“The lights are out!” my husband says, poking his head inside the back door. No, he’s not talking about a power failure. I step outside and tilt my head back. The northern lights appear faint at first. Then the bands become brighter and start to shimmy across Mother Nature’s dance floor, two thick green lines and some purple separating and coming together like lovers in a warm embrace.
The northern lights (or aurora borealis) is an unpredictable natural phenomenon that occurs when oxygen, nitrogen, solar wind, and magnetic fields come together to produce dancing waves of coloured bands of light.
They are most visible near the north and south poles because of the longer darkness and the magnetic fields.
That explains why the aurora can’t be seen during the summer – the skies just aren’t dark enough.
The Northwest Territories is located directly beneath the Auroral oval. With 240 potential aurora-viewing days, there’s a good chance of seeing the dance of the northern lights on a clear night during the fall or winter.
Every year, thousands of people come here and cast their eyes toward the heavens looking for the northern lights.
The greatest natural light show north of the 60th parallel is named after Aurora, the Roman goddess of dawn, and Boreas, the Greek name for north wind.
There are a variety of ways to appreciate Mother Nature’s light show, from evening experiences to multi-day packages.
The first time that I rode on the back of a snowmobile was a hilly affair worthy of a rollercoaster. Apparently, machines are more like broncos when they don’t have proper suspension.
My second trip, with a local operator across the frozen tundra, was almost as smooth as a glassy lake on an autumn day.
Hop onto a snowmobile and drive along snow-covered trails and across frozen lakes to a trapper’s tent or a cosy cabin.
Keep warm by a crackling campfire or around a wood stove while waiting for the aurora to make her impromptu appearance.
Every winter, frozen lakes and rivers create a different transportation route. Travel across frozen Great Slave Lake in an eight-passenger Bombardier snowmobile to a spot far from city lights.
Who wants to go for a run? “I do! I do!” all the dogs at the kennel seem to shout at the same time.
The barking and howling with excitement doesn’t die down until the teams have been hitched up to the sleds and their human cargo hops on.
Silence descends as each sled takes off down the trail. All you can hear is the sled runners scraping along the snow.
If you run your own team instead of riding in the basket, remember to get off the runners and walk behind the dogs when you head up a hill.
I learned that lesson when a husky looked over her shoulder at me and gave me a dirty look when she saw that I wasn’t being a team player.
After being shamed by a dog, I got off and joined the parade of paws trotting down the trail.
Let the power and energy of your huskies take you to a cabin or camp that offers an unobstructed view of the aurora. Enjoy hot chocolate while you wait for the celestial dance to begin.
Ditch your mobile phone and unplug from civilisation. Climb aboard a bush plane and head out to a wilderness lodge 100 kilometres from Yellowknife.
Spend your days cross-country skiing on groomed trails, ice fishing or learning to build an igloo.
In the evening, strap on a pair of snowshoes, or put on your bathing suit and climb into a hot tub.
Then look way up. With any luck, the aurora borealis will streak across the sky.
Northern Lights Canada – On your own
On a clear fall or winter night, check the aurora forecast on Yellowknife’s Astronomy North website to find out the likelihood that the aurora will make an appearance.
Then dress in layers and bundle up with long johns, snow pants, mitts and a warm jacket. Pack some hot chocolate and head out of town, away from the glare of city lights.
Walk out onto a solid, frozen pond or hike up the nearest hill around midnight on a clear night. Pull out your thermos and sip a warm beverage while you watch the northern lights.
Once they show up, be prepared to be dazzled. You’ll remember it for a long time.
Northern Lights Viewing Tips
- Come at a time of year when midnight skies are dark.
- Dress warmly and plan to be outside for hours – not minutes.
- Peak aurora activity often occurs in the hours before and after midnight.
- A full moon makes stars difficult to see and auroras appear fainter.
- Bring a tripod so you can keep your camera still for 15 to 20 seconds. Use a low aperture and set the focus to infinity. A wide angle lens works best.
- Whether you want to photograph the northern lights, sit at a lodge or travel by dog team, pick an aurora experience that’s right for you.
Helena Katz lives in the Northwest Territories and is lucky enough to have the northern lights in her backyard.
Here are some more ideas on what to see and do while visiting Canada in winter: