Chasing Lady Aurora – 10 Things I Would Do Differently.
Witnessing the Northern Lights has been on my bucket list for years now, and for most people the concept is still a bit of a mystery. Admittedly it’s not the easiest (or cheapest) light show to hunt down, but once you’re in the ‘auroral oval’ i.e. The Arctic Circle, they appear more frequently than you would think.
But… What are they exactly? Without throwing too many science terms at you or quoting Wikipedia… As simply put as I can - When you see the lights, you’re actually seeing charged energy (also called plasma and solar wind) that has been released from the sun the previous day. Once it reaches the earth it gets pulled to the magnetic poles (because it’s charged) and reacts with the gasses (mainly oxygen and nitrogen) in the atmosphere, causing it to ‘dance’ in different colors. Hence the lights are mostly only visible around the Arctic Circle. The strength of the Aurora is dependent on solar wind (which is that plasma/charged energy we were talking about earlier). The most common places to view them are: Alaska, Russia, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Scotland, Finland, Iceland, Greenland and Northern Canada. The months when they’re visible is usually from September up until April, the reason being is that they only occur at nighttime. And during the summer months in the Arctic Circle, the midnight sun makes it impossible to get a completely dark night.
This January, I was fortunate enough to catch Mother Nature’s fireworks in the town of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories of Canada. It was a truly magical experience, and when you’ve seen them, you just can’t stop at once! – That light show is addictive! And here’s 10 things I would do differently the second time around:
1. Try to go in April or September.
I headed up North towards the end of January. Not ideal timing… I know… It was during peak winter and one night the temperature dropped to minus 40 degrees C.
It’s not that cold everywhere while aurora hunting.
Canada is extremely cold as it is during the winter months… And I decided to go up North during its’ peak… I deserved it really *sigh*.
But honestly once those lights start dancing, you can’t feel a thing anyway, it’s breathtaking and you’re too engrossed in them to notice anything else. Having said that, the rest of my trip would have been more comfortable had it been a few (…or 40) degrees C warmer, not to mention I would have looked so much better in all my pictures had I not been so bundled up. Another added advantage is that the lakes won’t be frozen and nothing is better than a reflection of those lights on the water.
2. Don’t go just for the lights, and don’t rush the trip.
I had major tunnel vision when I left for the North. I wanted to see that green tornado and didn’t care about anything else. But the harsh reality is, you might be very unlucky and have a bad week of weather. So instead of rushing the trip, staying for only 3 nights and being stressed the entire time. Take a week out of your schedule and get the full northern experience. I’m talking snowshoeing, snowmobiling, dog sledding, ice fishing, aurora hunting etc. It’s really a winter wonderland and a lot of it is untouched and undiscovered.
Picking the right tour is crucial. First thing you need to decide is whether to go on a viewing or a hunt. I would definitely recommend a hunt – the difference being is in the latter you drive around with an aurora hunter who is constantly checking satellites for cloud cover and the aurora forecast, which betters your chances of seeing the lights. The nature of Lady Aurora is such that she appears for a certain amount of time (this varies, it can be from 15 minutes to 3+ hours, it entirely depends on how strong she is at the time), and then fades and moves on. It’s not so much about camping out, as chasing down to be honest. With an aurora viewing, you are taken on a camping ground organized by the tour company, usually on frozen lakes as there is nothing to obstruct the view, to relax under the sky in heated teepees.
3. Get to know the Natives.
I was very fortunate to have a native aurora hunter throughout my trip, without whom my experience would have been very different. The knowledge that they have about the land, its’ history, the culture and the movement of the lights is what made my trip. Truly an educational experience, as they understand the earth better than most.
4. Pay more attention to the stars.
It never occurred to me how detached from the earth we are when we live in the city. I’ve never quite seen a sky so full of stars before in my life. You can see everything up there! The milky way, the big dipper, the joy of being right under the north star. It’s all so surreal. Star gazing is a must.
5. Stay warm.
Bundle up, at all costs. It’s not fun to be cold, and once that arctic chill gets into your bones, it’s really difficult to warm up again.
6. Don’t depend too much on forecasts.
I was driving myself crazy checking the aurora, solar and weather forecast every day. The truth of the matter is Mother Nature in the north is very unpredictable and even when the aurora forecast says it’s weak it could be strong, and when the weather forecast says it’s clear, it could get cloudy. However, if you have a clear night the chances of seeing lady aurora are very high, whether she dances for you or not, is a different story – that depends on solar wind. But that truly magical moment… Is when she does.
7. Take an extra camera battery.
It’s shocking how much the cold wears them out! Mine died every half hour. You’ll also need a tripod and a DSLR preferably with a wide angle lens. The settings I used were on manual live view: Shutter speed between 15-30 seconds. ISO between 1000-3200. Aperture of f3.2. Once you’re all set it’s pretty fool proof, you just need to click.
8. Don’t think it’s exactly like the pictures.
Because it’s not. It’s actually very different. And all those videos you see are time lapses - Lady Aurora takes her time in dancing and fading out. The colors are a lot brighter in pictures; in real life it’s more of a colored mystical glow lighting up the sky. It’s not better or worse, just different. But oh, when it dances… There’s no picture that does that moment justice. No sir.
9. Don’t panic if you don’t see anything on the first few nights.
It’s nice to have something to compare the sky to when you finally see how much Lady Aurora lights up the sky.
10. Take it all in.
Take a few pictures – yes, definitely. But then stop. Lie down on that frozen lake with your massive parka. Look up at the sky and just take it all in, before Sleeping Beauty fades out, and the curtains close on those magnificent Midnight Lights.