Catching the northern lights at least once in your life is right up there on your bucket list, right? If you’ve set your heart on gazing upon the cascade of star dust that is the aurora borealis, Canada’s Northwest Territories in winter will blow your mind. Two hundred nights a year of stunning northern lights activity in remote wilderness mean this is the best place in the world to get your aurora on.
Words by Craig Dixon
Imagine standing on a frozen sub-arctic lake surrounded by ancient forest, warm mug in hand, when the clear midnight sky throbs in a rippling curtain of aqua, blue, and mauve. Or leaning back in a steaming hot tub on the deck of your luxury wilderness lodge, sipping your wine and looking up at an orange-red arc streaming across the inky heavens. Think how this phenomenon was born in the sun and crossed the universe to wrap around this little planet. And here you are, in the Northwest Territories, to see it.
Some Inuit peoples of the far Northwest believe the phenomenon is spirits lighting the way to heaven, while another Inuit legend has the dead playing ball with a walrus skull. Canada’s Cree children were told not to whistle at the lights or they would come to take them away.
Science calls it aurora borealis, a “solar wind” of charged particles flung from the sun which collide with atoms and molecules in our atmosphere and light up around the polar magnetic fields. Tourists know the effect as the Northern Lights, a spectacular celestial show not to be missed.
Most of Canada’s Northwest Territories are within the Earth’s “auroral oval”, the area around the top of the globe where the lights are most active, which means that from the forested south to tiny townships north of the Arctic Circle, the aurora comes early and stays all winter.
Lights-chasing visitors flock to the gateway city of Yellowknife, known as the world’s “aurora capital”. The town is directly beneath the auroral oval, making it the epicentre of lights viewing. Ac-cording to Canadian skywatch agency Astronomy North, their observation site near Yellowknife rarely experiences a night without a light show – so you’re almost guaranteed to witness the cosmic glow during your visit.
Funky Yellowknife has plenty of accommodation and aurora viewing options. Start with a pub meal, then head out on a ski trail or frozen Great Slave Lake on a dog sled or snowmobile. Try an aurora photography tour for tips and tricks on capturing the essence of the phenomenon.
Aurora Village outside Yellowknife is one of the most popular viewing locations. An expansive wilderness property lined with fire-heated tepees for group sky-watching, the venue also offers private tepees and heated aurora viewing chairs that swivel 360 degrees to catch every angle of the light-show. Now that’s doing it in warmth and comfort!
Another option is to head deep into the wilderness to a luxury lodge where you can combine unique aurora viewing locales with great dining, crackling log fires and hot tub soaking. Take a bush flight from Yellowknife to one of the remote lodges, many of which offer cross country skiing, snowmobile and snow shoe tours, fat biking, igloo building, winter camping and a chance to experience the culture of the Dene, the region’s First Nations people who have lived here for millennia.
There are two aurora seasons in Yellowknife. While the springtime season in August and September provides milder temperatures, winter (December to March) is prime viewing time. Nights are long and the skies dry, brittle cold and crystal clear. Average minimum temperatures in Yellowknife between December and March range between -25 and -30 Celsius.
In winter the deep north dons its beautiful winter coat. Lakes and rivers freeze, opening up road and air access to remote lodges and communities. North of Yellowknife crosses the Arctic Circle, where Inuvik in winter averages a steady -30. Yes, winters are serious in this part of the world – but if you can brave the cold, it’s your opportunity to see some seriously amazing things.
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