The Breathtaking Auroras
In Pursuit of Nature’s Light Show
No man-made light show can compete. We ooh and aah at colorful fireworks displays, accompanied by window-rattling booms and whistles, sometimes by patriotic orchestral music. We can plan our fireworks viewing on holidays and at ballparks, inconvenienced only by parking and traffic.
The northern and southern lights, however, spring solely from nature’s powers, unrestrained by schedules and seemingly averse to predictability – perhaps part of their appeal. The vibrant colors shimmer and dance, usually in hues of greens with occasional shades of red and blue. The patterns dance in the night sky, like rays reaching skyward or wind-blown curtains, building to a crescendo, fading, undulating, always silent – soothing and soft, yet powerful.
The aurora borealis (northern lights) and aurora australis (southern lights) are caused by electrons colliding in the upper reaches of the atmosphere. The most spectacular shows arise from powerful sunspots and solar storms. Earth’s magnetic fields guide electrons toward the polar regions, making the lights more common and spectacular between latitudes of 60 and 75 degrees, including northern Canada, Alaska and Scandinavia.
To see the lights, then, one must travel to cold climates during the wintertime, avoiding the midnight sun that would spoil the viewing and hoping for both clear skies and solar activity.
Despite the uncertainty, many travelers make their way toward the poles each winter in hopes of catching the phenomenal natural sky show. These stories come from a few who have made their bucket-list trip and captured the lights.
HUNTING THE LIGHTS IN THE WHITE DESERT
Snowmobiling with Hurtigruten Cruises, Norway – February
By Gigi Ragland
The ship crossed the 71st parallel of the Arctic Circle on the fifth day. It was the farthest north I had ever been and the best chance to see the aurora borealis. We were cruising toward the North Cape of Norway, the northernmost point of the mainland European continent. Every winter, Hurtigruten Cruise Lines heads north into the Arctic Circle with itineraries packed with northern lights programs and excursions.
As in an African safari, where the animals don’t show up on command, neither does the aurora borealis. That’s why a winter Hurtigruten cruise was so special. Not only did I have the chance to see the lights while on the ship deck, but a guided snowmobiling excursion proved to be most rewarding.
On a stark landscape of frosty snow, described by locals as “the white desert,” my small group zipped off into the dark, clear night single file following our guide. The only sound came from the roar of the snowmobiles as we cast into the black night with headlights aimed at the whiteness ahead of us.
Suddenly, the guide braked and with his hand up ushered us to stop beside him. Adjusting our eyes to the inky blackness, we saw that we were on a plateau overlooking a small coastal town along the Arctic Ocean, lights twinkling in the distance. Way above it illuminated an arch of hazy neon greenish blue light, the luminescence brightening, then eerily fading in and out. Spellbound, we stood in silence staring. It was the “wow” moment I hoped for and will never forget.
Other nearby activities: Kirkenes Snow Hotel; skiing, tobogganing and sledding; dog-sledding; snow hikes; cultural city walks; midnight concert in the Arctic Cathedral.
Gigi Ragland is a freelance travel and food writer who enjoys otherworldly experiences all across the globe.
THE DANCE THAT’S OUT OF THIS WORLD
Polar Bear Safari, Churchill, Manitoba – October
By Lydia Schrandt
It was my last night on a weeklong safari with Natural Habitat Adventures, searching for polar bears by day and the aurora borealis by night. We’d seen a few of the elusive great white wanderers – mostly from a distance as they rested in the grass, patiently waiting for the Hudson Bay to freeze over so they could venture onto the ice to hunt. The northern lights had proven more elusive.
With a weather forecast showing nothing but overcast skies and snow for the foreseeable future, my hopes were not high as I showered and hopped into bed in the tiny Canadian outpost of Churchill, population 813. I was on the verge of sleep when the knock came. It was my guide. The sky had cleared. The lights were out.
I threw on a parka and ran out to the bus, still in my pajamas. Two minutes later I huddled with my tour group on the beach, wet hair frozen and fingers seizing up from the cold. But none of that mattered.
What first looked like little more than a wisp of cloud in a star-filled sky began to dance, its greens and reds shifting and shimmering across the sky, seemingly just a few dozen feet above our heads. I giggled, giddy and unexpectedly emotional. It didn’t seem like it should belong to the realm of the natural.
The show went on for about an hour. The locals told us it was the best they’d seen in a decade.
Other nearby activities: See polar bears in the wild (September to December); dog sledding; bird watching; Prince of Wales Fort National Historic Site; York Factory National Historic Site
Lydia Schrandt is an American freelance travel writer, photographer and editor based in Barcelona, Spain.
FROM SHIPS AND SNOWMOBILES
Norway Coastal Cruise – February
By Anne Kazel-Wilcox
I’d long dreamed of seeing the aurora borealis but never embraced the idea of a sleepless sojourn, sitting in wait in the frozen tundra. Then I heard about Hurtigruten. This small shipping line has been ferrying goods up and down Norway’s coast for 100+ years, serving as a lifeline to remote areas, with cruise amenities added in more recent years. So my hunt for the northern lights began by cruising out of the pretty city of Bergen, on a clear winter’s day.
The ship’s foghorn blared a few days later, announcing we’d entered the Arctic Circle. It was supposed to be a bountiful year for northern lights, given plentiful solar storms, and the crisp skies
of the Arctic enhanced the possibilities. That night, as I sipped fine wine, the foghorn blared again, noting a possible sighting. I scampered up deck and saw gray wisps in the skies, like phantoms stretching, swirling and dancing, the visions taking on hues that began to grow and glow – the northern lights. In the days following, these fluorescent images swirled on and off in the night skies while I enjoyed the comfort and warmth of my cabin in between light shows.
Upon the ship reaching the North Cape, I embarked on an evening snowmobile excursion, traversing the forested landscape, far from city lights. That’s when Mother Nature raised the curtain for her grand finale, the most spectacular show yet. The lights were still dancing in my head when I returned to Hurtigruten, content with having captured the elusive prey.
Anne Kazel-Wilcox is a travel writer and non-fiction author and recently co-authored the book, West Point ’41: The Class That Went to War and Shaped America, in conjunction with seven U.S. generals.
DANCING LIGHTS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE MOUNTAIN
Alaskan Mountain Excursion – March
by Jennifer Billock
I stared up at a flexing gray streak floating in the sky. No one else had noticed it yet. “You found it first!” one of the guides shouted. Suddenly everyone on the mountaintop clamored for cameras. Our group had been up on the mountain by Chena Hot Springs Resort for nearly five hours hunting for the aurora, clad in thick jumpsuits to shield us from the -33F (-36C) chill. Everyone around me was thrilled, snapping photos and posing – but I was disappointed. What was so special about a dull gray streak? I expected brilliant dancing colors, red and orange and purple. Is this how the lights really are? I feigned excitement, then climbed back into the mountain cat for the trip back to the resort.
At the bottom of the mountain, I got out of the truck and reluctantly trudged through knee-high snow to the locker room. During the short walk to my room afterward, a crowd had gathered off in the parking lot. They were shouting and taking photos. I headed over to the group – if it was a bear or something, I sure didn’t want to miss that. I didn’t look up until I joined them; I was shocked when I did. The aurora lit up the sky like magic, flowing across with waterfalls of shining green, red and purple. I spent another hour outside (sans jumpsuit) watching the display. That moment made the wait worth it – and I learned just how unreliable hunting for the lights can be.
Other seasonal activities: Fairbanks Ice Museum, hot springs, sleigh rides and dog sledding
Jennifer Billock (on Twitter @jenniferbillock) is a freelance writer, author and editor, usually focusing on some combination of culinary travel, culture and history.
BIDING OUR TIME BETWEEN LIGHT SHOWS
Glass Igloos in the Finnish Lapland – March
By Meryl Pearlstein
“It’s the village, it’s the village,” lamented one of my comrades as we huddled together under blankets in our glass igloo under the stars, waiting for the dance of the northern lights. This was our second day in Saariselkä, way above the Arctic Circle in Finland, and we had already gotten spoiled: we’d seen a full display of the aurora borealis the night before.
This night the sky was different and calm – what we thought were the beginnings of twinkling curtains of color were actually the lights of the tiny village nearby.
The previous night had been a different story. Absolutely certain we were going to catch a view of this magical occurrence, we had spent four hours in sub-zero temperatures playing the waiting game outside of the lodge. Our strategy? To avoid freezing both hands and soul, we could run indoors as needed and replenish our supply of 40%-alcohol Finnish vodka (Koskenkorva) to keep warm. Being a bit tipsy helped, too, because it seemed to sharpen the colors we saw racing across the sky that evening. Dominant was a green wash, an undulating wave that spread from east to west doing a Macarena of its own creation. We were its eager participants, dancing, shouting, and oohing and aahing as we watched the sky change from minute to minute, from neon green to green tinged with white.
Alas, this night wasn’t a repeat. Although snuggling together on the floor of Kakslauttanen’s igloo colony resort was an equally mesmerizing experience. During the daytime and earlier in the evening we had amused ourselves cross-country skiing and snowmobiling to an outdoor salmon dinner, capped off with a traditional smoke sauna and beer, and a run across the snow for a dip into a newly opened ice hole.
When she’s not exploring other and sometimes warmer parts of the world, Meryl Pearlstein is a freelance travel and food writer who has chased the northern lights by dog sled, by bus, while driving a reindeer, from an igloo and at an ice village.
THE POLAR BEAR SKY DANCE
Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, Manitoba – late summer
By Ilona Kauremszky
What a difference a day makes. The night before, the strongest gale forces ricocheted off my wooden cabin along Hudson’s Bay Lowlands, but tonight in my fence-enclosed polar bear lodge the late summer sky turns into a celestial night show of fuchsias, magentas and greens that dance at every turn, morphing into fanciful figures. I shift my gaze, drop my binoculars and twirl with arms splayed, oblivious to what lay beyond my fenced-in cocoon at the Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. The sky morphs into an abstract Jackson Pollock painting, swings into a Star Trek scene narrated by Canada’s William Shatner Captain Kirk and completes this magical moment in a sky dance of the polar bears.
This chunk of Canada’s Great White North remains one of those hard-to-get-to places, a remote area within the Cape Tatnam Wildlife Management Area accessible from the town of Gillam via a small bush plane. Local operator Churchill Wild, a family-run Arctic adventure tour company specializing in polar bear viewings, provides guests with ample day excursions to view the wilderness and wildlife, but come late nightfall the experience completely turns into a fantasy world helmed by the northern lights (aurora borealis).
Award-winning travel journalist Ilona Kauremszky has been a syndicated travel columnist, co-produces mycompasstv on YouTube and regularly contributes to major publications across North America. Follow her travel pursuits @mycompasstv on Twitter/YouTube.
A LIGHT SHOW FROM THE LIGHTHOUSE
Bus Tour, Iceland – January
By Hofit Kim Cohen
On Jan. 7, 2015, I finally got to make one of my biggest dreams come true by seeing the northern lights in Iceland. After years of failed attempts of trying to make a trip happen with different friends, I decided to go at it alone. The only problem is that no matter how much you plan for the perfect trip to see the northern lights, it’s almost impossible to predict, due to bad weather. I booked a tour with Gray Line, which offers the ultimate northern lights experience, chasing the lights for five hours all over the country.
The night I arrived in Iceland, I couldn’t stop staring at the sky in the hopes of possibly seeing something. Sadly for me, I had no luck. My tour was booked for the next day and got canceled due to bad weather. The next day, same thing. I was almost starting to lose hope.
On my last night in Iceland, it happened! I got on the tour bus and we stopped at a few locations but still couldn’t see much. Then we received a phone call to head over to the lighthouse at Gardskagi. The moment we got there, there it was! The lights were all different shapes and sizes. Even more amazing was that I actually got to see them turn from green to a beautiful pink. I walked away with the biggest smile on my face that night, as I finally made my northern lights dreams come true.
Follow travel blogger Hofit Kim Cohen’s adventures at VanillaSkyDreaming.com or on Instagram @hofitkimcohen.