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Northern Lights: The Sky Will Dance

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

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.

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