Taking a red eye flight is pretty awful. You stay up late in order to board; your eyes hurt; you can’t get comfortable once you finally take your seat and the overhead lights are turned off; maybe the person next to you is taking up just a bit too much room, or your entertainment monitor isn’t working. You might finally catch a little snooze, but you land feeling exhausted. All in all, the red eye is never fun.
That is, until Air North’s Aurora 360.
The first of its kind in North America—and only the third in the world—the Aurora 360 takes passengers up, up and away into the inky midnight sky for one very special quest: chasing the Northern Lights.
The elusive, eternally mystical Aurora are often seen from the ground in the Yukon, but this is the first time that Lights sightseeing—or should we call it flightseeing—has gone airborne over Canada’s enchanting North. Taking off from Whitehorse’s airport at midnight and touching back down in the wee hours of the morning, the inaugural flight—a partnership between Air North, Tourism Yukon, and the Yukon Astronomical Society—gives new, exciting meaning to the term red eye.
It all begins with a pre-flight reception at downtown Whitehorse’s Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre, featuring an amazing spread of nibbles created by local boutique resort Inn on the Lake and the Lower Mainland’s own Fairmont Vancouver Airport. Fairmont YVR executive chef Colin Burslem flew up for the grand affair, working directly alongside Inn on the Lake owner and chef Carson Schiffkorn to create an array of food tables offering everything from tuna poke, to charcuterie, to golden nuggets made of chocolate. “For any hotel, partnerships give opportunity,” Schiffkorn says at the reception. “We wanted to do a little West Coast meets the North, so we’ve got lots of game, seafood, and healthful choices.” He mentions how he wants to change the conversation about Canada’s food: “When we talk about Canadian cuisine, we talk about ingredients—salmon, maple syrup—no one talks about recipes,” he says. “We Canadians have to create Canadian dishes.” Through his cooking, he is hoping to do just that.
Grant Sceney, who heads up the cocktail program at the Fairmont Pacific Rim, flew up for the event as well, mixing a special North-inspired cocktail served alongside wines from the Okanagan’s Painted Rock. A performance by the Daaghl K’e Dancers and a speech by Kwanlin Dun First Nation Chief Doris Bill help visitors understand the culture of the Indigenous people who live here.
As anticipation builds and the reception ends, buses take passengers from the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre right onto the tarmac of the Whitehorse airport, where the Air North charter awaits. It all feels rather presidential, ascending the stairs that lead to the cabin. Seats are taken, belts are fastened, and soon it is time to take off.
Once in the air and cruising at a cool 36,000 feet, darkness envelops the plane. All that can be seen outside are stars, stars so bright they do not look real. A deep blue is painted across the sky. Before long, there they are: the Lights. They emanate a soft silver, and radiate like a sunrise—cutting across the centre of the darkness, they are seemingly in line with the plane. It is a wholly unique perspective on something usually seen with craned necks. Gin cocktails fit with glowing green lights are passed around, and it all becomes something of a party; dedicated photographers take shot after shot and others simply stare out the window in silence.
Those who have chased the Lights before know that what we see with our naked eyes is only part of the picture. Using professional long-exposure cameras is the only way to see the Aurora’s full beauty; indeed, what this author saw as grey is the same view that the accompanying pictures show as green with hints of purple. In that way, the Aurora are maddeningly intangible—on the other hand, perhaps the fact that there is something hidden in the sky right before our eyes, only to be revealed in photographs, is what makes the Northern Lights so captivating.
“They are an iconic symbol of the North,” Yukon Minister of Tourism and Culture Jeanie Dendys says at the pre-flight reception. Her love of this territory is contagious. “I absolutely believe our land in the Yukon is sacred,” she continues. “When you step on this land, this land already knows what you need.” It does seem that way; there is a soul to the air here, a spirit that is intangible but ever-present. One leaves the Yukon feeling uplifted. Perhaps Dendys says it best: “You will want to come back—that is one thing I know for sure.” She is all too correct.