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A Front Row Seat to the Aurora Borealis

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when leaving the country became more of a challenge than a vacation, travelling within Canada became more popular for those looking to get away. Now, even with border restrictions easing, it is still a fantastic idea to explore and appreciate the phenomenal destinations within our beautiful country! There are many reasons people travel from all over the world to visit Canada.

The Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights, should be on your bucket list as a destination. Canadians will be proud to know that the best spot on Earth to view the Aurora Borealis is in The Northwest Territories. Bright blue, vibrant green and natural purple lights shimmer through the sky during nature’s best light show. No two Aurora Borealis’ ever look the same, which means every night is a unique experience. The ideal viewing time from the Northwest Territories (NWT) is throughout the winter, into the first few weeks of April, and late summer into late fall. It’s the perfect hidden gem within Canada’s border.

But, what is the Aurora Borealis? The sun emits a large expulsion of plasma and magnetic field from its corona, called Coronal Mass Ejections (CME). When these charged particles interact with the Earth’s magnetic field, it concentrates over the auroral oval and produces a bright colouring. Seeing the Aurora Borealis phenomenon is an experience that will live in your heart forever.

We sat down with the folks at NWT Tourism, to learn more about experiencing the Aurora Borealis.

Why is the NWT the best place to view the lights?

The Northwest Territories are home to the best Aurora Borealis in the World. The dancing lights fill the clear dark skies and can be seen 240 nights a year. The viewing conditions are unmatched, with longest performances and brightest light displays. There is a 98% possibility you will witness the Northern Lights on a clear night.

The Northwest Territories are located directly under the Auroral Oval – a concentrated area for the most intense Northern Lights activity anywhere on Earth. The strength of the magnetic poles of the Earth pulls particles from solar activity and directs them to this concentrated spot on the globe.  Northwest Territories get a front row seat to the Aurora, being positioned right underneath it, which appear more than 100 kilometers above the surface of the Earth and bright enough to be seen from space.

Nowhere in the world has better Aurora-viewing conditions than the Northwest Territories. There is low humidity which means very little cloud cover, so the entire night sky is a blank canvas to be filled with the colours of the dancing Aurora. Vibrant and powerful Auroras in the Northwest Territories can be green, blue, purple, red, yellow, and even pink and can make faint sounds like claps, crackles, and static.

What are the types of travel experiences available to view the lights?

You can really choose your own adventure – there are so many ways to experience the lights.

Watch the heavens come alive from a hot tub at a luxury wilderness lodge, around a campfire at a rustic cabin, or even from a busy downtown Yellowknife street. Take in the world’s greatest light show from a picturesque teepee or igloo village. Chase the Aurora by snowmobile, Bombardier, or dogsled. Or, if you prefer, paddle onto a glassy lake, and watch the lights dance above and all around you.

 In Yellowknife, Inuvik and many other Northern communities, guides can take you on customized nightly “Aurora hunting” excursions, chauffeuring you far from city lights to optimal viewing spots. Join an expert Dene or Inuvialuit guide, who can teach you about the role the Aurora play in local legends. Or hop on a bush plane and fly out to any number of world-class Aurora-watching lodges, where you can play all day and marvel at the Northern Lights all night.

Stay at a comfortable hotel in one of several Northwest Territories communities. Select from a range of daytime activities – from driving on an ice road to driving a dog team – completely outfitted for the great outdoors. By night, travel out of town by bus or minibus to a single location, or one of several key viewing spots along the highway, for an awe-inspiring evening of Aurora viewing.

If your dream of winter is a snug log cabin with amber light glowing behind frosty windows, book a winter package at a Northwest Territories lodge. Most activities are included along with winter gear. During the day, sample cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, Dene net fishing, dogsledding, or snowmobiling. Then warm up in the sauna or hot tub before you tuck into a delicious home-cooked meal. And if you should doze off before the Aurora appears, your host will wake you to catch the light show. Bundle up, bring a hot drink, and get ready for Mother Nature to put on a show.

3. What is the significance of the Aurora to the Indigenous Peoples?

The Dene of the NWT place the origins of the Aurora in a fire built by the world’s creator. It’s believed they remain in the sky as a reminder that the creator is still watching over us. Cree legends say the Aurora are the spirits of the dead who remain in the sky, trying to communicate with their loved ones here on Earth. Inuvialuit legends, like those Kisoun (former deputy commissioner of the Northwest Territories) grew up hearing, also say the lights are the shades of those once living, playing soccer with a walrus skull or a human head.

Some say the spirit you see dancing in the Aurora is someone you’ve lost. A close family member or friend who’s passed on. Joe Bailey, a lifelong Northerner, and operator of North Star Adventures, says they’re sending a message back to Earth. “I’m okay up here now. No need to be sad. Enjoy your life, do good and one day we are going to see each other again.”

4. Do you have an example of how viewing the Aurora affects people?

For some, viewing the way the Northern sky comes alive at night awakens the creative spirit. This was exactly what happened with Roman Zavada. He decided to travel to NWT to get inspired for his latest album. He moved his piano (with the help of 6 people) under a scenic lookout giving him an unimpeded view of the Aurora. It was here that he let the Northern Lights flow through his fingers to the keys of his piano. Zavada recorded every keystroke he made throughout these nights, improvising the notes based on the sights and sounds he experienced all around him, feeling a deep connection with the lights. Zavada even inspired tourists to travel to NWT to witness the lights with his composition. The piano now sits unassumingly in the dining hall at Aurora Village, a stone’s throw from its magical perch above Prelude Lake. Read more here

You can hear Roman Zavada capture that special feeling on Résonances Boréales here

“Sometimes I started playing and all of a sudden, they showed up, So I followed them and maybe they followed me too?” – Roman Zavada

What are the other activities visitors should experience while in the Northwest Territories?

So many! NWT is a playground for exploration and adventure. Here’s a list of things to consider when you are planning your trip.

  • – Indigenous experiences: Authentic Indigenous Experiences offered by Indigenous owned and operated businesses who are members of the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada. This is the opportunity to see the Northwest Territories from the perspective of those who know it best.
  • – Road Trips: road trips through scenic, unspoiled wilderness, access to campgrounds and picnic sites.
  • – Fishing, Hunting & Paddling
  • – Winter Activities: Dogsledding, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, ice fishing, ice road tours, cross-country skiing.
  • – Nature & Wildlife: Wilderness lodges, camping, nature tours, nature photography, birding, golfing
  • – Arts & Culture: tours, workshops, cultural demonstrations  
  • – Tours: City tours, cycling tours, boat tours, hiking tours, road tours, flight tours
  • – Events: Snowking Winter Festival, Great Northern Arts Festival

Taryn Matteazzi