In the dead of winter, when the temperature dips well below -30°C, it can be hard to get yourself up and out of bed in the pitch black early morning. Unless of course there’s a ski plane to catch!
After double checking that I’ve packed everything on the list that Blachford Lake Lodge provided (snowpants, heavy parka, warm boots, slippers, swimsuit, headlamp and a variety of layers), I make my way to the Air Tindi Float Base, in Yellowknife’s Old Town. At this time of year, “float base” seems a bit of a misnomer as Yellowknife Bay is frozen four feet deep and all the float planes’ pontoons have been replaced with skis.
I pick up a pair of earplugs from the Air Tindi office and climb up into the Twin Otter ski plane, then the pilot heads toward the ice road runway. The sun is just beginning to rise at 8:30, casting a rosy glow over the boreal forest and lake-dotted landscape throughout the 25-minute plane ride. Blachford Lake Lodge is situated just off Great Slave Lake’s famous East Arm, a pristine wilderness only accessible by bush plane or skidoo in the winter, float plane or boat in the summer.
We land on frozen Blachford Lake where we’re greeted by lodge staff and volunteers. After a quick tour around the premises, noting important locations such as the cabins, hot tub, sauna, tipi and an igloo that a previous guest had just built, it’s off to the main lodge to get settled into our rooms and sit down to breakfast.
The first activity of the day, as noted on the chalkboard by the front door, will be ice fishing. Volunteers at Blachford specialize in different activities, so as we’re sitting down to coffee and breakfast, someone comes around to gauge interest in a fatbike ride through hiking trails and across the lake, and another says he’ll be taking a group out ice fishing. We head back up to our rooms to put on all our winter gear for ice fishing.
We meet the rest of the guests who are heading out fishing and make our way to the ice fishing shelter on top of the lake. Our volunteer guide augurs some fishing holes, baits the lines (while we keep our hands warm in our mittens) and instructs us on how to bob the line up and down to attract some fish. Unfortunately, at -30, the Lake Trout and Pike lurking at the bottom of the lake must also be finding it a bit chilly and don’t seem keen to swim near the surface. We head back empty-handed.
Thankfully the lodge chef has prepared a hot and hearty lunch designed to warm us up and keep us going through the afternoon’s activities: Minestrone soup and homemade bread.
After a bit of downtime, reading by the cozy woodstove and chatting with other lodge guests, it’s time to go snowshoeing.
We dress in lighter layers than we had on for fishing as snowshoeing along Blachford’s hiking trails will generate some heat of its own. Another volunteer gets everyone sorted with their snowshoes and it’s off we go! The trails wind through the forest, allowing for excellent wildlife viewing opportunities. We see a few squirrels, and find wolf tracks further up the trail. After winding our way to one of the main lookout points, we head back to the lodge via the tipi and bonfire trails. After a snowshoe trek, we figure we’ve earned a soak in the hot tub. Good thing the hot tub is a mere few steps from the main lodge. After carefully placing towels, coats and boots to the side, we slide into the hot tub, keeping our toques on. It’s an ideal place from which to observe the spectacular Northern sunset.
Before turning into a prune, we get out of the tub and into the warmth of the lodge just as carefully as we got in and get dressed for dinner. Over spiced chicken, polenta and a green salad, we chat with the other guests about the day’s activities. Some are from nearby British Columbia, some from China on their Aurora dream-trip and one couple is visiting from Ohio. Everyone is excited about the possibility of viewing the Northern Lights in this remote location.
Dinner turns into drinks by the wood stove, then everyone turns in for a little rest before it’s time to see the Lights.
After all that fresh air and activity, it’s very easy to sink into the comfy beds and fall asleep. Good thing there’s a door hanger indicating that I’d like to be woken up in case of Aurora! And sure enough, a lodge volunteer raps on the door about 11:30pm indicating that the lights are out. Once again getting dressed to venture into the frigid night, I grab my camera, a tripod and take the kitchen staff up on their offer of hot chocolate and cookies.
Using a headlamp to help guide me down to the trail, I find the other guests have also rallied for the Aurora and are sitting around a bonfire, marveling at the natural display above us. We keep warm with hot chocolate, blankets and good conversation. The Aurora twists and swirls in greens and purples, and it’s hard to take our eyes off it. Eventually cold and fatigue set it and we make our way back to the lodge. Another big perk of being at Blachford is the all the quiet and relaxation. After a full day’s activities and a long night of Aurora watching, I’m thinking I’ll sleep in the next morning, skip the morning activities, and catch up with my fellow guests at lunch.