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Legends of the Lights

Jillian Dickens
Northern News Services

Resolute (Mar 27/06) - While researchers from the University of Calgary will be using the Northern Lights to unlock other mysteries surrounding space come fall, Inuit parents have used the swirling lights to keep their children warm for centuries.

Resolute resident Mary Kalluk remembers the nights living on the land with the light streams dancing overhead.

“My parents used to tell me if I go out without my hood on during the nights, the lights will cut my head off. But if I keep my hood on, they won’t,” she said.

Another no-no is whistling at them, said Angela Idlout, also of Resolute.

“They say the lights are our ancestors playing soccer with a walrus head. And if you whistle, they are going to cut off your head and then use it to play soccer with,” said Idlout. “If you try it, and whistle underneath, it does seem like they move faster.”

But if you clap your hands, they will go away, she added.

Kalluk recalled a trip to Iqaluit when the aurora were out in full force.

“On the way back from Apex we left the car and whistled at the lights and they got close. We got scared and went back to the car, but somebody else started clapping and they went farther away. It seemed kind of true,” she said.

Both Idlout and Kalluk didn’t say why this would be - just another puzzle surrounding the lights.

The University of Calgary is working with NASA for answers on aurora-producing magnetic substorms.

“We are using the aurora to remote sense the region of space around Earth,” said lead researcher Dr. Eric Donovan. “This is not a question about the aurora, but we are using the aurora to answer something else.”

In terms of the aurora itself, Donovan admits “there’s an onion of questions” surrounding them. He said there’s plenty the science world knows and plenty it doesn’t.

“But asking the question, ‘Do you know what causes the aurora?’ is like asking ‘Do you understand the ocean.’

“There are many aspects of the aurora and there are many aspects of the ocean.”

The NASA-headed mission will be using five satellites in space and a network of digital images on the ground taking images of the night sky every three seconds for two years.

It will be launched in the fall.

Tourists, including many Japanese, flock to the Northwest Territories, specifically Yellowknife, to gaze at the brilliant dancing lights common to that region.

Tourism efforts there focus heavily on drawing “Aurora Visitors.” In the 2003-2004 season, 9,900 aurora viewers toured the Territories.

Last year Nunavut had roughly 13,000 tourists total, not including people visiting family or friends. It’s unknown how many of them came strictly to see the lights.

Nunavut Tourism marketing director Brian Webb, said little focus is put on Northern Lights when promoting the territory because they are not vibrant, colourful or common enough here to do so.

“We don’t have established tours, and the lights are not as colourful and vibrant as they are in Yellowknife or the Yukon,” Webb said. “If somebody pays a lot of money to come here, we want to make sure they are completely satisfied.”

If people come to see the lights it is often in addition to seeing other attractions, Webb said.

Nunavut’s tourism season is generally from mid-April to September, when the sun is out all day and into the night, limiting aurora viewing.