If you’ve never seen the Northern Lights, then you’re not Canadian. Okay, I’m kidding. But geographically we are one of the luckiest nations with access to aurora borealis, the incredible natural light show which can surprisingly been seen quite well with the naked eye. The scientific explanation involves solar wind particles, magnetic poles colliding and gas molecules, but basically this natural phenomenon is best described as colourful lights dancing across the night sky. It’s a pretty spectacular sight. Though a lot of spotting the Northern Lights comes from luck, there are a few things you can do to increase your chances of catching this natural wonder.
- Head on up
They’re called the Northern Lights for a reason. If you’re serious about spotting them, head to the “Northern Light Zone” which spans a radius of around 2500 km from the North Pole crossing parts of Alaska, southern Greenland, Iceland and northern Canada, Siberia, Norway, Sweden and Finland. The Southern Lights also exist around the Southern Pole of Antarctica and act as almost a mirror image of the northern counterpart, but there are so few populated regions in that area of the world that they are less frequently spotted.
- Wait until it gets cold
The Northern Lights are often associated with winter though they actually occur intermittently throughout the year. September to mid-April is generally the time of year when the sky is most dark making them easier to spot. Many aurora borealis-seekers will head to Tromsø in Norway because of its milder temperature and location in the centre of the Zone which means sightings usually occur between 6pm and midnight – no need to pull an all-nighter! It also tends to have clears skies during this time of year so there will be no clouds to cover up your view.
Kjetil Skogli is a Norwegian local who is unofficially known as “the Aurora Chaser”. He promises an exciting adventure tour where you will literally chase down the Northern Lights with a small group in a car. Of course there’s no guarantee that you’ll see any, but it sounds like it would be entertaining regardless.
For more information, visit: www.kskogli.no/aurora/
- Be patient
This is a natural wonder meaning there isn’t an on/off switch. If you’re going to go on a trip specifically to see the lights, make sure there are some other neat things to check out while you’re waiting.
The Great Canadian Adventure Company offers tours through Yellowknife where the Northern Lights are frequently seen. Light-viewing can be enjoyed from the comfort of heated tipis as you linger around the 53rd parallel. Other tours in wilderness adventure, dog sledding and learning about Inuit culture are available if you get bored.
For more information, visit: adventures.ca
In Iceland, several rural hotels are set up for aurora viewing with naturally heated outdoor hot tubs and wake-up services where staff will stay up and notify guests when the lights are visible. The Hotel Sel Myvatn in northeast Iceland sits on an idyllic lake of natural hot springs and offers other entertaining activities like ice go-karting, cross-country skiing and winter horse-riding.
For more information, visit: www.myvatn.is
If you’re not willing to go that far, the Northern Lights can often be viewed by taking a drive a few hours north of the city. I was lucky enough to spot them as a kid when I stayed at a friend’s cottage on Georgian Bay. Huddled by a campfire in early January the sky suddenly came alight with waves of yellow, pink and white. I wish I could say I spent the rest of the night with my eyes peeled to the sky, but it was COLD, so shortly after spotting them we headed in for some hot chocolate.