tourism, you have a 98 percent chance over three nights.) In the Arctic Circle, the lights are as constant as stars; like stars, they’re out every night, though cloud cover or sunlight can block the view. Night is scarce in summers, and so is the aurora: It’s not visible from May to mid-August when the day, at midnight, dims only to a soft twilight.
In the past two decades, lights tourism has gone from a relatively niche experience to a bucket-list adventure. As a result, all destinations that fall inside the auroral oval—from Alaska to Iceland—are seeing a dramatic increase in lights tourism. Iceland, for example, received about 2 million visitors in 2019, with around 34 percent reporting the lights as their primary purpose. (In 2021, due to the pandemic, the number of tourists dipped to a little over half a million.) Though the boom is on a smaller scale in Yellowknife, the city’s number of visitors has also been steadily climbing: In 2019, you could find almost six times as many tourists in Yellowknife as there were residents—more than 120,000 visitors over the course of the year. Per the Northwest Territories Tourism, a majority of them—a little under half—are there to see the lights, and 69 percent of the visitors are Canadian. The second largest demographic, at 17 percent, is from China.
In the Northwest Territories, the influx of visitors has transformed the entire region’s economy. It’s still as remote as ever, but the infrastructure has grown to meet the demand. Thanks to new routes, you can now get a nonstop flight from most major Canadian cities, whether relatively nearby (Calgary and Edmonton) or rather distant (Vancouver and Toronto). It’s a big change for a place whose highway, the Mackenzie Highway, was only built in 1960, rendering the region accessible for the first time to cars. Joe’s linguistic abilities are also beginning to reflect Yellowknife’s newfoundland cosmopolitanism; in addition to the Dene language, and English, Joe speaks several languages, including Mandarin and Cantonese. Once, when we were getting off a call, he thanked me in Hindi.
Joe was a curious kid, but troubled, too. His mother, a teenager when she got pregnant, was an alcoholic. She took custody from Joe’s grandparents when Joe was five; when he was 12, he left his mother’s home, and his aunt and uncle took him in. The years in her custody were hard, violent years. Joe felt responsible for his brother, 11 months younger, and responsible for his mother, though she abused him. He wasn’t watching the lights much; he was just trying to survive. Still, the strong connection that his grandparents gave him to his culture became a lifeline, “an armor of love,” he says, as did books. He took refuge in the library, reading the shelves from A onward—astronomy, archeology, atomic physics—and doubling down on science fiction, dreaming about other planets.
An entrepreneurial streak manifested early. Joe was about six when he noticed that the store he was buying ice cream from in his Indigenous community was white owned. He thought, Why can’t we own some of these businesses? By 10 years old, he was selling newspapers, with two kids working for him. He thought he wanted to be an engineer but left university early to be with his children, whose children he is now helping raise. After years working as an assistant to a member of Parliament in Yellowknife, he was ready to strike out on his own, and so he did, growing North Star Adventures until he was able to hire his first employee in 2012. When the pandemic hit, the company counted around 15 people. The tourism industry in Yellowknife had jumped, too, from four or so other tour companies when Joe began to more than 100 today.
Keith Henry, the CEO of the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada, estimates about a fourth of these companies are Indigenous owned and describes Joe as a trailblazer in the field. “Joe was doing Indigenous tourism before it was cool,” he says. “When you see a local person making it, thriving, succeeding—boy, it gives everyone a sense of pride.”
Joe’s focus on keeping his culture and community at the center of his tours leads to different experiences of the landscape of the Northwest Territories, which the Dene people have inhabited for more than 30,000 years and have been imbued with these millennia of stories and meaning. Joe shares some of these stories on tours and, in the summer months, leads canoeing trips down the Mackenzie River. Dene elders visit the campsites each evening for storytelling and sharing, and traditional food is served. These ways of seeing the lights, the landscape, as Joe offers, can create a deeper resonance, not just with the evanescent aurora but also the meaning that it holds in the context of a vibrant culture and a difficult history. Keith Henry agrees: “Canada’s really reckoning with Reconciliation right now, [the legacy of] the residential school system, and businesses like Joe’s help people learn together in a positive, constructive environment.”
In one of our conversations, I ask Joe what he thinks people are looking for when they take his tours. “I don’t know if they’re looking for something deeper,” he says. “But they sure find it.” People, he says, sometimes write to tell him they’ve quit their jobs when they return home, having seen something in those colors that calls to them to change their life.
Accounts of explorers and visitors alike experiencing the lights for the first time brim over with surprise, fear, and awe: the shock of encountering a phenomenon so new. But Joe has been seeing the lights since he was a baby—he doesn’t remember the first time. The way he talks about them is not the way someone speaks when they are overcome by wonder. To him, they are beautiful and familiar, like the face of a friend. “She’s been with me my whole life,” he says of the lights. He tells his grandkids, Hey, look, that’s your sister up there.
Now, when Joe sees the lights, his sense of them has changed. As a kid, the aurora was a companion; as an adult who has experienced loss, he can feel the presence of those people who have passed, especially his grandparents, but also other relatives, friends, and the ancestors too, the ones he never knew in body, stretching back for centuries. On tours, he is busy playing host, taking pictures, serving hot chocolate, being the aurora’s hype man, making sure everyone is having a good time. Alone, he is quieter. Sometimes, he speaks to his dead. Other times, he takes a picture, then he just sits. “It’s meditation to me,” he says.
It is unsurprising that many cultural understandings of the lights have to do with spirits, the afterlife, the dead. Ancient Norwegians believed that the lights were the reflections off the shields of the Valkyries, women-warriors choosing souls worthy enough to pass into Valhalla; Inuit peoples in Greenland that they were the souls of babies lost in childbirth; Inuit peoples in Canada that they were the torches of benevolent spirits to guide newly departed souls into the afterlife. In the books I consulted, these beliefs are listed like a parade of novelties, little pieces of trivia, but for me, they point to something profound, the human mind reaching out toward the deepest mystery. There is something, it seems, that people across cultures—and across time—experience when they see the lights. Thin places, the Celtic proverb goes, are those wild sites on Earth where though normally, as Jordan Kisner writes, “Heaven and earth are only three feet apart . . . in the thin places that distance is even smaller. . . . Distinctions between you and not-you, real and unreal, worldly and otherworldly, fall away.”
Joe was dreaming in his bed under the lights, even during the darkest years of his life, always there, even when he couldn’t see them. He had bright, vivid dreams, which he takes as “snippets of past lives” where he was a warrior in the Plains, facing down blue-coated cavalrymen; where a grizzly as tall as him chased him through a forest, then changed its course when they reached a clearing to walk beside him like a protector. He’s sure he’s never dreamed about the aurora, but maybe he has never needed to. There’s no sound to the lights, Joe tells me, nothing really you can feel with your other senses when you’re out there—no change in the air, but he can sense them now, playing out behind the clouds if he can’t see them. “You’ll see when you come to Yellowknife,” he says a few times, the when containing a certainty the pandemic has all but erased. Hope, too. When I talk to Joe about the lights, I feel like a hungry person talking to someone who has eaten, every day, an exquisite meal.
Here is where I would tell you about what it was like to see the aurora. But the blank space that I’m putting here instead—well, I think it’s better. I’ve watched videos, seen pictures, read accounts of the lights; I’ve talked for hours to Joe, who still loves them, is lit up by joy night after night by them. The deeper I go into my life as a writer, the more I’m finding the edges of language, its inability to render transcendent experience into plain words. In this silence, you can have the aurora of your imagination, and I’ll have mine. One day, maybe I’ll find myself in Yellowknife, searching the night sky for color.
>> Next: Searching for Santa Claus