Aurora Borealis

Flintlock Guns, Fort Langley
Flintlock Guns

The Aurora Borealis was a familiar sight to all the Hudson’s Bay men, but no York Factory Express man, other than Aemilius Simpson, ever wrote about it. Where did he see them? At the time he wrote this, the Saskatchewan brigades were somewhere between Cedar Lake and Cumberland House, in the muddiest part of the estuary of the Saskatchewan River. This is what he said:

Saturday 5th [August 1826]: Commenced fine and clear weather…At 9pm we secured our boats for the night & cooked our Suppers on a raft & slept in our Boats. The Heavens presented one of the finest displays of the Aurora Borealis I ever beheld. The Whole heavens was a brilliant blaze caused by this phenomenon, assuming in quick succession the greatest variety of forms, shewing the various tints of the Rainbow with many others possessing a richness and beauty quite indescribable. the great point from which they appeared to diverge was in our Zenith, from there shooting out its brilliant rays to the several points of the horizon & then again contracting themselves to the same point. And so strong was the play of these singular lights that I almost imagined I heard a noise caused by its coruscations.

William Barr and Larry Green, eds., “Lt. Aemilius Simpson’s Survey from York Factory to Fort Vancouver, 1826,” p. 21. [The Journal of the Hakluyt Society, August 2014].

That was the only time Simpson mentioned them, but he must have seen them quite a few times on this long journey west. Augustus Peers talks of them and the noise they supposedly made in his unpublished manuscript. Interestingly, he didn’t write about the Northern Lights until he got up to the Peel’s River post (modern day Fort McPherson). This is what he says:

In these hyperborean regions, that beautiful and evanescent light, the Aurora Borealis, is seen on almost every clear night. Generally the night’s display, as seen from this place, commences with an arch from NW to about NE like an extended rainbow. If the weather be clear and cold, the most beautiful of tints of green and pink, blended with a transparent white, appear to hand as a fringe, and all the while undergoing more or less rapid motion E and W along the arch, which is itself in the meantime expanding and convoluting. Gradually the arc will rise to and perhaps cross the zenith and descend over the southern horizon, its extremes still retaining their former position. It more frequently happens that the arch disperses and becomes distorted before reaching the zenith, forming into serpentine bands and streamers of the greatest brilliancy and gliding across the star spangled vault like huge snakes.

The most beautiful display I have ever witnessed was at this post one morning, long before day. When I first saw it, the phenomenon was immediately on the zenith in what astronomers called an auroral corona or union of beams of the brightest possible tint. Scarcely had I time to admire it when with the rapidity of thought it stretched out eastward, with an undulating motion, the pendulous rays of tints flitting to and fro and in and out most magically. A portion of the light at one time descended very low towards the earth and although I listened attentively I could hear no noise produced…

The sound said to be produced by this phenomenon is still, I believe, debated. [Thomas] Simpson and other Arctic explorers notice it; and I have heard several of the Company’s servants who have ample means for observing it…say that they have heard it. As for myself, during my residence at Fort Norman one night when out fur trapping I heard a noise which I at the time attributed to the Aurora Borealis, which at the time was playing overhead, but as I was not then aware that the subject was debated I paid no particular attention to it. I cannot better describe the noise I heard than by likening it to that of the electric sparks produced by stroking rapidly the back of a black cat.

I am a little confused by that reference to a black cat — do not all cats produce the same *sparks* when they are stroked rapidly. In my experience they do. However… The North West Company explorer, David Thompson, has a lot to say of this, though I will only enter some of his writing here:

At this place every clear night the Aurora was visible and sometimes brilliant. In the early part of November, and as the cold increased, [it] became more extensive until it covered the whole vault of heaven. During the month of October the Aurora occupied the northern part of the sky but more to the east than to the west of north….They sometimes appeared to come near to us, and the men involuntarily bowed their head though evidently a good distance above us….

The ever changing motions of the Aurora often engaged our attention until the severe cold drove us into the house. While viewing the ever varying aurora, the men were all very sure they heard the sound of their motions but when blind-folded they became sensible they did not hear them; and yet when the handkerchief was off their eyes, the illusion directly returned, and they were sure they did hear them. These men were all from the north of Scotland. It was the Eye deceiving the Ear.

William E. Moreau, ed., The Writings of David Thompson, volume 1: the Travels, 1850 version. [The Champlain Society, 2009].

I do have the impression from David Thompson’s writing that the Aurora Borealis had a season, and that they were most often seen in November. That might be the reason why few of the HBC men in the York Factory Express mentioned them. But they did not happen only in November — however, I think they might have been more visible in that month, when the sky was darker and it was not so cold that the men would not be outdoors.

But I find the “noise” interesting. These things did not happen on earth: they were only visible here. I would presume they did not have a season, and that they did not make a noise. And yet, one scientist from Finland has proposed a new theory about the sounds associated with the Aurora Borealis. For more than 15 years, Unto K. Laine has spent countless winter nights in pursuit of one of “the most ephemeral mysteries of the heavens: the faint, almost phantasmagorical sounds heard during intense displays of the aurora borealis.” Maybe they really do make a sound! You can read about it here: Enjoy!

If you want to purchase my book, “The York Factory Express,” you can do so through my publisher, here: Thank you!

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2020. All rights reserved.