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Aurora Borealis: The greatest show on Earth

By Mark Stevens

The first time I saw the Northern Lights – Aurora Borealis – I was lying on a beach in Ontario’s Killbear Provincial Park.

Beams of light swirled gracefully across the sky, curlicuing and filigreeing the night. Lime and pink, green and hints of indigo. A watercolor masterpiece that moved.

But this was the equivalent of a photocopy of a photocopy, a dim reflection of the true glory of the greatest show on Earth.

It was the end of August – not the best time for viewing – and our location hardly even qualified as “North.”

To truly experience this spectacle you have to go really north, ideally between December and April.

And it has to be dark.

Full moon? Forget about it. Cloudy sky? Not going to happen.

Increase your chance of success by choosing Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories. They claim an average of 240 good sighting nights a year. In the past five years people who’ve given it the old college try three nights in a row had a 95% chance of success.

Enjoy the spectacle at Aurora Village, chiefly composed of a campground of tipis where you lounge in specially designed heated viewing chairs as interpretive guides offer insights in a smorgasbord of languages.

The only question is what to do with the rest of your time – best viewing times are the four hours around midnight. Maybe curl up before a blazing fire, cuddling with your significant other.

Or raise the adventure bar in the Yukon.

In February you could cheer on the leaders at the finish line of one of the world’s most grueling dogsled races, a 1,000-mile trek called Yukon Quest. Then join the celebration while you await the opening curtain of the feature act.

Or accompany the visual extravaganza with Cajun, Celtic, Blues and traditional First Nations offerings at Whitehorse’s Frostbite Music Festival in Whitehorse. Then head out to Takhini Hot Springs for a ringside seat in mineral hot springs. Doesn’t get much better than that.

Unless you like a bit of history thrown in. Cheer for the winner of the beard and moustache-growing contest, toss back sourdough pancakes while watching true Northerners tossing chain saws or throwing axes for praise and prizes. Take in the Can-Can dancers. One writer calls the Sourdough Rendezvous Mardi Gras with Mukluks.

Then turn your heads skyward. And prepare to be dazzled.

While the explanation is pretty pedestrian – Aurora Borealis is caused by solar storms and the resulting solar winds – the results are anything but.

Sure, those greens and reds are just charged oxygen molecules, those blues, purples and violets mere nitrogen. On one level they’re just an example of static electricity in action.

On another level – according to First Nations legend – they are manifestations of the dancing spirits of departed loved ones.

It’s a much more satisfying and descriptive explanation for the greatest show on – and above – Earth.

Photo© Yellowknife/Northwest Territories Tourism

Aurora Borealis: The greatest show on Earth