The Aurora Borealis, often referred to as the Northern Lights, is a mesmerising, colourful, eerie display of light in the northern polar sky. It is caused when solar wind from the sun collides with the Earth’s outer magnetic atmosphere and releases its energy. It can last for hours – and it will fill you with wonder!
WHEN CAN I SEE IT?
It happens on a regular basis, day and night, all year round. But, like the moon and stars, it is only visible when the sky is dark. The northern skies don’t get very dark in summer – so the best time to see The Aurora is on a clear winter’s night. November, December, January and February offer good views – but this far north the winter nights are dangerously cold! So September, October, March and April are the best months.
WHERE ARE THE BEST PLACES TO VIEW IT?
The further north the better! If you were to ask ten Aurora watchers to name the best spot – you would probably get ten different answers. These are my favourite spots.
Tromso, in the far north of Norway, is beyond doubt the finest city in the world, north of the arctic circle. Vibrant, sophisticated, stunningly attractive – it is often referred to as The Paris of the north. Tromso has all the facilities you could possible wish for – and with its major airport and its magnificent harbour it is a very easy place to get to. Best of all, at 400km inside the Arctic Circle it is far enough north to pretty much guarantee great views of the Aurora on almost any clear winter’s night. Tromso, in my opinion, is the easiest, safest, most comfortable place in the world to view the Aurora Borealis.
Yellowknife, on the shores of the Great Slave Lake, way up in the North Western Territories, is a wonderful, vibrant town, and it is far enough north to guarantee views of the Aurora on most clear nights.
Blachford Lake. A short hop in a ski-plane from Yellowknife, s a great place to stay for a genuine, rustic frontier experience. It is also away from any light-pollution from the city, so the skies are dark, and the viewing is fabulous.
Canada’s Yukon has some of the best viewing in the world. This is a BIG, territory. Bigger than California, Arizona, Delaware and West Virginia added together! Most of Europe would vanish into it without a trace! Yet the population of the entire territory is just 40,000. You don’t see many people here!
Watson Lake, with its Northern Lights Space and Science Centre is a fine place to view the Aurora – and there are some great places to lodge. Among of the best is Nugget City Cabins. Another place I have tried and can recommend is Air Force Lodge. It is friendly, welcoming, clean, warm, comfortable, and remarkably inexpensive for this part of the world.
A short hop north in a float-plane from Watson Lake will get you to isolated and truly beautiful Frances Lake Wilderness Lodge. There are no roads here – this is wilderness country, but the Lodge is warm!
And if you want a wilderness adventure in the truest sense of the word – take a trip to…
Nunavat is the best place in North America to see the Aurora. It is Canada’s newest, biggest, and most exciting territory. It spans the Arctic Circle, and includes the magnetic North-Pole. Parts of this beautiful region are so far north – that the best way to see the Aurora – is by looking SOUTH! It has islands bigger than Britain – with nobody living on them! And its interior contains lakes so remote that they don’t even have names yet!
Nunavut (Our Land) only became a territory in its own right in 1999 when the Inuit Tribe won the biggest land claim in history. They have now formed a territorial government in the capital Iqaluit.They are building their own schools, their own roads, and their own tourist industry. Tourism is just getting started here – and there is a lot of work to be done. Most of Nunavut is only accessible by aircraft or dog-sled!
But if you have that pioneering spirit of adventure – this is place! The Inuit people will take great care of you, and you’ll get the best Aurora views on the planet!
Fairbanks in Alaska has a real Northern Lights culture. It is a great place to stay, easy(ish) to get to, and the views of the Aurora are excellent. To share your viewing with other enthusiasts – this is the place!
Bettles, north of Fairbanks is excellent too. The Bettles Lodge is wonderful. They even have their own plane – so they can fly you from Fairbanks airport, right to the front door of your hotel
Those are my favourite places. If I had to recommend just one for your first Aurora Experience – I would say Tromso in Norway. It is the easiest, most comfortable and safest place of all.
HINTS, TIPS & WARNINGS.
The Arctic is one of the harshest environments on the planet – and if you do not take measures to keep yourself warm – the weather here could kill you.
The most important principle of cold-weather dressing is to trap warm air close to your body.
The best way to trap this warm air is with multiple layers of clothing.
Three or four thin layers are much better than one or two thick layers.
Your first layer should be some kind of full-length underwear. Cotton long-johns are cheap, easy to find, and will do the job. However, there are lighter (and more expensive) alternatives, and these are worth considering if you plan to be participating in any strenuous outdoor activity. Mountaineering or skiing underwear is designed to wick sweat away from your skin and prevent you from becoming wet from your own perspiration.
It is vital to cover your whole body evenly. There is no point wearing five layers on your top half – and just a pair of jeans on your legs! Your body will lose heat from any area that is not properly protected. Pyjama pants make excellent mid-layers, as do track-suit pants or joggers. Your neck and head are major areas of heat loss, so hats, scarves, masks and hoods are essential. Two hats are better than one – a thin cotton or synthetic skullcap with a thick wool hat on top is ideal. You can also cover your face with a ski-mask. Good synthetics are best for this. Cotton or wool will absorb your breath and it will quickly turn to ice. Ski goggles are also a good idea – even your eyes can freeze here if the wind-chill is strong enough.
Overlap the ends of your clothing to stop the wind from entering. Tuck your first pair of socks into your long-johns, your second pair of socks should overlap the ends of your long-johns, and your third pair should overlap the ends of your trousers.
Protect your extremities! Fingers, ears, toes, and noses are the first things to drop off from frost-bite.
Good footwear is vital. Always boots – never shoes. Moon boots are very good – but make sure they are proper moon-boots and not just fashion accessories. Your Boots should be big enough to let you wear heavy wool socks over your two pairs of regular socks. Better to have boots that are too big than too small. Good circulation is crucial – so don’t wear tight boots!
Keeping your fingers warm is not easy if you are taking photographs of the aurora. Thin gloves inside loose, heavily insulated mittens are the best way to go. Only remove the mittens to take your picture, and then put them on again quickly.
The wind is the real killer here. It can reduce the temperature more than you could possibly imagine.So you will need a wind-proof outer layer. It is best if it is also waterproof – and it should be made from a fabric that “breathes”. Gore-Tex or similar allows your perspiration to evaporate, but it does not allow the wind or the rain to get inside.
FUEL FOR THE BODY
Eat like crazy!When you are outside, the only heat available to you is generated by your own body. The correct clothing will help store that heat – but to create it in the first place, your body needs fuel. You burn a lot more calories in these cold conditions, so don’t worry about your waistline! This is about survival – so you have the best possible excuse for pigging out!
Drink plenty! Dehydration can be a serious problem here. You use a lot of water just breathing in dry winter air. And extreme cold suppresses your thirst reflex, so you don’t think about drinking. When your body starts to dehydrate, it conserves fluids by reducing circulation to the extremities, so your fingers toes and ears will drop off quicker! The best thing to drink is water at as close to body temperature as possible. Drink plenty of water before you go out.
If you find yourself in a survival situation -DO NOT EAT SNOW – no matter how thirsty you feel.
Snow uses so much body heat to melt, it will induce rapid hypothermia and make your problems worse!
Always plan for the worst case scenario.If you go out on foot – plan what you’ll do if you get lost. If you are in a car – plan what you’ll do if you break down. Think through the chain of possible events and be prepared for problems. Also, tell somebody where you are going and what time you expect to be back.
Take a survival kit with you – a sleeping bag, a space-blanket, some water, some food, some matches and a candle are essential.A mobile phone is a good idea too!
If your car breaks down – stay inside!
It provides a dry, wind-proof shelter, and the rescue services can see it from the air far easier than they can see a person on foot. If you wander off into the wild, you could easily become part of the permafrost and nobody will find you for a thousand years! They will dig you up in some future era, perfectly preserved, and put you on display in a museum, “Aurora-Man!”
Hopefully you will never be in a survival situation.Such emergencies are extremely rare. With a little planning and common sense, your nights under the Aurora will bring you nothing but pleasure!
ENJOY YOUR TRIP!
Terry Jenkins has travelled here, there and everywhere as a professional photographer. He now works part time for the British Government. In his “spare time” he runs The Top Ten Site. Visit http://www.TheTopTenSite.com for advice, information and reviews you can trust.
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