It all depends on Mother Nature’s mood, but here are six steps travellers can take to boost their chances of seeing Canada’s extraordinary Aurora Borealis.
It’s a few minutes before midnight, I’m sitting by a crackling campfire in a white field a few kilometres from Fort McMurray, and it is bloody freezing.
The temperature dropped to zero when the sun sank below the horizon to mark the end of another winter’s day in wild Alberta and my boots sink up to the ankles in snow every time I shuffle a few steps to restore circulation to my toes.
I’m here to see the famed Northern Lights – the magical and mystical Aurora Borealis that sweep across the nocturnal sky in the planet’s higher latitudes – and just when I think I might retreat inside the spectacular show begins.
Waves of neon green and yellow creep above the horizon, hover in place for a moment as if checking who is watching, then arc across the black like the sweeping strokes of an artist applying colours to a new canvas.
For the next few hours I’m oblivious to the cold and watch the vibrant sprays of extra-terrestrial colour curl and cascade, sometimes so bright it turns night to day completely covering the void above, and only turn my back on the display when burning peepers force me inside to slumber.
While the northern corners of Canada – especially The Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut – are perfect places to spy the northern Aurora here are six things travellers can do to push up the probability of spying the spectacle.
1. GO NORTH DURING WINTER
While it’s not unusual to see the Northern Lights in locales like Jasper National Park travellers increase the chance of catching the display by heading north during the coldest months when there are more hours of darkness, the sky is black, and small populations mean less light pollution.
2. PACK FOR THE COLD
Winter in Canada is chilly, fact, but frosty degrees are manageable in the right gear so pack layers – the dressing recipe is thermals, then polar fleece pieces, and finally a windproof shell – with hat, gloves, neck warmer, thick woolly socks and sturdy boots turning unbearable into invigorating.
3. SLEEP LATE, AND NAP
The Northern Lights don’t always set the alarm to appear after sunset, with most visitors up into the wee-small hours to savour what’s often a late-night scene, so schedule an afternoon nap and plan on sleeping a little longer the following morning to keep batteries charged.
4. PACK A HEALTHY SNACK
It’s a long time between dinner and breakfast when on Northern Lights patrol so pack supper, with lodges and boutique hotels often providing a picnic basket of yummies that includes a thermos of hot chocolate or homemade soup to help the body heat itself from the inside out.
5. GO WITH A GUIDE AND GROUP
While few things are as romantic as sky-gazing with a significant other, venturing out with an expert guide and gaggle of fellow travellers means looking from the best locations. Cheery conversations before the show launches, and facts about the phenomenon when colours start surging.
6. BE PATIENT, AND STAY AWHILE
It all depends on Mother Nature’s mood so rather than expecting to see a perfect performance during a single-night stay pause in a genuine Northern Lights location a few days, wait for cloudless conditions. Be primed for a lengthy linger when darkness does descend.