"I need hardly observe that we had the sun constantly above the horizon, were it not for the purpose of mentioning the amusing mistakes which the men made as to the hour. In fact, when not employed, a question as to the time of day never failed to puzzle them, except about midnight, when the sun was near the northern horizon." – John Franklin
The farther North you go, the bigger the puzzle.
In Yellowknife or Iqaluit or Whitehorse, it’s easier put together. Near the end of the longest days, the sun does indeed dip below the horizon and so, in these places, the midnight sun is a slight misnomer. Yet even then, there exists a beautiful extended twilight—what might even be considered a sunset/rise.
Still, below the Arctic Circle, you can be reasonably certain of the time of day for at least a couple of hours. But get north of 66°33'46, put away that smartphone, take yourself out of town and plop down by a fire, and it gets interesting. Stay out long enough, soaking up the double-daily doses of vitamin D, and you might even begin to question what day it is.
The North is a place of extremes. When the sun first returns to the sky—after weeks, even months of night—people across the Arctic celebrate with festivals and music and dances. Inuvik caps its weekend party off with a gigantic bonfire, a humble homage to the sun after its 30-day absence. By the time the sun circles the sky without setting there in late May, the snow has mostly melted. Throughout the High Arctic, the water is about to open up and summer is very near.
“The constant light was like endless caffeine.” – Elizabeth Hay, Late Nights on Air
Make hay while the sun shines, they say. Well, what happens when the sun doesn’t go down?
You don’t notice the time slipping away because the most glaring cue you have to the day’s end, darkness, is absent. The sun is still in the sky, the unthinking part of your brain notes, so your body doesn’t clue in. You stay out. You stay up.
Where there are months of uninterrupted sun, the solstice may pass by without ceremony, a day that feels just as long as its antecedent—and one that’s largely indistinguishable from tomorrow. Kids will play outside at 3 a.m. The rhythms of night and day are disrupted; the normal dictates of the clock get thrown out the window.
Where it’s noticeable, the longest day of the year is a time for commemoration. Some mark the occasion with leisure. Residents of the vibrantly painted and bedecked floating homes of Yellowknife Bay hold an annual houseboat crawl. You get in a canoe and paddle from home to home, sharing food with neighbours, fiddling and strumming away the ‘night.’ You’ll even find the SnowKing, Yellowknife’s hibernal monarch who each year erects an ornate castle of snow and ice as a monument to winter (only to watch it recede back into the bay in the spring), houseboat-hopping with a band of merry revellers, and toasting the brief summer season on a ramshackle barge.
In Dawson City, they assemble at the Midnight Dome, high above town, to gain some perspective and watch the sun trace its long path across the sky. It’s been done for years—even spanning back to the Gold Rush, when 150 or so Dawsonites lumbered to the summit to share candies and nuts, smoke cigars and imbibe, I’m sure.
Others like to challenge themselves under the midnight sun. A surprising number of feats of endurance occur on the solstice. At the former Nanisivik mine on northern Baffin Island, an ultra-marathon was held for decades, drawing runners from as far away as New York City. Icebergs floated outside Arctic Bay at the starting line. Runners went all night, along featureless gravel expanses. One experienced marathoner remembered feeling as if he “were running in another world, as [I] lost all sense of time and perception, only feeling as though [I] had been moving through timeless emptiness forever.”
"At solstice we clomp onto the deck
drink retsina and watch the sky
like a dog doing improbable tricks.
The backwards flip, the tap dance,
the spontaneous operative, all more believable
than the myth of night."
– Clea Roberts, Here Is Where We Disembark
The North is always described in hyperbolic terms, its extremes grossly exaggerated. So people are shocked to visit in summer and see the Great White North actually teems with plant and animal life; the barrenlands aren’t quite so when the horizon starts to move on the backs of great caribou or reindeer herds. The Land of the Midnight Sun is only that for a few fleeting days or weeks—or, in Grise Fiord’s case, months.
Despite this, the midnight sun holds an outsized place even here. You need look no further than your phonebook—if you still have one. Or type “midnight sun” and the name of any Northern town into Google and see for yourself how many company names are inspired by this phenomenon. Midnight Sun businesses deliver fuel, roast coffee beans, drill out orebodies, host art exhibits, put mints on freshly fluffed pillows. This is because Northerners cling to these halcyon days in the sunlight that never stops, especially through the dark, cold, seemingly interminable winter. We jam these summer days with activity—save the date, we say, planning weddings or parties or paddles to look forward to for months.
And then, suddenly, it passes. You wake on the morning—or afternoon or evening—after the solstice with the sober realization that, from here on out, the days are getting shorter. The cynic dwells on this and begins to steel his mind and body and soul for the dark days of winter, which always arrive too soon. The realist recognizes the days are numbered and makes the most of every warm, open-water moment. And he relies on his inexhaustible reserve of energy, granted him by the generous sun. You adapt to a land of extremes.