'Tis the season of lights. At no other time of year can we drive through city and country alike and feel the warmth that lights add to our lives.
No matter how awesome our light displays are though, nothing can compare with one of the most amazing shows nature has to offer; the Aurora Borealis, or more commonly referred to as the Northern Lights. It is literally a shifting waterfall of colors ranging from green to pink to white and everything in between.
The word “aurora” means polar light and these light shows can be seen around both the North Pole and South Pole. The word Aurora comes from the Greek goddess of dawn and Borealis is the Greek name for wind.
What exactly are the Northern Lights? Here goes the technical explanation. Charged particles from the magnetosphere collide with atoms in the earth’s upper atmosphere and absorb extra energy that is expressed as light. As the sun causes hydrogen and helium to fuse, protons and electrons are shot into space. This is known as solar wind and it blows past the earth. The earth’s lines of magnetism draw the particles toward the north and south magnetic poles where the lines converge. They arrive in the ionosphere, collide with gas atoms and emit light. The color of the light they emit depends on the type of gas particles with which they come into contact. Without being a science major, this is about as clear as mud so I just prefer to think of the Northern Lights as magical.
For ages people have chosen to look on them as just that, magical. To this day they are steeped in folklore. One myth tells us the lights are our past ancestors. Another one believes the lights tell stories of what happened in the past and what will happen in the future. The Cree Indians called them the “dance of the spirits.”
Some of the other interpretations are equally colorful. The Scots called them heavenly dancers or merry dancers and believed they were supernatural beings warring in the heavens over a beautiful woman. Isn’t it always!
The Vikings believed they were reflections from dead maidens. Native Americans believe they are gods dancing above the sky and are also a gathering of medicine men and warriors in the land of the far north.
The Aurora Borealis is also known as the “tricky lady” when it comes to seeing them. The further north you are, the better your chances of catching the show since they are created around the magnetic poles. This being said, it stands to reason that the best time of year to see them are from October through March when the nights are the longest and there are more hours of darkness and the midnight sun is not up.
Fairbanks, Alaska is one of the best spots to see them. My home state of Michigan is also an excellent viewing point because we have relatively lower light pollution in many areas, especially the further north you go. The Upper Peninsula of Michigan is blessed with hundreds of miles of shoreline along Lake Superior. These offer 180 degrees of unobstructed view of the horizon with no tree line or hills to obscure the view.
Dark sky parks are growing in number. These are parks where people can park, camp out, and their chances of catching the northern lights are better than in other more lit areas. One of the better ones is Headlands International Dark Sky Park which is two miles west of Mackinaw City.
What it boils down to is being at the right spot at the right time. To see the lights the night sky has to be clear, the atmospheric conditions have to be right and you have to be in a spot with an unobstructed view.
Of course, many people want to get photos of the lights if they are lucky enough to see them. This can be even trickier. An ordinary compact digital camera or phone camera just won’t cut it. Night photography is tricky at best and it becomes even trickier when the subject is constantly moving like the lights do. A camera with custom settings and a tripod are very bare bones essentials for capturing the dances of the lights.
As with anything else, people try to capitalize on anything that is out of the ordinary. The Aurora Borealis is no exception. Motels and hotels offer packages trying to entice people into believing that they can see the show anytime they book a room. Others offer dog sleighing and snowmobile excursions where you get the bonus of seeing the lights too (hopefully).
Like, with anything else, if every time you looked to the northern sky you could see the show, then the real deal wouldn’t be half so spectacular. It’s sort of like fishing, you try your luck and some days are better than others. I have only seen them once, briefly, but I can say they were magnificent. I look forward to chasing them the next few years and I know that if I am in the right spot at the right time I will see the show of my life.