What does it feel like to see the northern lights dance above you in the remote subarctic? Many have described the experience as a humbling one; an awe-inspiring event that leaves one feeling so, so small in the grand scheme of our magnificent universe. And yet, in that moment of humility, there may also be an overwhelming sense of significance. Therein lies the magic of the aurora borealis.
What are the northern lights?
The aurora borealis has long been a phenomenon shrouded in mystery and intrigue. As a wonder of the natural world, the northern lights been the subject of many a poems and stories, while Inuit mythology says that the flickering, moving lights are the spirits of the deceased, playing a game of ball using a walrus skull.
There are still several aspects of the aurora borealis that have yet to be explained, but we now know that the phenomenon is caused by geomagnetic storms that cause solar wind from the sun to move toward the earth. Luckily, our magnetic field protects the planet and in turn, causes a collision of atoms and molecules into the atmosphere. These tiny light sources, protons, then make up the aurora that can be seen with the naked eye in the zone called the "Auroral Oval".
When can you see the northern lights?
For reasons that are still relatively unknown, the northern lights tend to be stronger and more visible in the cold months - particularly February and March. That's not to say you can't or won't see the lights in other months. To see the northern lights, the following criteria must be met:
1. Increase in activity and solar storms on the sun
2. Clear skies
3. Location in Auroral Oval, or a high KP index
4. Absence of the moon and other light sources
So why is Churchill, Manitoba one of the best places to see the lights? Situated just right in the Auroral Oval, the KP index need only be a "1" or higher in order to see the aurora.
How can you view the northern lights in Churchill?
At the Churchill Northern Studies Centre
This operational research Centre provides a more affordable option for those seeking northern lights. Being 30 minutes outside of the town of Churchill, it also provides ideal conditions for viewing the night sky.
When the northern lights come out, the lights in the Centre are shut off to prevent any light pollution. There are a few options for viewing the aurora borealis, from the heated dome at the top of the Centre to the outdoor observation deck. Photographers may prefer to shoot from the ground level to get foreground subjects in their photos.
Over dinner at RAW:churchill
If you take pride in travelling for food, allow me to introduce you to the sensory delight that is RAW:churchill. Set inside the walls of the 300-year-old Prince of Wales Fort, diners are treated to a multi-course gourmet meal developed by Chef Mandel Hitzer, while northern lights dance overhead.
But the journey is half the experience. Step aboard the massive Tundra Buggy and journey across the rugged terrain of the Churchill River, where the tides have formed ice ridges that the Tundra Buggy must travel over. Upon arriving at the Fort, you will be greeted by a costumed interpreter who will deliver a lively monologue about life in the fort during the fur trading days of yesteryear.
The heated structure, designed by RAW: Gallery, glows from within the walls of the fort and beckons in the hungry and cold for culinary treats; an otherworldly feel that is accentuated by the orange jumpsuits worn by staff.
And what to say about the food? It lives up to the hype. While the menu changes each year, you can expect unusual and sophisticated flavours that are unlike anything you've ever tried.
After your meal, you will have the opportunity to view the lights from within the structure itself or from outside the tent. The experience is capped off with a trek across the river in Tundra Buggy to see if the lights are out to play.
There are two ways to get your seat at the table, either by purchasing an individual ticket and booking your hotel independently, or by booking a package through Frontiers North. Both options include round trip transportation from the town of Churchill to Prince of Wales Fort.
By Tundra Buggy with Frontiers North
Photo by: Interpretive Guide Mike Gere Photography
Should you choose to not include RAW: Churchill in your itinerary, Frontiers North Adventures also offers a Northern Lights and Winter Nights Adventure that departs from Winnipeg, where most northern lights viewing happens from their oh-so-cozy Aurora Lounge.
From the Aurora Pod and Aurora Dome
Book your northern lights trip with Nat Hab and get exclusive access to the warm and comfortable Aurora Pod, which has been specially designed for viewing the Aurora Borealis with 360-degree views of the sky via innovative glass construction and cushioned seats.
A Nat Hab trip will also bring you to the Churchill Hotel's prized Aurora Domes, where you can spend the night relaxing in the lounge or heading up to one of two viewing domes to see the lights.