To see the best northern lights, you've got to hang out in the right circle.
The remote subarctic town of Churchill in the central Canadian province of Manitoba is considered one of the world's best places for viewing northern lights because it's directly under the auroral oval. This is the huge halo around the magnetic north pole where high-energy particles shooting from the sun collide with gases in the earth's atmosphere. The collisions produce a sky show of dancing curtains and ribbons of luminescent green, red, and blue.
Adding to Churchill's northern-lights allure is its reputation for clear night skies, a location far from light pollution, traveller accommodations, and accessibility by direct air and rail service from the provincial capital of Winnipeg.
Space scientists say we've entered a prime period for northern lights viewing. Solar activity, which rises and falls in 11-year cycles, is on the upswing, approaching the highest levels in a decade. Heightened solar activity generally means a greater intensity and frequency of northern lights, according to the Canadian Space Agency. The current cycle's peak of activity, called the solar maximum, is expected to occur in 2012-2013.
Among organizations offering Churchill-based northern lights tours this February and March are full-service tour operator Frontiers North Adventures and the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, a scientific research outpost where travellers live and learn alongside working scientists probing the mysteries of the Far North.
‘Northern Lights & Winter Nights'
Frontiers North Adventures' eight-day, seven-night ‘Northern Lights & Winter Nights' program March 6-13 begins with arctic-orientation activities in Winnipeg followed by a flight to Churchill on the western shore of the frozen Hudson Bay.
In preparation for the trip north, the group will take a private guided tour of the award-winningManitoba Museum in Winnipeg - top-rated by the Michelin Green Guide - with a special focus on the province's far north and its Inuit (Eskimo) heritage. They'll view a sky show at the museum's planetarium and learn tips for photographing the aurora borealis.
In Churchill, guests will take nightly trips out on the tundra to view the northern lights from one of Frontier North's custom-built, all-terrain vehicles called a Tundra Buggy ®, which resembles a bus with high-rise tires. Designed for safe and ecologically sound viewing of Churchill's famous fall polar bear migrations, the heated, enclosed vehicle with an open-air observation deck provides access to superb viewing locations well away from any artificial light, the company says. With the polar bears hunting seals way out on the Hudson Bay sea ice this time of year, it's safe for aurora-stalking photographers to disembark from the Tundra Buggy and set up their tripods on the frozen ground.
Churchill's Eskimo Museum, included on the tour, has a collection of Inuit carvings and artifacts said to be among the finest and oldest in the world.
On a daylight snowshoe excursion, visitors will learn to manoeuvre on traditional wood snowshoes strung with gut or animal hide. The outing, which ranges from three to four hours depending on the fortitude of the tour group, includes a rest stop in a cabin and hot food and drink. Conditions permitting, trek leader Mike Macri will prepare "bush tea" by steeping tea bags in sparkling clean snow that's been boiled over a wood campfire. A few wayward ashes and burning twigs give it a "smoky" flavour, Macri says.
Dave Daley, owner of dog sled operation Wapusk Adventures in Churchill and a co-founder of the Hudson Bay Quest dogsled race, gives tour-goers their own hands-on dog sledding experience. Guests have the opportunity to drive a team of seven or eight huskies - with a skilled musher on board - over a mile-long course through a boreal forest. For refreshments, Daley serves hot chocolate and freshly made bannock - traditional pan-fried flat bread from the European fur trade era - with tundra berry jam, if available.
Travellers will also have the opportunity to learn about the region's First Nations cultures from members of local Native communities.
The ‘Northern Lights & Winter Nights' package costs $3,999 Canadian per person - about the same in US dollars at current exchange rates - plus tax, based on double occupancy. The price includes hotel rooms in Winnipeg and Churchill, round-trip air fare between Winnipeg and Churchill, meals in Churchill, and all scheduled outings and other activities.
The price doesn't include transportation between home and Winnipeg.
‘Winter Skies' Tour
The independent, nonprofit Churchill Northern Studies Centre recently moved into a new, two-story, 27,000-square-foot structure built to LEED Gold certification standards. Natural light permeates 90 percent of the interior space. A solar wall that heats incoming ventilation air is among the green features of the unusual trapezoid-shaped building. Amenities include sleeping quarters, cafeteria, laboratories, and classrooms.
The center's ‘Winter Skies: Aurora and Astronomy in Churchill' program will operate February 28-Mar 5, 2013 and Jan 30-Feb 4 and Feb 27-Mar 4 in 2014. Evening talks by an astronomer are followed by leisurely viewing of the northern lights from the warm comfort of the center's enclosed viewing lounge, which is covered by an eight-foot-diameter clear-acrylic dome, or from an open-air, second-story deck that wraps around a corner of the streamlined building.
During daylight hours, guests can snowshoe, experience a dogsled ride, visit the Eskimo Museum, and ride a snowmobile into nearby woods for a presentation on "snow ecology" and winter wildlife. Visitors often glimpse arctic hare, arctic fox, ptarmigan, and caribou. Cost is $1,059 Canadian (approximately $1,059 US).
Price includes lodging in four-person dormitory-style bunk-bed rooms with shared baths, excursions, lectures, local transportation, and three cafeteria meals daily. Linens are provided, but toiletries are not. Tour prices don't cover transportation from home to Churchill.
For comprehensive information about Manitoba's "accessible arctic" and its attractions, contact Travel Manitoba at (800) 665-0040; www.everythingchurchill.com