Winter is the best time to see Canada’s dramatic northern lights. This excerpt, from an article that first appeared in Vancouver’s Georgia Straight, describes a recent viewing in Churchill, Manitoba

Churchill light show/Travel Manitoba

Churchill light show/Travel Manitoba


We’d been flying for hours. In the row ahead, two American hunters on their way up to Baker Lake to bag a few musk ox adjusted their large rumps in the turboprop’s small seats.

My friend Jo gave up reading the inflight magazine, with its ads for romantic weekend escapes to Edmonton, and pressed her forehead against the little window to study the lake-pocked landscape of northern Manitoba, which was mottled brown-and-white as far as the eye could see, as if God had spread a tattered lace tablecloth across the wide plain.

“I’m pretty sure we won’t be bumping into Rod Stewart up here,” she said dryly.

The day before, in the elevator of Winnipeg’s elegant Fairmont Hotel, we’d had the adolescent thrill of running into the aging rock star–or at least his body double–on the way to a sold-out concert at the new MTS Centre. Now we were 1,700 kilometres north of the city, closer to Nunavut than the corner of Portage and Main, hoping for a less random encounter with the stars. We were heading for Churchill, looking for a front-row seat at that dramatic and long-running show called the aurora borealis.

It was certainly not a sure thing. Cloud cover, moon phases, nuclear arms in North Korea–there were plenty of variables to confound us. And you could catch the act in other places, of course. I grew up in northern B.C. and already knew one version of the show from childhood. But Churchill is to the northern lights what Broadway is to musical theatre: the shows are big, the actors are reliable, and you never know when you’re going to encounter an award-winning performance.

The plain little port community, which claims to be “the polar bear capital of the world”, is arguably the best place in the world to view the lights, centred as it is under the northern “auroral oval”, the region with the highest and most intense auroral activity. The kaleidoscopic light show, which peaks in the winter months, is caused when the sun spits electrically charged particles at the earth. When that solar saliva trickles into the upper atmosphere and excites its oxygen and nitrogen, the results are colourful, to say the least.

Read the rest of this article here.