Letters from Yellowknife – Day One Part Two

Even before we entered the tent, Raymond had begun to manage our expectation. The prospect of finding the aurora that night was not good, for the weather forecast had suggested that it would be 4a.m. before the clouds would disperse. We sojourned on anyway.

The canvas tent was cone shaped, supported on nine wooden poles, measuring some 15 to 20 feet long and weighing 40 pounds each, tied together with ropes and strings at the apex, thus forming an almost round base with a diameter of about 22 feet, producing floor space of about 400 square feet. The tent was covered with canvas from top to ground completely thereby providing good insulation, and the interior was heated by hot air pumped in by an electrical heater powered by a generator outside the tent. The ground was covered with grass which Eric said grew to over a metre in summer. Eric said he could build the tent in one hour by himself, and when asked, described how he did it, with the aid of three barbecue forks to represent the first three poles he picked to form a tripod which he tied together at one end with long ropes hanging loose from the apex. He would first lay the three tied poles on the ground and with a fourth pole lift the three sticks up towards the sky until it became vertical while the other three roughly equidistant with each other, forming a giant tripod. Two poles were then placed in each of the three segments formed, thereby completing the perimeter of the tent. I did not ask whether the poles added later would be tied at the apex, and if so how, for I didn’t see any tall ladder structures around. I guess the question may not be relevant from the mechanical engineering standpoint. He would then wrap canvas round the tent, making sure that a small opening would be left on one end as the entrance, which measured about four feet high and could be zipped up. I suppose he had all the tent furniture on the ground before he lifted the first three poles and formed the tripod, including tables, chairs, stoves, cooking wares, pots and pans, butane gas cylinders, heaters, lamps and so on. Again, I didn’t ask, and the other young friends were more interested in the equipment they brought with them at the time. Raymond appeared to have been involved in building these tents, at least in assisting to wrap canvas around the poles, but confessed that he couldn’t do it all by himself, and certainly not in one hour. There were three tents during our visit. The one we were in could house 20 comfortably, and he had hosted parties of over 40 featuring hot pots and other goodies.

Businesses had fallen by 90% in the past ten months, particularly in the last two. In the heydays, over 130 tour operators shared the thriving industry of pursuing arctic lights in Yellowknife, which now has a population of about 19,000, including some four to five thousand visitors , comprising mainly Japanese, Mainland Chinese, Asians and Hong Kong people. The industry had actually only grown relatively recently. Yellowknife was and may still is the third most important centre for diamond trading in the world. Ninja Tour is owned by a David Yau, the Operation Director. Raymond emphatically said he had no stake in the business which is fully owned by David, who is his good friend. He would work here as a tour guide three months a year, for love, and he lived in Edmonton as an Engineer for the rest of the year. He also told us that he had learnt aurora photography and tour management on the job; and apparently he is rather good and customer friendly. Ninja Tour had rented the site from the city government to operate static tours and hired Eric as a contractor. Eric owns the tents and equipment, makes tea and chocolate drinks for the guests and of course provides steaks and snacks. Most importantly, he tells stories during waiting time and answers any questions from the clients. He particularly takes pride in his vast knowledge on and experience of the Arctic Circle in general and of the Northwest Territory in particular. His specialty is polar bears on which he had over ten years experience, watching them from close quarters.  Besides static tours such as tonight’s operating on a fixed site, there are hunting tours which operate from moving transport to chase the lights all night. Raymond said he does both and that he would double as driver and guide on the latter tours.

From his comfortable director chair, Raymond checked the equipment of his clients, making snipe remarks and offering specific advice and judgments. He continued to advise that the evening would probably end with disappointment for us, for the weather forecast was not promising, but added that he would be more than willing to share with us past photos and experience on aurora chasing.  Meanwhile our young friends became listless and popped in and out of the tent looking at the sky. There was the half-moon shining bright. It was cloudy, but stars were beginning to appear. So we sipped our tea and listened to polar bear stories from Eric, who also shared some of his life experience unabashedly. He is 59, has nine children from two women and 16 grannies living all over Canada, from Halifax to Toronto. He had worked as a diver, trader and technician and had moved to Northwest Territories for about 30 years, initially as a barter trader, exchanging clams for furs, and later as a commercial diver, instructor, seabed explorer, and of course a polar bear watcher and researcher. He now operates as a service provider for tour companies such as Ninja Tour.

Let me digress from the aurora theme to recount the polar bear stories related by Eric. He began by citing media reports on skinny polar bears dying from starvation due to global warming resulting in loss of habitats and food, implying that the species could even face extinction; and told us in no uncertain terms that the truth is very different from what the media and politicians would like us to believe in. Facts and statistics have shown that the polar bear population has been rising and that the animals are living longer with global warming.  While the gradual rise in temperature has indeed resulted in some age-old thick ice packets melting and drifting away from the ancient ice blocks, the effect is that many new smaller and thinner ice islands have been formed in the process. These new islands are exactly the habitats that polar bears welcome, for food hunting has since been made much easier.  Let me elaborate. Now, polar bears sit on top of a food chain in the Arctic with seals as their main staples. Seals hunt for fishes and crustaceans and need to surface regularly to refresh their lungs. This they achieve through the breathing holes they make with their claws through thinner ice, without which they won’t be able to surface for the vital air they need, for they can’t break through thick ice layers. Polar bears, being opportunistic hunters, would wait by these breathing holes, sometimes for hours, to catch the vulnerable surfacing seal. It follows that global warming has the effect of creating thinner ice packs in greater numbers for both seals and polar bears on the food chain, resulting in number increases for both species. Food hunting has thus been made easier for polar bears which are now never short of food. They live up to 30 years and sometimes longer, but unfortunately they tend to become slower and less agile in old age, thereby losing their hunting skills, resulting in starvation and finally death.  A second favourite media report involves in polar bears having to eat up their cubs because they couldn’t find food, also because of global warming.  Well, I hope I have demonstrated, through narrating Eric’s stories that global warming has actually resulted in more and easier food for polar bears. The truth is that polar bears are very much focused or one track minded animals, particularly during the mating seasons. The male bears and for that matter the female could find the cubs distracting for either of them, or interfering with their purposes, resulting in the untimely death and fate of the cubs. In any case, the eating is part of animal behavior and Nature and has nothing to do with global warming.

Back to the tent, Eric had made us more tea and we had enjoyed his barbecued steak prepared on the open fire fueled with pine logs. It was past midnight and we were about to leave, having resigned to the possibility of not finding any aurora for the evening, when the young friends who were star gazing outside reported some unusual movements and strange formations in the sky.  Raymond presently dashed outside, set up his camera on tripod and called us, individually and in groups, for pictures. Those became our first photos with aurora, which came in all sizes and shapes, all very distinctively green, and each one so relaxing and pleasing. Before long, we all became experts in identifying those light streaks, sometimes in purple or pink, but mainly in green, which perspective however could only be captured on camera, but would never appear as such to the naked eye. And so we continued for some 30 to 45 minutes of aurora sharing and photography in the icy cold outside the tent at the risk of catching frost bites, savouring every moment of new found joy and aurora glow, amidst new friends, young and old, as Su went on a crash course in aurora photography.  It was -26⁰C when Raymond took us back to the hotel after sharing all the photos he had taken on us and we ended up in our room just before 2 a.m.

End of Day One.

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