It’s one thing to look at other people’s photos of the Northern Lights, shot along the Alaska Highway.
It’s another, entirely, to experience the Aurora Borealis yourself – and photograph the neon swirls – as they race across the sky at night, several miles above you. It’s an exhilarating experience you’ll never forget.
Northern Lights travel packages have become very popular internationally across northern latitudes and particularly in BC, the Yukon and Alaska.
Along the Alaska Highway, your best chances of seeing the Northern Lights are from fall to spring. During this time frame, the skies are dark enough and the intensity of the Northern Lights is strong, the result of the Sun’s busy eruptive activity.
What’s happening in the sky: Northern Lights demystified
Northern Lights, once a mystery, are now easily explained. At the centre of the Sun, atoms perpetually bombard each other. This fuels an atomic inferno that super-heats batches of plasma. Fiery jets of this plasma race to the Sun’s surface and then break free of it, as if from a slingshot, in the form of solar windstorms. They race across the solar system at the speed of light toward Mercury, Venus and Earth.
Earth’s magnetic fields deflect most of the Sun’s windstorms toward Pluto and beyond. The ones that get into our atmosphere are pulled magnetically toward the North or South poles. There, they collide with atmospheric gases. Each collision produces a tiny flash of brilliant, neon colour. Collectively, these flashes deliver the astonishingly beautiful Northern Lights effect.
Why do the Northern Lights come in different colours?
According to the Canadian Space Agency, “the colours of the aurora are determined by the composition of gases in the Earth’s atmosphere, the altitude at which the aurora occurs, the density of the atmosphere, and the level of energy involved.”
Green coloured Northern Lights are seen and photographed most often. They’re produced when windstorm particles from the Sun get into a mosh pit with oxygen at heights of around 100 to 300 km in the night sky.
“Occasionally, the lower edge of an aurora will have a pink or crimson fringe, which is produced by nitrogen molecules (around 100 km). Higher in the atmosphere (300 to 400 km), collisions with atomic oxygen produce red instead of green. Since the atmosphere is less dense at higher altitudes, it takes more energy and more time to produce red light (up to two minutes), whereas green light can be made quickly at lower altitudes (about one second). Hydrogen and helium can also produce blue and purple, but those colours tend to be difficult for our eyes to see against the night sky.” (Source: Canadian Space Agency)
Tips from top Alaska Highway guides
The highest concentrations of wilderness guides who specialize in Northern Lights viewing on the Canadian side of the border are in Whitehorse, Yukon. On the US side, it’s said that some of the most spectacular shows are in the Interior region, with some amazing viewing opportunities accessible near Delta Junction.
All of the areas in proximity to the Alaska Highway — from Dawson Creek, BC to Delta Junction, Alaska — are good places to see Northern Lights, with one important caveat: the larger the community, the brighter it tends to be at night. This makes the Aurora Borealis difficult to see. A bright moon has a similar effect, dampening the glow of the Northern Lights.
Here’s the good news about those well-lit centres, though: When you’re staying in a big town, you’ll find many options to get outside of it for a world class Northern Lights experience. Guides have favourite, sometimes secret, locations they share only with friends and preferred clients. If you can connect with them, they’ll take you there via dogsled or snowmobile with a thermos or two of hot chocolate.
If you want, they’ll also set you up in small wilderness cabins (usually for two), igloos and yurts optimized for “awaiting the Northern Lights show.” The cabins have kitchens, fireplaces and skylights so you can watch for the arrival of the Northern Lights, a magic moment when you might find yourself suddenly clamouring to get outside under that wild sky with your camera and an instant grin frozen to your face!
If you choose to travel the Alaska Highway during summer when the night skies are usually too bright for good natural light shows, stop into the Northern Lights Centre in Watson Lake, Yukon. With a state-of-the-art panoramic video of the Northern Lights on a domed ceiling, it delivers an experience almost as good as the real thing.
Chris Gale – Wild North Photos