Northern Exposure: Possibly the Best Place on Earth to see the Northern Lights
By Janis Turk, Contributing Editor
I must have been an Inuk (Eskimo), in another life. I was born for big fluffy flurries of snow, frozen tundra, frosty Arctic winds and glacial white landscapes—not hot summers in the South. So, sitting in an igloo in the -17°F midnight cold, 14 miles from the Canadian sub-Arctic outpost of Churchill, Manitoba, I’m in my element.
American painter Andrew Wyeth writes, “I prefer winter when you feel the bone structure of the landscape… Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.”
I think of that as I sit alone on the tundra floor. With a tiny candle stuck in the snow to light my igloo shelter in the hollow, frozen night, I can almost hear the deep-heave sounds of the icy Hudson Bay, breathing, sighing, as it expands and contracts.
Yes, beauty lies beneath; but, oh, the glories above—especially the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights.
Experts say one of the best spots to see the Northern Lights is on the edge of Hudson Bay, so I spent a week on a learning vacation at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre (CNSC) where I also learned more than basic astronomy and science. We were also taught ancient Inuit legends of walrus skulls and soccer games, of frogs that freeze, and ghostly colors that swirl in the sky.
The scientist shared secrets of the universe with us in the warmth of a new, state-of-the-art research center, and then took us outside to show us what they meant.
Polar bears, Beluga whales, auroras, oh my!
Seeing the Aurora Borealis is a bucket-list dream for most world travelers, and that’s what draws visitors to Churchill each winter. But it is also known as the polar bear capital of the world.
Every autumn, the area is teeming with tundra vehicles full of folks there to see the region’s 1,200 polar bears. Others come to Churchill in summer when whale watchers are beguiled by the more than 3,000 white Belugas in the Bay. Polar bear season runs October and November, and whale season runs late June to August. But on clear nights. January to March and late August to early September, Churchill offers a stunning view of the Northern Lights.
According to Canadian travel writer Stephen A. Nelson, “The Churchill region sits right under the heavenly halo that forms the Northern Lights, and the CNSC, on the site of the abandoned Churchill rocket range, provides an ideal location away from the city lights and right under the aurora oval,” attracting astronomers, scientists, photographers, volunteer workers, locals and tourists alike.
Never Whistle at the Northern Lights
The Inuit name for the Northern Lights means “the trail of those playing soccer,” for legends tell of spirits kicking the skull of a walrus like a soccer ball in the sky. Other legends tell of how the Aurora seem to sing or hum, and some say it is bad luck to whistle at the Northern Lights.
I like that legend best as I listen to the wind whistle boldly at the lights as it moves through the comb-like branches of quirky evergreen trees that edge the bay. Their foliage only grows on on one side because strong northerly winds hit the other—it’s called the “Krumholz effect, meaning “crooked wood.” The trees look Wes Craven-like when silhouetted against the spooky glow of the Northern Light skies.
Scientists at the Northern Studies Centre explain that the bright dancing lights of the Aurora are actually collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth’s atmosphere describe how Auroral displays appear in many colors, although pale green and pink are the most common.
When first I see the lights, I am disappointed, “Is that all there is?” The Aurora seem like puffy white pillars of smoke snaking through the night like quiet cyclones, gossamer and hard to distinguish in the frosty dark. Is that a cloud? Is that a light? They are not like the neon green streaks that show in photos.
But as I get to know the lights better night after night, I begin to notice the subtle, gentle, emerald cast they give and the way they move like fingers from a giant hand of God. When the clouds recede, they seem to come alive in the night sky, dancing wildly, dotted with stars, red sometimes, blue sometimes, and always a mystery to behold.
By the third cloudless night alone with the lights, I am utterly enchanted. They twist, bulge, build and billow.
My friends and I take turns staying up late, giving the group in the Northern Studies Centre dorms a wake-up call when a particularly good display of lights begins. There is a tense anticipation leading up to it—its as if we’re waiting for a sighting of a celebrity guest who may or may not arrive in the middle of the night.
We keep vigil, like soldiers guarding camp. A flood of adrenaline warms our thick-blood veins as we wake the others and run outside to see the lights. Some of us watch the sky from a small dome in the rooftop of the warm Northern Studies Centre. Most of us stand outside, tripods sinking in the snow, as we fiddle comically with our cameras—trying to set the shutter speed with thick fingers while wearing bulky snow gloves. Our cameras capture even more colors than the naked eye can see.
No roads lead to Churchill
Reminiscent of the Alaskan town in the television series “Northern Exposure,” the Canadian outpost of Churchill is a friendly place where you’ll see the entire cast of local characters, from the postman to the grocer to the polar bear police, come into the local Seaport Hotel diner at least twice a day. It all feels exciting—friendly—as if we’re all hitchhikers on the edge of the galaxy, trying to catch a ride out.
It’s not possible to reach to the remote outpost of Churchill, Manitoba (population 813) by car. The tiny town is an isolated community on Hudson Bay to which there is limited access only by train (VIA Rail) or a small plane (Calm Air).
Even by air it is about a two-hour flight from Winnipeg, and airfare is expensive, so getting there requires something of a commitment to the adventure—but it’s well worth the effort.
Still, there is plenty to do during an afternoon in town, too, including visits to museums and shops, and the area offers dog-sledding, snowmobiling, snow-shoeing, cross-country skiing, igloo building and more.
Days (and nights) were never dull during my week in Churchill, and I learned fascinating things. For instance, scientists at the Northern Studies Centre teach of animals that have so well adapted to their extreme habitat that they can become one with it. There is even a type of North American wood frog that can actually freeze without dying: 65% of its body water can freeze, yet after outdoor temperatures warm, it thaws and moves on as if nothing ever happened.
Travelers who think they’re not built for a subzero sub-Arctic vacation should think again. Like that tenacious little tree frog, you’re not going to freeze to death in Churchill or at the warm Northern Studies Research Centre. You’ll adapt and move on. Still, the Northern Lights will forever change you; you’ll never see the winter sky the same way again.
Whether you’re drawn to Belugas, polar bears, or the mysterious Northern Lights, Churchill offers the ideal learning vacation location. Home to great beauty year-round, Churchill is not always cold and ice-covered. No matter when you go, and no matter what you hope to see there, Manitoba is marvelous and well worth the trip, even if you’re not an Inuk at heart, like me.
Churchill Northern Studies Centre
The Churchill Northern Studies Centre offers programs on birding, Beluga whales, wildflowers, subarctic ecology, northern lights & astronomy and, of course, polar bears. Each five to seven day course is a true learning experience led by professional scientists and expert guides.
Participants will develop a deeper understanding and appreciation of the culture, history and wildlife of the Churchill area through daily interaction with visiting scientists and fellow travelers. There are no tests and no grades, but guided tours and presentations open new doors to learning for even the most seasoned traveler.
All meals, shuttles to and from the Churchill airport/train depot, local tours, wildlife viewing opportunities and presentations are included in the course price.
Accommodations are new and quite comfortable, with dormitory-style rooms (each sleeping up to 4 people during peak season) and immaculate shared washrooms with private showers. Food there is fresh and homemade, and the whole center is entirely green and eco-sensitive. For more on Learning Vacations and the Northern Lights, check out the CNSC website: www.churchillscience.ca
To learn more about Churchill and all it as to offer, including museums, shops, dogsled trips, B&Bs, tundra buggy trips and more, visit these websites: www.churchill.ca, and www.everythingchurchill.com
Calm Air International has daily direct flights from Winnipeg. The trip takes about two hours. Tel:1-800-839-2256. Visit www.calmair.com. VIA Rail has trains departing twice a week from Union Station in Winnipeg. The trip travels a scenic route and takes about two days Tel: 1 888 VIA-RAIL (1 888 842-7245): www.viarail.ca. For more information and great deals on rail travel to Churchill, visit www.viarail.ca/en/deals
Winnipeg is on the Way
To get to and from Churchill, one must travel through Winnipeg. Be sure to stay at the Hilton Suites near the airport for easy access to flight connections, and spend time exploring the museums, shops, restaurants and attractions of the lovely Canadian metropolis of Winnipeg. www.tourismwinnipeg.com
Day of the Dogs
Want the thrill of a lifetime? Spend an afternoon dog sledding across the vast winter white. With Blue Sky Expeditions dog sledding teams, you’ll get a real treat. Enjoy not only the rush of dog sledding but getting to know the wonderful well-treated dogs and their loving owners. I’ve been on dog sledding adventures before, but I’ve never met such kind and hospitable dog-sled owners with such a deep affection for their animals and the land. www.blueskymush.com