Northern Lights: The Sky Will Dance

Like shimmering rainbows in the night, the northern lights electrify the sky with color.
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Like shimmering rainbows in the night, the northern lights electrify the sky with color.

Even before the sound stopped ringing in my ears, I was sitting straight up in my sleeping bag, yanked fully awake out of a deep winter sleep by what had sounded like the very crust of the Earth giving away beneath me.

I was alone, camped on the ice of Lake Superior, tucked in a bay just off the north shore of Basswood Island, a part of Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin. In the -20° F cold, the lake ice was restless, booming and cracking. Although it was several feet thick and safe to camp on, the noise was disconcerting. There'd be little sleep tonight. I unzipped the tent for a look outside.

That's when I saw it. The northern lights were out. Brilliant flames of green light, tinged with orange at the edges, blazed across the northern horizon. Not soft and distant like so many other aurora displays I'd seen, this one was clear and bright, so close it seemed as if I could stir the colors with my outstretched fingers. And then there was the ice, clear in places with long stretches as smooth as a skating rink, reflecting perfectly every spear of light.

I climbed out of the tent, slipped into my boots, and began walking. I was suddenly surrounded by northern lights, above and below. The colors overhead flickered and danced in unison with those on the ice. It was like being in a kaleidoscope.

As I walked, I remembered naturalist Sigurd Olson's description of skating on a lake as the ice reflected the aurora. He wrote of gliding "through a sea of changing color caught between the streamers above and below." I tried a few skating strides in my heavy boots, but slid only a few feet. Instead, I stopped, sat down, and laid back on the ice. "At that moment," Olson wrote of lying back on his own frozen lake, "I was part of the aurora, part of its light and of the great curtain that trembled above me." I stared up into the lights until I shivered-whether from the cold or from the sheer beauty of the sky above, I couldn't say.

On every clear, dark night the northern lights, or aurora borealis, are shining somewhere in the North American sky. Fairbanks, Alaska, gets, on average, 243 displays a year; Yellowknife and Fort Smith in Canada's Northwest Territories get even more. Places as far south as Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness or Mt. Katahdin, Maine, can have 40 or 50 nights a year when the lights play in the sky. Usually, that is.

Scientists say those numbers could go up dramatically this coming summer, when solar sunspot activity, which triggers the northern lights, reaches the high point in its 11-year cycle. During the last such peak period, in 1989, the aurora was visible as far south as Alabama, Florida, and even Jamaica and Honduras.

But just how visible and intense the lights will be is an astronomical question mark. "Predicting exactly what's going to happen during a peak is like predicting the weather," says Daniel Osborne, a senior project engineer with the Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. "It is not always terribly accurate.

"Take a place like Minneapolis," he explains. "Under normal conditions, folks there can expect to see the aurora on, say, 20 percent of their nights. But that can go up to 60 or 80 percent during the maximum sunspot activity." The lights may be much more active, as well, flashing all over the sky, flickering more brilliantly, lingering for hours. Will it happen this time? "Maybe," Osborne laughs. "Maybe."

There is something comforting in the fact that even with computers and satellites, we still cannot accurately predict the northern lights. Part of their wonder lies in their mystery. Although there are auroral forecasts available by phone and on the Internet, there are no guarantees. The same night sky that was blank for hours can suddenly flare to life just as you zip the tent shut. Or a sky blazing with light can instantly go dark.

You take your chances when looking for the northern lights, but it's a search well worth pursuing. To stand under a sky shimmering like a rainbow gone wild is to stare directly into the wondrous. The beauty goes beyond science and touches the soul. "You can look at a thousand pictures of the aurora," Osborne says, "but if a picture is worth a thousand words, one sight of a real aurora is worth a thousand pictures."

Camping Room Only

At these Places, there are no long lines or expensive tickets required for the nightly show.

ALASKA

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

This is the land of the midnight sun. Dark skies don't return to the southern part of the refuge until late August, then only for a few hours. But by September, the days are shortening fast, leaving plenty of night sky for northern light viewing until the lengthening days of early May.

Auroral viewing odds: About 90 percent on a dark, clear night.

Trails of light: There is not a single maintained trail in the entire 19.6 million-acre refuge. But with so much open tundra, this is a sky watcher's paradise. Dark nights return first to the southern part of the refuge. There's good hiking and paddling along the valleys of rivers like the Sheenjek.

Skywitness report: "It was late August. We were kayaking on the Sheenjek about 60 miles above the Arctic Circle. Someone got up in the middle of the night, during those rare hours of real darkness, and yelled, 'Get up! Northern lights!' There were giant curtains of soft green light dancing up and down, doing a full-on hula with the light shimmering like grass skirts across the sky. We watched in silence until it faded away." (John Harlin, Backpacker Northwest Editor)

Contact: Box 10, 101 12th Ave., Fairbanks, AK 99701; (907) 456-0250.

ALASKA

Denali National Park

By late August, the skies are dark enough. Snow can fall any month of the year, but winter comes in earnest in late September or early October.

Auroral viewing odds: Between 60 and 75 percent on clear, dark nights.

Trails of light: Denali is a virtually trail-less wilderness. Open tundra offers huge chunks of Alaskan sky to view. If you're looking for a specific trail, consider the 37-mile Kesugi Ridge Trail in adjacent and often overlooked Denali State Park.

Skywitness report: "Just above the darkened foothills of the Alaska Range, a pale green band arched gently across the sky like a flattened rainbow. After a time, the aurora exploded to fill the entire western sky. Bright green curtains of northern lights tinged pink rippled wildly above the hills. I've seen northern lights many times, but I was shocked by the brilliance of these. There were moments when they reminded me of exploding fireworks. An electric arc. Cannon fire." (Bill Sherwonit, Alaskan photographer and author of Alaska's Accessible Wilderness)

Contact: P.O. Box 9, Denali National Park, AK 99755; (907) 683-2294.

ALASKA

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

Dark skies can be found here even in midsummer if you stay up late enough. The best viewing for hikers will be early in the season (May) and late (August and September).

Auroral viewing odds: Roughly 50-60 percent on dark, clear nights.

Trails of light: Wrangell-St. Elias, the largest national park in the world, boasts the greatest number of North American peaks above14,500 feet, as well as nine of the 16 highest mountains in the United States. That means plenty of high country for viewing the night sky. There are few hiking trails but many good "routes" like the Goodlata Peak Route, a 14-day hike with views of the park's tallest peaks as backdrops for the northern lights. You'll also find many open views from smaller peaks, as well as over lakes and from high alpine valleys.

Skywitness report: "We snuggled in our bags beneath a starry sky and watched angels and curtains, ghosts, and even a chrysalis expand and then implode into the shadows. The northern lights were shimmering ribbons of white, green, rose, blue, and orange that streaked and teased, flooded then ebbed away, as if the entire sky folded in upon itself and turned inside out in a brush stroke, a burst of smoke and mirrors." (Annie Getchell, cohost of Anyplace Wild)

Contact: P.O. Box 439, Copper Center, AK 99573; (907) 822-5234.

MAINE

Baxter State Park

Nights are dark year-round. There's snow at higher elevations by October.

Auroral viewing odds: About 40 percent on clear nights.

Trails of light: Many of the park's 175 miles of trail are heavily wooded, but 46 mountain peaks and ridges (18 reach 3,000 feet or higher) offer good viewing spots of the northern skies. Ironically, two of the best places might be in the low country: Nesowadnehuk Field, where you can camp or begin the 6.4-mile hike to Center Mountain Lean-to, and the open field at Troutbrook Farm, which is also a campground and trailhead.

Skywitness report: "I was with a pair of photographers who both came running up to me saying, 'That can't be the northern lights, can it? It doesn't look real.' But it was real. There were too many trees around to get a clear view, so we moved to where we could see at least part of the sky. It was like a huge green curtain, shimmering and surreal." (Michele J. Morris, Backpacker Senior Editor)

Contact: 64 Balsam Dr., Millinocket, ME 04462; (207) 723-5140.

MINNESOTA

Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

This is one of the most southerly areas where the lights are generally watchable. Winter snows end hiking by early November.

Auroral viewing odds: 25 to 30 percent when the sky is dark and clear.

Trails of light: For a long hike, try the 75-mile Border Route, with its many rocky overlooks and ridgetops that are ideal for sky-watching. A short hike on the Caribou Rock section of the Border Route has good backcountry and leads to particularly nice views of the sky at lookouts over Bearskin and Rose Lakes.

Skywitness report: "We were dogsledding once with a couple of friends from Siberia and camped on Four Town Lake near the western edge of the Boundary Waters. After most of us had settled into our sleeping bags, the two Russians ran around rousting everyone from their tents to show us the northern lights. Only on very cold nights when you see both red and green in the lights, they said, could you hear what their grandparents had told them was the 'whisper of the stars.' So we all got up to listen. It was silent, but of course some of us still swear we heard the stars whisper that night." (Paul Schurke, Arctic explorer and dogsled outfitter)

Contact: Superior National Forest, P.O. Box 338, Duluth, MN; (218) 720-5324.

MICHIGAN

Isle Royale National Park

The skies here get dark enough to see the lights even on summer nights. The park opens in May and closes in October. Best viewing is in spring and fall.

Auroral viewing odds: About 30 percent on dark, clear nights.

Trails of light: Miles from any city lights, all of Isle Royale's 165 miles of trails would be prime sky-watching territory if not for the thick vegetation. Better to hit the Minong Ridge Trail and head to the shoreline of lakes such as Chickenbone and Siskiwit. Also try the high points of trails like Feldtmann Ridge and the Greenstone.

Skywitness report: "It seemed strange to be witnessing what looked like a fire in the sky on an island surrounded by water. But that night from Feldtmann Ridge, the sky pulsed and flickered with green flames like some heavenly campfire as we laid flat on our backs against the warm rocks. Just as we were ready to hike back to camp, a pair of wolves started howling, their calls rising sharp as stars into a sky still dancing with light." (Jeff Rennicke, Backpacker Midwest Editor and author of Isle Royale: Moods, Magic, & Mystique)

Contact: 87 N. Ripley St., Houghton, MI 49931; (906) 482-0984.

YUKON TERRITORY

Kluane National Park

Night skies are dark year-round, but the best season for viewing is from mid-September through April.

Auroral viewing odds: About 60 percent on dark, clear nights.

Trails of light: The Cottonwood Trail, a 51.5-mile loop, is the longest true trail in the park. It crosses two alpine passes, and about 15 miles of the trail are above timberline, providing endless views. Or try less-traveled "routes" such as the 14-mile Slims East Route, which grants close-up views of the Kaskawulsh Glacier, as well as big sky for northern light watching.

Skywitness report: "We were rafting the Alsek River. At Golden Waterfall Camp, almost everyone was in bed, except the boys around the campfire. Someone went down by the river and noticed a flashing in the sky upstream. There was a big silver-green band across the black canyon, and then a section that swooped down in this heart-shaped loop. We called for everyone to get out of their tents and look. One guy jammed his zipper and couldn't get out, so he just stuck his head out the snow door, cinched it down, and stayed that way all night watching the northern lights." (John "Frenchie" French, river guide, Mountain Travel-Sobek)

Contact: P.O. Box 5495, Haines Junction, YT, Canada Y0B 1L0; (867) 634-7250.

NUNAVUT

Auyuittuq National Park Reserve

Dark skies are found only from mid-September until April. Much of the park is snow-covered and iced in until June or even early July.

Auroral viewing odds: 50 to 75 percent on dark, clear nights.

Trails of light: The 25-mile Weasel River Trail leads up a valley cradled by spectacular peaks that can form an impressive backdrop for the northern lights. The longer and less-traveled Owl River Trail is a 50-mile route most often hiked from the north, taking you past the appropriately named Midnight Sun Peak.

Skywitness report: "It seemeth to me as if the very doors of heaven have been opened tonight, so mighty and beauteous, and marvelous were the waves of golden light that...swept across the 'azure deep' breaking forth into floods of wondrous glory....We looked, we saw and trembled." (Explorer Charles Francis Hall, during an expedition off the southeast coast of Baffin Island, 1861)

Contact: P.O. Box 353, Pangnirtung, Nunavut, Canada X0A 0R0; (867) 473-8828.

ALBERTA

Jasper National Park

The nights are dark all year, though the deepest darkness can come late in midsummer. Snow-free hiking is possible on low-elevation trails by mid-May, and in high-elevations by mid-July. Snow starts to fly in mid-October.

Auroral viewing odds: About 50 percent on dark, clear nights.

Trails of light: The North Boundary Trail and South Boundary Trail are the park's premiere hiking routes, but both stay mostly in the sky-blocking forest. Aurora watchers should try a higher elevation route, such as the 32-mile Jonas Pass Trail, the 48-mile Brazeau Loop that wanders through alpine meadows and over mountain passes, or the aptly named Skyline Trail, which stays above timberline for much of its 26 miles.

Skywitness report: "We were on our way down after an extremely difficult, tiring, and ultimately unsuccessful route up Mt. Robson. I was so exhausted, I literally fell asleep on my feet and nearly walked into a crevasse. So when we hit camp at 9,000 feet on the Robson Glacier, all I wanted to do was sleep. About midnight, as I was crawling into my sleeping bag, I noticed the northern lights beginning. 'Oh, this will be a nice way to drift off,' I thought. But then they started coming on strong, like a searchlight. They began dancing and flashing in all sorts of colors. It was so beautiful that despite how tired I was, I couldn't close my eyes and stayed awake, watching until nearly 3 o'clock in the morning."

(Ben Gadd, author of Handbook to the Canadian Rockies)

Contact: Box 10, Jasper, AB, Canada T0E 1E0; (780) 852-6176.

ALBERTA/NORTHWEST TERRITORIES

Wood Buffalo National Park

The only nights that are dark enough for good viewing occur between mid-September and early April. Snow flies by Halloween. The winter auroras are spectacular.Auroral viewing odds: Nearly 100 percent on dark, clear nights.

Trails of light: With its extensive grasslands, Canada's largest national park provides a lot of good sky watching. Try a combination canoeing/hiking trip by paddling down the Peace River to Sweetwater Station, then hike and camp in the huge meadows of the delta among buffalo herds, wolves, and great northern lights before paddling downstream to Fort Fitzgerald.

Skywitness report: "There are times when the whole sky fills with what I can only describe as green gauze curtains blowing across the sky. Once, two years ago, I was out around 11:30 p.m. and I glanced straight up into a display that looked for all the world like a huge mask staring at me. It stared down for 5 or 6 minutes and then vanished." (Mike Kaizer, on staff at Wood Buffalo National Park)

Contact: P.O. Box 750, Fort Smith, NT, Canada X0E 0P0; (867) 872-7960.

RESOURCES

Books

The Aurora Watcher's Handbook, by Neil Davis (University of Alaska Press, 907-474-5831; $20).

Aurora: The Mysterious Northern Lights, by Candace Savage (Sierra Club Books, 800-726-0600; www.sierraclub.org/

books; $25).

Videos

Aurora: Rivers of Light in the Sky, SkyRiver Films; 800-248-WILD; $19.95.

The Aurora Explained, Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska; (907) 474-7487; $20.

Web Sites

Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska: Information, diagrams, forecasts, video sales, and photographs. www.gi.alaska.edu.

The Aurora Page: Explanations, sighting reports, forecasts, and photographs of the northern lights from the Michigan Technological Institute. www.geo.mtu.edu/weather/aurora.