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It was one of Joe Bailey’s first Aurora hunting tours.
On the Ingraham Trail, a 70-kilometre highway weaving eastward from Yellowknife past endless lakes and forest, Bailey swapped stories with his lone guest, a 72-year-old Englishman on the last stop of a voyage around the world. When Bailey—known in these parts as Joe the Aurora Hunter—pulled off at a scenic viewpoint near Prelude Lake, the Northern Lights were a shimmering river in the sky.
That’s when his guest shuffled 20 feet away and began to weep. “He said, ‘I apologize, Joe. I was just overcome with emotions. I’ve travelled the world for two years and seen many things—this is the best I’ve seen in those two years.’” The experience was as powerful for Bailey as it was for his guest, confirming how intensely the Northern Lights move people.
Although that night occurred nearly 14 years ago, Bailey tells the story—animating every detail, relaying the guest’s backstory—like it happened yesterday.
This is what Bailey, owner of North Star Adventures, provides to visitors: the chance to make a real connection—even a friend. Take the guest from Adelaide, Australia, who first joined Bailey on an Aurora hunting trip as a bachelor. A few years later, the Australian came back to Yellowknife and North Star to see the Aurora with his girlfriend. Recently, Bailey says, the couple returned to see the Northern Lights—this time as husband and wife.
Bailey enjoys keeping in touch with guests long after they’ve returned home, even offering deals for repeat visitors. As Bailey explains it, when you come back for a second tour, you get the ‘We’re happy to see you again’ discount. A third time? ‘We’re REALLY happy to see you again’ discount. Four times? It’s the ‘You again?’ discount. Five times? ‘Do you want a job?’ discount. (No one has come back five times. Yet.)
Sometimes it’s hard to tell if Bailey is pulling your leg. In the span of five minutes, he is a storyteller, a practical joker, an astute businessman. But he takes his role as an ambassador of the Northwest Territories seriously. A civil engineer by trade, Bailey has travelled extensively across the North, with family and friends in most NWT communities. “I really believe the Northwest Territories is the best-kept secret for places to go in the world,” he says.
He first thought of getting into tourism 25 years ago, but it wasn’t until 2007 that he began Aurora hunting tours. “I called them Aurora hunting tours because I wanted to incorporate our Indigenous culture into the name of the tour,” he says, noting how the ‘Aurora hunting’ term is now popular in Alaska, Norway and Iceland. “We mark ourselves as the world’s first Aurora hunting tour company.”
The Aurora hunt begins with Bailey poring over weather and Aurora forecasts throughout the day, combining this data with his own local weather and area knowledge to determine where the best odds of seeing the Aurora are. (He says there’s a four-hour window every evening—from 9:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. or 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.—when the Aurora shine brightest.) Bailey has a series of stops along the Ingraham Trail—and he’s gone as far west as North Arm Territorial Park, more than an hour away, to see the lights. He’s gotten so good that travellers in rental vehicles will wait alongside the highway for his bus and vans. “We come by and they follow us.”
But they’re missing out on what makes a trip with Joe the Aurora Hunter special. Along with his Dene language, Bailey can converse with guests in Mandarin, Cantonese, Tagalog, and German. He’s even learning Hindi, with the growing number of Indian tourists travelling to Yellowknife. “I break the ice. I remember one guy was very introverted. He was cold. It was cloudy. He sat in the bus. Everybody’s outside. I just started speaking to him in Cantonese,” he says. Soon enough, the man was outside with the rest of the group enjoying himself as the Northern Lights came out. (Naturally curious and constantly up on world events, Bailey has also learned to manage guests from visiting nations with tact. For instance, you might not want to sit couples from Hong Kong and China next to each other right now, he says, given the current political climate.)
“I care for all of our guests and I want them to have a good time,” he says. That means giving them genuine experiences. He bristles at companies offering superficial snapshots of Indigenous culture, making the point by pulling up some pictures on his phone. He shakes his head as he displays a photo, taken from a canoe on the water, showing a colourful teepee off in the distance.
The next picture features fish drying on the shore of the Dehcho (Mackenzie River). “That is genuine,” he says, tapping the screen. “Right now, as we speak, that’s going on right there at Telimia Culture Camp in Fort Providence. Tours that people live there and experience it every day, that’s genuine,” he says. “And that’s my focus.”
It doesn’t stop with Aurora hunting. “I started focusing and shifting to summer adventure packages: the Mackenzie River, Nahanni National Park, the Arctic Ocean, the East Arm, the tundra,”
He began these efforts before the pandemic, providing packages that feature paddles down the Dehcho and put Dene culture, history and experiences at the forefront. North Star Adventures runs boat tours from Fort Providence to Fort Simpson, with trips into Nahanni National Park Reserve. He offers an Arctic Ocean tour, where guests can experience Inuvialuit culture on the Arctic coast. Bailey also organizes and accommodates VIP guests, customizing packages that allow deep-pocketed travellers to travel by private jet and the natural jewels of the Northwest Territories in comfort and style. He has even put together an unparalleled ice road adventure, organizing a trip for a Dutch couple all the way from Yellowknife, up the Mackenzie Valley Winter Road and over to Colville Lake—a distance of 1,600 kilometres.
Bailey ensures every experience is genuine, calling upon his connections across the North when putting these packages together. (If it’s not obvious, Bailey is a people person.) When guests paddle to shore in Fort Simpson, they might be met by the timeless, pulsing beat of Dene drumming; groups canoeing down the Dehcho will learn Dene history from local elders and leaders with each community stop down the river.
With his focus on summer adventure, one thing’s for sure—he may have started as Joe the Aurora Hunter, he's now so much more.