Chasing the Northern Lights in Churchill

Posted March 23, 2022 | Author Michal Grajewski

Chasing the northern lights is a lot like going on a fishing trip; there are no guarantees that you’re going catch the 'big one.' Predicting when this natural phenomenon that depends on super-heated gasses travelling millions of kilometers across the solar system from the sun to Earth’s higher latitudes will appear isn’t an exact science, it’s a probability game. All you can do is set yourself up for as much success as you can in advance. Like fishing – you go to the best spot on the lake at the right time of day using the right lures and then you wait.

A visit to Manitoba means travelling through Treaty 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 Territory and through communities who are signatories to Treaties 6 and 10. It encompasses the original lands of the Anishinaabeg, Anish-Ininiwak, Dakota, Dene, Ininiwak and Nehethowuk and the homeland of the Métis. To learn more about Manitoba's Treaty areas, click here.

Because of Churchill’s prime location under the northern hemisphere’s auroral zone, the ring-shaped area around the north pole where the lights occur, it is one of, if not the best place on earth to view the lights. In the 1950s, Churchill was ground zero for bleeding-edge science and research on the aurora borealis conducted by the Canadian and US governments. Additionally Churchill offers a unique combination of location, geography, amenities, access and activities not really available anywhere else in the world for northern lights viewing.

Frontiers North Adventures offers the fantastic Photo Adventure: Northern Lights in Churchill tour that includes local knowledge paired with experienced northern lights photographers to guide you. This tour is the experience of a lifetime to check this elusive box off your bucket list.

The tour begins in Winnipeg at The Planetarium where we were treated to an Experience the Aurora presentation. It was followed by a private guided tour of the Manitoba Museum to learn about Manitoba’s rich cultural and geological history. The following day the group departed for Churchill.

Frontiers North Adventures offers gear rentals, so no matter where you hail from, you can be sure you’ll be dressed for whatever weather Mother Nature presents you with. As our interpretive guide and expert aurora photographer Ward Cameron pointed out, as long as you’re dressed appropriately for the “invigorating briskness”, you can spend hours outside in comfort in northern Manitoba in winter.

Accommodations in Churchill were at the Tundra Inn, which offered comfortable rooms and friendly staff, which was the standard everywhere we went in town. Continental breakfast afforded a level of flexibility in the mornings which was appreciated especially after late nights. Lunches and dinners were served at the nearby Seaport Restaurant with a variety of menu items that did not disappoint.

The auroras occur at all hours of the day, but obviously the only time to see them are at night. This provided the perfect opportunity to spend our days taking part in unique cultural activities around Churchill, such as visiting the site of the now-decommissioned Churchill Rocket Range, visiting the fantastic local museums, and a snowshoeing excursion out to Button Bay. A dog-sledding experience through the boreal forest at Wapusk Adventures was another daytime highlight.

One of the most invaluable parts of this adventure was the northern lights photography tutorial at Fifty Eight North with veteran northern lights photographer and Frontiers North Adventures guide Mike Gere. He offered specific advice for this type of low light, long exposure photography. He went through a step-by-step guide on how to set up your camera to best capture the lights, and allowed plenty of time to answer questions from the entire group. Mike’s passion about photographing the northern lights was infectious, telling us that “Taking someone out to see the aurora for the first time is like showing someone your favourite movie for the first time”. What a great analogy – especially considering that he’s seen “that movie” thousands of times. Armed with all this knowledge, confidence and excitement, we embarked on our first evening of chasing the northern lights.

Each of the four nights that we chased the lights were at different locations around Churchill that offered unique and varied shot compositions as well as cozy places to stay warm.

Night one we ventured just south of Churchill to Nanuk Operations’ modern yurt in the boreal forest. This large, heated yurt was a nice place to sit and enjoy individually-boxed charcuterie snacks and a glass of wine. It was a perfect setting for the tour group to get to know each other and for the shutterbugs to compare settings on their cameras. And no matter where we were each night, guides Ward or Mike helped to troubleshoot settings, offer advice and answer any questions.

At around midnight we got our first taste of the northern lights. Over the treetops with the moon setting in the distance, they danced across the sky for over an hour. I’ve seen northern lights before but not in such a still, quiet, beautiful setting. There was no big city light pollution either and because of how crisp the air was, the optics were incredible. A particularly winding ribbon of light in the sky appeared to move like fingers running through harp strings or the wake behind a canoe. Unreal. And this was only night one!

Our second night took us across the Churchill River via a Tundra Buggy® where we started our evening with a dinner at Dan’s Diner. We all thoroughly enjoyed this uniquely-curated meal in a skylight-equipped Tundra Buggy® “dining car” on the banks of the frozen Churchill River. Each course was beautifully-plated, the ingredients were incredible and the dishes were out of this world. The winner for me was the smoked fish on toast: the scallops were exactly how I like them, having simply been introduced to the pan on each side. The courses were perfectly portioned so that by the time the apple tarte tatin with made-from-scratch ice cream arrived, we still had room. After dinner we all went outside where a nearby bonfire was prepared so we could to enjoy the scotch tasting portion of our evening and, as if on cue, more northern lights. How about that for dinner and a show?

On our third night, the evening took us out to Wapusk Adventures in the boreal forest. A tipi in the yard was lit dimly from within and made for a beautiful foreground to our photos.

When the lights appeared that night, nothing could prepare me for the horizon-to-horizon, full 360-degree sea of green and blue waves swirling above us. We ran around like keystone cops setting up shot after shot after shot. The lights were so active I joked that you could just randomly point your camera anywhere in the sky and get a great photograph.

I recall looking over to everyone staring at the sky, their faces lit green from above, grinning ear-to-ear. I can count on one hand the number of times in my life that I’ve been overcome by emotion simply looking at something in nature and this was definitely one of those times. Beyond that, it’s hard to describe what we all experienced that night. Even our local driver described the show that night as “the best aurora he’d seen all season.” Hard to argue with him on that one.

Our last night chasing the lights was at the Thanadelthur Lounge out across the Churchill River. Similar to Dan’s Diner, this is another modified Tundra Buggy® that includes an outdoor viewing deck on the roof, accessed via an outdoor spiral staircase. A nearby igloo lit from within offered more unique shot composition opportunities.

Whether you’re an experienced photographer, or just want to take photos with your newer smartphone, Frontiers North Adventures' Photo Adventure: Northern Lights in Churchill might be the best way you can experience the northern lights. From the daytime activities that enrich your understanding of the north and give cultural, historical and scientific context to the aurora borealis, to the expert advice you get from experienced photographers during your evenings, the whole tour is full and rewarding.

During our adventure, the guide Ward said, “You don’t come to Churchill to check something off your bucket list, you come to Churchill to add to it.” I’m already doing mental math on how and when I can visit with my family to see beluga whales in the summer. So beware, come to Churchill at your own peril because it’s a slippery slope that’ll keep you wanting to come back for more.

Travel Manitoba staff was hosted by Frontiers North Adventures, who did not review nor approve this story.

About The Author

When it comes to the passion I have for my home province, I unabashedly wear my heart on my sleeve, jumping at any opportunity to celebrate Manitoba's people, places & stories. Feel free to reach out with ideas/questions at mgrajewski@travelmanitoba.com

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