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December 1999

Northern Lights: The Sky Will Dance

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


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.


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.


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.

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