Updated: Jul 17
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 have been the subject of many 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 science tells us 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?
Churchill has on average, over 300 nights of Aurora activity throughout the year. And while they can be viewed in any season, the Northern Lights tend to be most strong and visible during the depths of winter - particularly in February and March when the skies are clear (most precipitation has fallen) and dark. To see the Northern Lights, the following criteria must be met:
Increase in activity and solar storms on the sun
No cloud cover
Location in Auroral Oval, or a high KP index
Absence of the moon and other light sources
So why is Churchill, Manitoba one of the best places to see the Northern 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 station provides an affordable, fully-guided option for those travellers 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 locations 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.
By Tundra Buggy with Frontiers North Adventures
Frontiers North Adventures offers a Northern Lights and Winter Nights package that departs from Winnipeg, where most northern lights viewing happens from their oh-so-cozy Thanadelthur Lounge, which is situated away from town on the other side of the frozen Churchill River. Included in the itinerary is a visit to Dan's Diner, a pop-up Tundra Buggy dining hall hidden in the wilderness and under the northern lights, where guests enjoy a multi-course, world-class meal prepared by Canadian Chef Jared Fossen that features regional and local fare. Round out your days with a guided snowshoeing adventure and tours at some of the museums and interpretive centres in town.
From the Aurora Pod and Aurora Dome
Book your northern lights trip with Natural Habitat Adventures 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. The fully guided group trip also brings you to the Aurora Domes, where you can spend the night relaxing in the lounge or heading up to one of two Plexiglass-topped viewing domes to see the lights. Natural Habitat also takes guests on an adventure aboard a custom-built snow coach deep into the woods to a secluded cabin for viewing.
For the independent traveller
Discover Churchill offers a variety of formats for northern lights viewing with an emphasis on small group sizes and one-on-one learning about photography from lead guide Alex de Vries. Join Discover Churchill on a multi-night, guided tour that'll take you to a variety of locations to shoot the aurora, including a tipi in the boreal forest.
Best suited for the DIY traveller, Nanuk Operations offers Nights Under Lights, a guided evening photography outing for the chance to shoot the aurora with the backdrop of a yurt tucked deep in the boreal forest. All guests get a clear view of the lights from the yurt's large, wrap-around deck, and can head indoors to warm up near the fire with a night cap in hand.
Beyond Boreal Expeditions is a female-owned, Indigenous tour company that takes guests around Churchill on night-only excursions to photograph the lights from owner Tiffany Spence's favourite locations.
Further information on Manitoba and Churchill can be found at www.travelmanitoba.com.