A dogsled, a snowy trail, and the Aurora. That’s how millions of prospective visitors imagine the Northwest Territories – a winter wonderland, bathed by glowing lights. But increasingly, Aurora-watchers are discovering that the lights are visible long before Old Man Winter arrives.
While it’s true that skygazers must stay up a bit later to enjoy the cosmic lightshow in early August and through September, they’re in for a treat. According to many, seeing the Northern Lights is best in summer – and they say a number of myths about “when to watch the Aurora” are just that. Myths.
Actually, the Northern Lights don’t fire up in winter and then fizzle when summer rolls around. They’re in no way seasonal. Rather, they flash and flicker year-round, their intensity dependent entirely on unpredictable solar events. If a flare of plasma erupts from the sun, spewing charged particles toward the Earth, the Northern Lights will go gangbusters any time of year, be it June or January. In the Northwest Territories, though, the midnight sun lights up the sky from around mid-April to early August keeping us from seeing the Aurora during this time.
Sure, in mid-June, when the midnight sun blazes in the Northern sky, you can’t really glimpse the Aurora – nor the moon or the stars. But by early August, darkness has crept back to the North's night skies. By late August, Fort Smith, at the Alberta border, enjoys four hours of pitch-blackness each night and plenty of twilight on either side. Yellowknife is inky for at least two hours, with lots of additional dusk and dawn. By late September, of course, the dark is back in force, creating prime Aurora-viewing conditions for 12 hours per night or more.
While it’s true that our cold, dry winters offer crisp views of the cosmos, Yellowknife also enjoys remarkably cloudless summer skies – the clearest of any city in Canada. Grey days do indeed become more common as autumn approaches, but Yellowknife’s Septembers are overcast only about 30 percent of the time. Hay River, south of Great Slave Lake, is even more clear – all but 25 percent of the time in September. Only in October do the clouds roll in, causing most tourism operators to pause and resume Aurora-watching until mid-November.
Our Northern Lights tour operators welcome guests during two high seasons – in summer, from August to early October, and again in winter, from November to mid-April. The tours run the gamut, from stays at fly-in wilderness lodges to day-tours in our capital city, Yellowknife.
It's wonderful to watch the Lights shimmer in a brittle-cold sky. But the summer Aurora experience is awesome too. It can take the shape of a boat tour beneath the Lights as the colours dance on the water. Or fishing, hiking or camping as the Lights wriggle overhead. Or even basking in the coziness a sleeping bag atop a stately outcrop of Canadian Shield, or kicking back around a crackling campfire, and enjoying summer’s balmy warmth as the heavens put on a spectacular show.