As Alexis Holmgren stared up at the Northern Lights that danced miles above her outside Yellowknife, she was suddenly overwhelmed by everything she had overcome so far in her young life to get there. “It seems funny to think that colours in the sky can be so meaningful, but it definitely was for me,” she says. “I was just standing there in the cold, in my nice parka and warm clothes, and I could see the beauty of the sky. It was honestly something that, at one point, I wasn’t sure if I’d live to see.”
The trip to the Northwest Territories was a high school graduation gift the 19-year-old from Red Deer, Alberta had given to herself. As her friends jetted off to tropical destinations like Florida or Jamaica, Alexis had been planning, booking and saving for this solo Northern adventure for years. “Everybody else thought I was nuts because who goes north in the winter for a trip, right?”
But Alexis had long been captivated by the North—first on an Alaskan cruise with her family at age seven and later during a Girl Guide national camp retreat to the Yukon at 14.
Both of these trips had taken place in the summer though and she really wanted to witness the wonder of the Northern Lights. Now, as she reached the end of school, it was time to reward herself for all that she’d been through.
Alexis lives with three rare genetic disorders: Congenital Long QT Syndrome (a heart condition that places her at high risk of a sudden cardiac arrest), Solar Urticaria (an anaphylactic allergy to sunlight and UV light), and Hypermobile Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (a connective tissue disorder leading to joint instability and chronic pain).
She has had a total of six heart surgeries. “When I was 17, I met one of the world-leading experts on my heart condition and he had told me I would be dead in five years if I didn’t have two quite complex surgeries done,” she says. So Alexis flew to Minnesota for the operations—one of which, Left Cardiac Sympathetic Denervation, isn’t even offered in Canada—and to have a defibrillator and pacemaker implanted in her chest. Following the denervation surgery, she developed a side effect that leaves her with severe nerve pain in the left side of her body.
But she doesn’t let that get in the way of what she wants to do. Undeterred, she arrived in Yellowknife, looking forward to the snowmobiling and dogsledding tours she’d booked, as well as long nights chasing the epic Aurora.
“My motto has always been that I want to live my life, I don’t just want to survive.”
On the frozen expanse of Great Slave Lake, Alexis held down the throttle of her snowmachine for the first time. She had never driven one before and as the machine chewed up the snow below her and shot her forward, she felt exhilaration and freedom.
Throughout the two-hour tour, she learned how to pilot the machine, carving out her own path on the lake, before navigating the winding trails through the wilderness that took her up steep inclines and then racing down hills.
Alexis took control of another iconic NWT vehicle. “I did the drive-your-own-dogsled. I actually drove pretty much the entire time,” she says. “That was also something that even a few years back I wouldn't have been able to do with my heart condition.” Alexis did it pretty well, too. “I didn’t tip the sled!” she laughs. “That was my goal—to not tip the sled—and I achieved that, so I was pretty happy.”
Alexis had some busy days in Yellowknife. She visited the museum and the Legislative Assembly to browse art and learn about Northern cultures and history. She swung by the Buffalo Airways hangar and, because she was the only visitor that day, they let her climb up into the flightdeck of the world-famous DC-3. At night, she dined out at Bullock’s Bistro, where she was surprised by the lively and bustling atmosphere.
She also made a stop at Old Town Glassworks. “The place was so cute,” she says. “And as you walk up the ramp, I could just see pallets and pallets of recycled glass bottles of various sizes and shapes—it definitely fits with my values.” Alexis is a dedicated Girl Guide, having volunteered in many leadership roles. “We learn from a very young age that you use your resources wisely. That’s in our law, our Girl Guide law. So I thought it was absolutely fantastic that everything was recycled too. Like, what a great way to put it to use.”
Alexis created two different sand-blasted glass designs in the eclectic studio that featured the Northern Lights—a phenomenon she had yet to see in person.
Yet, every night she would gaze up patiently at the night sky or look for breaks in the cloud on an Aurora hunting tour up and down the Ingraham Trail for a glimpse of those magical lights.
On her final night in Yellowknife, it happened.
She booked a last-minute Northern Lights viewing tour with the Aurora Borealis Experience, and from a frozen lake, framed by pristine boreal forest on the outskirts of Yellowknife, the lights came out.
As the glowing Aurora rippled across the clear black sky, Alexis thought about all she had been through with her rare diseases—”the hospital stays, the surgeries, doing my homework from my literal hospital bed a lot of times,” she says. “It was all of that, but I did it anyway and now I’m here and I made it through all of that and I’m here to see this amazing thing.”
“I shed a tear or two because it was so much leading up to that and it didn’t disappoint in the slightest. Not at all. It was even better than I ever could have imagined.”