Viewing Aurora Borealis: Yukon’s Northern Light-show

Posted on May 12, 2013 | Comments Off on Viewing Aurora Borealis: Yukon’s Northern Light-show


There are some events around the world that are so spectacular they are worth planning a whole holiday around. Few spectacles can rival witnessing the Northern Lights, or aurora borealis. Since humans first ventured far enough north to see the night sky sublimely painted in electromagnetic lights they have been the subject of legend and folklore. Once seen, these ethereal, multicoloured curtains of light draped across the Pole will never be forgotten.

For various technical reasons explained later, the best place to see the Northern Lights is Canada and the best time to see them is in the Canadian springtime. For equally compelling reasons of transportation, aesthetics and commonsense, the best place in Canada to observe them is the Yukon Territory.

The Science

You can see the aurora anywhere in high latitude when it’s dark enough, the sky is clear and the aurora is displaying. Russia, Greenland, Iceland, the top of Scandinavia and Alaska are all possible viewing regions for the aurora borealis. Conversely, at the bottom of NZ, South America and even Tasmania you can sometimes observe the aurora australis.

But the top of Canada is the best place to go because of the nature of auroras. In very simplistic terms, they are created when solar winds wash across the earth’s electromagnetic field. Both poles effectively light up at the same time. The light is concentrated within a few thousand kilometres of the magnetic field. So it’s important to know the difference between the Geographic Pole (90°N and effectively the same place as the Pole that the world rotates around) and the Magnetic Pole that is the point where the magnetic field is at right angles to the earth’s surface. The magnetic poles move a lot every day (up to 80 km) and shift about 10 km every year. When James Clark Ross discovered the northern one in 1831 it was near northern Canada’s Boothia Peninsula. On the large check in 2001 it was far to the north but still in Canada at 81.3°N, 110.8°W.  So the best displays of the Northern Lights are in Canada. But book soon – by 2050 the North Magnetic Pole will moved past the Geographic Pole to be in Siberia.

Tricky Timing

A significant requirement for seeing the Northern Lights is total darkness. So forget summer” in these high latitudes, even by May, the night sky is too light. The Yukon’s Dawson City, for example, has 21 hours of daylight in June and a stingy 4.5 hours in December. In June the average temperature is 13.7°C but in January it’s a chilly -30.7°C). So for those who feel the cold it’s probably best to come in, say, September (13 hours, 6.5°C) when autumn is well advanced. In terms of temperature, spring doesn’t work so well as the average temperature is still below freezing in April. However, there’s considerably more chance of clear skies in spring than there is in autumn. And don’t plan to visit when the moon is full.

So the absolute best chance to see the aurora borealis is probably at the time of the new moon in March. If you can only be there in autumn, aim for the end of August. Of course it depends on the solar activity but on a clear, moonless winter night you can see some signs of the aurora most nights and an active aurora on about half of them. Expect to see about half an hour of activity each two-hour period. A good place to check the “aurora borealis forecast” is the University of Alaska So rug up warmly and head to a hill away from the city lights and stay there between the hours of 10pm and 2am.  Better, yet, find a north-facing lodge out of town.

Bright lights?

The Yukon is a lot of wilderness with two significant towns, Whitehorse and Dawson City. The northern end of the Yukon is marked by the Continental Divide in the Richardson Mountains, and its most northern settlement is Old Crow, an Indian settlement on the Porcupine River, with a population of about 250 and no road access at all.

This part of the world has always been a land of grand statements from the riches of the Yukon gold rush, the hundreds of years (and lives) it took to find a way through the Northwest Passage or simply finding your drink has a frostbitten toe in it. It’s a frontier land of stark grandeur and simple survival against the extreme elements. So, in many ways it’s like outback Australia but with temperatures at the other extreme – and a lightshow.

Whitehorse was originally a gold rush port that took its name from the nearby river rapids. It replaced Dawson City as capital in 1953, mainly due to the completion of the Alaska Highway and the end of riverboat travel on the Yukon River. Whitehorse today is a bustling, modern city of 26,500 people and far removed from its frontier image. Surprised to see oysters on a restaurant menu here, I asked where they were from. “They are Sydney rock oysters, I believe, sir,” was the reply.

This is a place to walk, drive – or take to the river as the pioneers did. In winter there’s crosscountry skiing, snow shoeing, dogging or touring by snowmobile. In summer you can drive up the Alaska Highway that was built in just eight months in 1942 as a strategic move after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and occupied Alaska’s Aleutian Islands.

Dawson City is not your usual sort of city. In fact, with just 2000 residents, it’s not really a city at all. But as I reached the Midnight Dome viewpoint off the Klondike Highway that gave a brilliant view over the town and the Yukon River it felt like a link in my life as a traveller was complete. For it was during hot Australian school summer holidays that I first read the tales of one-time resident Jack London about the Klondike goldrush and the alien snowy, icy, wild world of the Yukon. That gave me an urge to see the world that has never faded.

Fortunately, Dawson (the “City” is now optional as the population has declined considerably from 40,000 in 1898) lives up to the anticipation. It has retained much of its remarkable heritage from wooden sidewalks and buildings like the Palace Grand Theatre and the Yukon Hotel to Diamond Tooth Gertie’s Gambling Hall – Canada’s first casino. Over at the Downtown Hotel, if you’re game, you can try a drink with a preserved human toe at the bottom. If your lips touch the toe you’re in the club. For a more cerebral experience you can visit the original cabins of the great Yukon authors: Robert Service, Pierre Burton and Jack London.

If you are in Dawson City at the right time of the year, and can draw yourself away from the nightlife of Gertie’s Can-Can and bars with or without appendage cocktails it’s worth stepping outside and looking up to the sky. As your eyes adjust you may see the ultimate light show: the Northern Lights in all their timeless, but transient and elusive, beauty.

The Experience

It had been a long day by the time we boarded the flight out of Northern Canada and many of us fell asleep soon after the planes wheels left the frozen ground. My mind was too filled with the experiences of the past weeks so I stayed awake. Looking out the aircraft window as we cruised at 35,000 feet, I witnessed the beginnings of the northern lights. At first they started as mere flickering flashes that looked like lightning below the horizon. But soon there were green curtains of light swaying in a cosmic wind. The cold, high altitude air was crystal clear so only the aircraft’s plastic windows detracted from the experience. I woke my companions and soon everyone in the aircraft was revelling in the show. After about 30 minutes we were too far south or the display stopped and there was nothing left to see. We all sat there smiling, glad to have shared something so special.

The best displays I’ve ever seen were from a ship cruising Northern Canada late in summer. For three nights in a row we had a dazzling display of bright green northern lights each evening. We all lay on the deck in the freezing night air enthralled by the swirling lightshow overhead. On the third night (and our last on board) it culminated in a giant green whirlpool of light opening up directly overhead and the spinning point of the vortex reached down to the ship’s mast like an ethereal finger of god.

Getting there

Air Canada flies nonstop from Sydney to Vancouver with domestic flights to the Yukon. 1300 655 767.

Where to stay

The Edgewater Hotel in Whitehorse is a good hotel in a great downtown location overlooking the Yukon River. (867) 667 2572. 101 Main St.

Dawson Creek’s Downtown Hotel has everything from the stylish Jack London Grill to a motorcycle washing station and wifi. 867) 993 5346. Cnr 2nd Ave & Queen St.

Where to eat

In Whitehorse try a stroganoff of bison and caribou in mushroom sauce or perhaps a musk ox burger. (867) 667 7554. Cnr 2nd Ave & Steele St.

In Dawson City you will end up at Diamond Tooth Gerties Gambling Hall for one of the three nightly shows, with food served till 2am. (867) 993 5575. Cnr 4th Ave & Queen St.

When to go

Aim for the time of the new moon in March or the new moon around the end of August.

Further information

By David McGonigal

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