Moose hunting on Nueltin Lake on the very northern edge of Manitoba makes for some long days—especially long if you’re not seeing any moose. Unseasonably warm and dry weather in the high 80s meant the moose were only moving at dawn and dusk. The 110-mile long lake runs north and south lying partially in Manitoba and partially in Nunavut (the old Northwest Territories). The base camp from which we were hunting was situated on the southern most lobe of the lake.
With moose movement limited to lowlight times, we were getting up early—like 3 a.m. early—to take a small boat to a prime location up the lake well before light. Then in the evening, we’d end the day glassing from some distant point until the sun was long gone and it was as dark as if someone hand rolled India ink across the binocular lenses. Then we’d climb back in the boat for a ride back to camp that might take as much as two hours. Don’t get me wrong. I love maximum effort hunting, but after nearly a week of this routine—and we’d hunt, fish, and explore all day in between—our group was starting to fatigue. All that boat riding in the pitch dark was pushing the odds. Good as our native guide was, like all boreal lakes, Nueltin is ridden with innumerable submerged rocks, tiny islands, shoals, and dead end bays. Sooner or later a mistake might strand us out there with a missing lower unit … or worse.
The best decision became obvious. We gathered some camping gear, stowed our sleeping bags in dry boxes, packed basic foodstuffs, and studied the maps to choose a place to make a spike camp. We would find an island in the heart of the prime hunting grounds so that we could sleep later and get to bed earlier. That was the plan, anyway.
Finding a good camping spot wasn’t hard. We were the only four people hunting this area of hundreds of square miles. We picked an island with ample dead trees for firewood then found a camping site that was high and dry, where the breeze could get at us to abate the blackflies and mosquitos. By all rights they should have been long gone by the time of this hunt, but it was one of those strange late Septembers and they were out in force.
We put up our tents and gathered moss to pad out rocks and ruts under our sleeping bags. Then we prepared everything to make dinner when we returned from the evening’s hunt. It was going to be a pleasure to eat at a “normal” hour rather than at 11 p.m. after a couple hours of a white-knuckle boat ride. Before heading out, we took a quick minute to admire the view of the main lake to the northeast as the sun began to lower at our backs.
That evening’s hunt turned out to be just as mooseless as the previous ones, but we were back in the camp lighting the fire 10 minutes after we were done hunting. The plan was to make a quick dinner of spaghetti, eat, and turn in for some much needed sleep.
Turns out, the Good Lord had other plans for us that night. While the guide set a pot of water to boil for the pasta, and began to brown some caribou sausage for the sauce, I crawled in the tent to arrange things for the night. In a small tent in bear country, it’s nice to know exactly where everything—like your flashlight, boots, and rifle—is if you’re awoken by huffing and growling in the dark. It could be a bruin outside, if it’s not your snoring tentmate inside.
I emerged from the tent in less than five minutes, and it strangely seem lighter than when I’d ducked in. What the heck?
It took a few seconds for my eyes to readjust to the light outside the tent. Then I raised my gaze above the shoreline, and I realized what was happening—northern lights! Beautiful, incredible aurora borealis from the horizon to straight above our heads.
I’ve been blessed to travel a good bit in the arctic and subarctic, and I’d seen some pretty awe-inspiring displays of the northern lights before. Once on the Seal River, we even tested the theorem about being able to read the newspaper by them (it worked by the way), but what I was seeing now took aurora borealis to a whole new level. The dancing lights above us at Nueltin were bright green, at times almost chartreuse. Though in most displays you will see the lights just above the horizon or in only a portion of the sky, we were far enough north at this camp that half the sky above us was lit—from the northern horizon to straight overhead when we craned our necks back as far as we could.
Even our native guide (who’d never travelled more than 100 miles from this lake in his life) was distracted by this show as he continued to prepare dinner. That spaghetti ended up pretty mushy. You ever try to eat spaghetti with your head tipped back and your eyes riveted on the sky? We made a mess.
In my previous northern lights experiences, the show only lasts a short time and only portions of it are brilliant. Not this time! The lights went on for hours and seemed to gain in brilliance. The tents we borrowed from basecamp were blue with blue rain flies. At one point I ducked in the tent to grab my binoculars, and I could see the lights on the roof of the tent dancing as though somebody was aiming a hundred bobbing flashlights at it.
When you see the aura borealis at this intensity, one of the amazements is wondering about what people thought of them before we understood what they were. It’s the old “I wonder what the first covered wagon traveller to encounter the Badlands thought?” idea.
Physicists tell us that aurora borealis is simply the reflection of electromagnetic discharge from solar storms and flares. I have friends in Yellow Knife, Northwest Territories, who make a thriving business with a glass-roofed lodge catering primarily to wealthy Japanese tourists who believe a child conceived under the northern lights will be especially blessed in life!
Finally, about 1:30 in the morning, our show began to fade. We crawled in our sleeping bags to grab a few hours of shut-eye. Even so, I tossed and turned, excited about what I’d just seen. This was a once-in-a-lifetime level of display.
Just before sunset the next evening, I took my first moose. This was a quest I’d pursued for many seasons, in many places. While it remains a great hunting memory I will cherish all my life, so is that night of the amazing northern lights. The two are inexorably linked, and because of that I feel even more blessed.
That one night in spike camp on the island in Nueltin Lake provided the most profound emotion of awe and wonderment I’ve ever experienced and probably ever will. Every time I think about it I tip my head back, close my eyes, and see the northern lights again. I see the four of us standing there on the island, plates and forks in hand, staring at the sky, not saying a word. Then, like in a movie that ends with a helicopter shot, I see the pull back begin until our camp, our island and even the big lake are small, and we are surrounded by the enormous, beautiful dancing lights.
I think that was God’s view of us that night, and I picture him smiling. I think it pleases him to see and feel the awe and wonderment in the creatures of his creation, and in knowing that what we experience here is just an infinitesimal fraction of the emotion we will experience when we join him in heaven.
“God, the greatest struggle in my life is letting go to allow your plans to unfold. Time and again, I want to take the wheel and drive. Yet time and again, you show me that your route is the one that leads to the best places and greatest experiences. Thank you for the complexity of creation, the emotions of awe and wonderment, and the blessings of memory and imagination. Keep me on the path that leads to the time and place with you when every moment of eternity will be filled with wide-eyed awe and wonderment in your glory and your grace. Thank you. Amen.”