Seeing the lights in Canada

Canada is the ideal place to see the northern lights, with viewings across the country from October to March, says Stuart Forster

Like the spectacle we’re hoping to view tonight, the campfire flames dance, flicker and warm our souls. Members of our small group gaze expectantly upward from high-backed Adirondack chairs ringing the fire while the rest of us set cameras onto tripods.

Tonight’s conditions are ideal for viewing the northern lights and, excitedly, we’re willing the phenomenon to appear.

Here in northern Manitoba, as with other destinations across Canada, the aurora borealis can be seen for much of the year. The exception is midsummer, when daylight’s enduring brightness makes sighting the northern lights as tricky as watching a feature film screened outdoors under the midday sun. Now that it’s late August, and autumn is fast approaching, the aurora puts on a near-nightly show.

Wrapped in layers, and wowed by the occasional distant howls of wolves, we’re ready to follow a day of bountiful fishing at Gangler’s Sub-Arctic (ganglersadventures.com) with a lengthy session of aurora viewing. The sky is clear – a prerequisite for seeing the northern lights.

Well over 600 miles north of Winnipeg, this remote fly-in lodge is far removed from the light pollution which makes seeing the aurora borealis tricky in urban areas.Aurora hunting is a way of appreciating the beauty of the northern wilderness as well as the star-swathed night sky whose full magnificence is rarely seen by city dwellers.

“There!” points one of our group. Heads bob and turn, seeking a first glimpse of the northern lights.

A gloved finger points out a low cloud scudding above treetops. Dismissive groans and laughter express collective disappointment as the search continues.

“Look!” utters a wonderstuck voice minutes later. High in the sky, a white, ghost-like swirl gains intensity. “I thought the northern lights were green or even red, yellow and purple,” says one of our party.

“This is just the beginning of the show,” comes the answer as a glimmering band grows and takes a greenish tone that’s even more pronounced when viewed through my camera’s lens.
After what seems like initial shyness the aurora rolls and twists, fanning out and shimmering in bands across the night sky

Aurora Borealis and Canada

North camp
The sky burns bright above the gaze of campers
North camp2
Night sky appears to glow green due to the Aurora Borealis

Canada is home to between 80% and 90% of the accessible land inside the northern auroral oval, the region around the geomagnetic pole that experiences the most frequent and brightest auroral displays. Vast swathes of the sky are free from light pollution.

The phenomenon is caused by charged particles emitted from the sun interacting with Earth’s atmosphere, mainly over the magnetic poles.

Oxygen causes particles to grow green or red while purples and blues are the result of interactions with nitrogen.

Solar activity rises and falls in multi-year cycles and will be peaking until 2026.Consequently, experts are predicting frequent and intense auroral displays, making the coming years ideal for planning a holiday to view the northern lights.

First Nations experiences

Indigenous legends surround the northern lights. Travellers may hear some of these during First Nations aurora viewing tours.

In the Northwest Territories, B. Dene Adventures bdene.com invites guests to experience storytelling with Dene elders, traditional drumming and eat fish cooked over a fire while waiting for the aurora.

With Northstar Adventures northstaradventures.ca, holidaymakers can hunt the aurora with a Dene guide while listening to stories and legends.

The Indigenous-owned Aurora Village auroravillage.com has 21 traditional teepees and offers viewing experiences along with daytime activities including snowshoeing. Heated outdoor seating pivots to present 360-degree views of the night sky.

Where to visit

November into April in Alberta, Manitoba, the Northwest Territories and The Yukon, making them among the most popular aurora viewing destinations. Aurora Pod nathab.com and Aurora Domes auroradomes.ca are designed to maximise northern lights viewing experiences in Churchill, Manitoba.

In the Northwest Territories, low humidity is one factor in the northern lights being visible up to 240 nights a year.

Across Canada, 17 dark sky preserves present opportunities for visitors to appreciate star constellations in addition to the northern lights.

Jasper Dark Sky Preserve, in Alberta, hosts an annual Dark Sky Festival jasperdarksky.travel every October.

Numerous aurora-viewing tours depart from Whitehorse. Staying at Mount Logan EcoLodge mountloganlodge.com near Haines Junction in the Yukon presents opportunities to view the northern lights by the warmth of a fireside.

On Canada’s east coast, head to Newfoundland and Labrador. The best chances for good viewing are remote spots away from light pollution. Popular gathering spots include the coast, the national parks and the northern reaches. The province’s large tracts of wilderness, accessible with a guide, are also worth the effort to get there.

Where to book it

First Class Holidays
The seven-day Vancouver and the Yukon’s Northern Lights holiday starts from £2,449pp. Included are return flights from the UK, six nights’ accommodation, winter clothing rental, sightseeing, transfers in Whitehorse and three aurora viewing sessions. fcholidays.com  0161 888 5606