The Northern Lights are a natural phenomenon that can be elusive but in Canada they can be seen almost anywhere during all four seasons. That being said, the North is undoubtedly the best place to see them and where they are the most active; northern, remote communities with little or no light pollution offer the optimum viewing platform.
The aurora borealis – the technical name for the northern lights – happens in the Northern Hemisphere when the sun’s electrically charged particles, riding on a solar wind, enter the Earth’s atmosphere and collide with gases — namely oxygen and nitrogen. When the sun is at its most active is when you’re most likely to catch a spectacular display. The name comes from Aurora, the Roman goddess of dawn, and Boreas, the Greek god of the north wind. Much of Canada’s North lies beneath the Northern Hemisphere’s Auroral Oval, a hot spot for activity.
There is, of course, no guarantee of a show, which makes it all the more awe-inspiring to catch this most wonderful spectacle. The lights can take all kinds of forms, from misty wisps to rippling curtains of clouds, sometimes purples, pinks and yellows, with green being the most common and red the rarest.
The lights can’t be seen through the clouds, so heading north wherever you are and also seeking out higher ground, will increase your chances. December to March is often the best time, with more hours of darkness and cold, clear nights. You will also need to be prepared to stay up late, as the best viewing window is 10pm to 2am with midnight probably being the optimum time.
The very best place to see the aurora borealis in Canada – and probably in the world – is the Northwest Territories in autumn or winter (although summer is not bad either). In the winter, the Aurora Village just outside Yellowknife is specially designed for aurora observation.
Churchill, Manitoba calls itself “one of the top three places on the planet” and the best thing about seeing an aurora show here is being able to combine it with wildlife viewing; think how fabulous it would be to see polar bears or arctic foxes with a stunning light show as the background. Aurora high season here is February and March, with September to November – also prime bear-viewing time – a close-run second best.
September to April is a great time to catch the lights in the Yukon, even close to the capital city of Whitehorse. Many resorts offer specially designed tents and cabins for prime aurora viewing, with modern creature comforts to keep you warm and cosy too.
Newfoundland and Labrador on the Atlantic coast has acres of beautiful, untouched wilderness, and summer time here can bring a fantastic chance of viewing the aurora in a natural setting. While the north is undoubtedly the best place to head to, you can also catch this elusive beauty in Ontario, away from the cities, of course. Manitoulin Island in the autumn is a favourite spot, as is anywhere bordering Hudson Bay in Northern Ontario such as the lovely Killarney Mountain Lodge.
One of the most spectacular views has to be the shimmering beauty of the lights contrasted with the majestic splendour of the Canadian Rockies. The scant light pollution and total overnight darkness of Banff National Park make it ideal, with September to mid-May being the most aurora-active. You can often see the glow from the town itself, but head out of town, to places such as Lake Minnewanka, Castle Junction (en-route to Lake Louise) or Herbert or Peyto Lake for amazing skies and lake reflections. Alberta is also home to the world’s two largest dark sky preserves, in Wood Buffalo National Park and Jasper National Park. The latter offers sparkling stars and a light show to remember; you can even visit during the Dark Sky Festival in October.
Julie Thompson | Frontier Canada