Active Winter Getaway: See the Northern Lights

Fri, 21 Oct. 2011 - 6:09 p.m. MT
Credit: Jeff Venables

If you’re among the growing number of people looking for not just fun but fitness on your vacations, there are a number of adventure getaways you can plan, as we’ve discussed on this site before. For a recap of summer fitness vacation ideas, see Staying Active on Vacation.

Here, we explore options for an extraordinary cold-weather version of adventure tourism. Beginning this winter, there is a unique opportunity to combine a rugged and active vacation with witnessing a rare and remote natural phenomenon: the aurora borealis, aka northern lights.

A natural light show of brilliant reds, purples, greens, yellows, pinks, and blues that dance in the night sky near the earth’s northern magnetic pole, the aurora borealis peaks in roughly 11-year cycles. Starting this winter and continuing through 2013, the earth will not only see one such 11-year peak but an unusually high level of activity among 11-year peaks.

What are they?

When the sun’s gases explode, some of the particles travel to the earth’s atmosphere, where they are drawn to the poles. (The south-pole version of the aurora borealis, which is markedly less dramatic to behold, is called the aurora australis.) The solar cycles peak as they do because the 10-million-degree interior temperatures of the sun churn gas particles in an 11-year conveyor belt from the sun’s northern pole to its southern. This movement creates fluctuations in solar flare intensity, building in strength and number to an 11-year maximum. When the electrons and protons from the sun’s gases interact with the oxygen, nitrogen, and other molecules in the earth’s atmosphere, they de-excite and start to dance colorfully in a giant elliptical shape in the sky.

The northern lights are visible to some extent year round and in non-peak years, but the winter sky above 60 degrees north latitude in a peak year is optimal. And the number of solar flares in the 2012-2013 cycle is expected to approach 180, the highest since 1980. Given that in 1980 people reported seeing the northern lights in the sky as far south as the earth’s tropics, travelling north for this cycle grants the possibility of seeing something truly remarkable.

For fitness and adventure lovers, a trip to see the lights offers interesting opportunities. It turns out, the package tours and resorts that organize viewing excursions naturally make these vacations quite active. Because the lights are best seen away from cities, where light pollution makes stargazing difficult, the remote locations where viewing tours are offered also make for naturally rugged terrain to explore.

Specifically, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, hiking, snowmobiling, and even dog sledding are encouraged or even included on many package tours as a way of spending time during the day, waiting for nightfall when the northern lights become visible.

Excursions to Alaska, Canada, Norway, Iceland, and Finland all differ, giving you the chance to book as ruggedly or comfortably as you like. Here are a few options that will give you an idea of what to expect.

ALASKA

Option 1: Chena Hot Springs viewing package

At the Chena Hot Springs Resort 60 miles northeast of Fairbanks International Airport (www.chenahotsprings.com), you can purchase a 4-day, 3-night Aurora Odyssey package for two and enjoy a combination of adventure and leisure activities while viewing the auroras at night and then retiring to a double-queen room in the Moose Lodge. The natural hot springs here make it unique, and unlike a lot of the more remote tours, not every minute is planned in advance for you—the itinerary has plenty of downtime.

Still, the $1,700 package (total price for two people) comes with dog sled driving lessons, unlimited swimming and soaking passes in the hot springs, an ice museum tour, a geothermal renewable energy tour, a reserved snow coach that takes you out into the remote landscape for aurora viewing on one of the nights, and four free meal vouchers per person. Because the resort offers other activities on an a la carte basis, you may want to forgo this package and book something similar on your own, with more hand-picked active elements.

Option 2: Chena a la cart

For example, booking 3 nights in the same Moose Lodge, purchasing the swim/soak passes daily, and paying for the snow coach one night but forgoing the ice museum and geothermal energy tours leaves you with budget and time to instead dog sled one day, cross-country ski another, and perhaps hike, ice skate, snowshoe or ride in a horse drawn sleigh a third day. These are more active choices, and the pricing breakdown isn’t all that different for two people paying as they go in this way.

Whether you purchase a package or customize your trip, you may want to budget in four days of winter gear rental—a heavy parka, boots, and snow pants, offered at the resort at a reasonable per item per day price, but an expense that for two could run you an additional $200. Other expenses on top of the package include, of course, the airfare. If booked well enough in advance, flying to Fairbanks could cost as low as $1,000 roundtrip for two, but with shorter notice you could easily find yourself paying double that.

The viewing season at Chena runs from December 1 through March 31.

CANADA

In Canada, things tend to be a little more rugged, yet options abound if you prefer an adventure with international flair.

Option 1: Yukon

At the Takhini River Lodge in Canada’s Yukon territory (www.auroraborealisyukon.com/auroratours/TakhiniRiverLodge), the viewing season runs quite long—from September 1 through April 1. At $2,200 per person, this tour is pricier but gives you 5 days / 4 nights. The trip features two nights in town and two nights at a remote lodge where the aurora viewing takes place. The lodge is heated with tall windows for a cozy setting with a spectacular view of the northern lights. There are hiking trails surrounding the lodge which you are encouraged to explore by day. On the fourth night, additional viewing occurs even more remotely from the lodge—in translucent, lit teepees with snacks and hot beverages served; you don’t stay overnight in the teepees but are brought back to town. Airport transfers and breakfast and dinner for the lodge nights are included, as are snowshoes. Winter clothing rental is extra, and activities like dog sledding are offered, but quite expensive ($300) since the outing lasts 7 hours.

Option 2: Near Yellowknife (NWT)

Situated in the capital of the Northwest Territories, Yellowknife serves as the hub for aurora-viewing excursions within the province.

The Great Canadian Adventure Company (www.adventures.ca) has a 4-day tour to view the northern lights from Yellowknife, at $930 per person (double occupancy), including hotel accommodation, hot drinks and snacks, aurora viewing from heated glass teepees and expert guides.

The season in Yellowknife runs from November 20 to April 15. The touring company arranges your hotel accommodations in town, sees you from the airport, and takes you nightly to the aurora viewing facility, where hot beverages and snacks are provided. Within Yellowknife, you can make arrangements for daytime adventures like dog mushing, ice fishing, tobogganing, and ice skating. The advantage to this package is that it leaves your days completely open to venture out from town in whichever manner you choose.

If you prefer the remoteness of a lodge to staying in town, the NWT Lodge is 20 minutes from Yellowknife, open all year long, and offers all of the above activities plus a sauna and hot tub. The one catch is getting there, you have to take a “bush plane”—not necessarily the best choice for the nervous flyers among us.

EUROPEAN DESTINATIONS

Though it makes the most sense to cut costs and enjoy one of the above tours that keep you on this side of the Atlantic, Europe offers fantastic aurora viewing as well. Iceland is well known for its northern lights tours, part of that country being as it is situated right within the Arctic Circle. Norway is well situated also, and has the best views between October and March. You might consider dog sledding in the remote Tamok Valley with Lyngsfjord Adventure (www.lyngsfjord.com).

Finland, though, has a unique adventure on offer: one of the only packages providing overnight camping in heated igloos. Situated near Ivalo Airport, the glass igloos of Hotel Kakslauttanen (www.kakslauttanen.fi/en) are designed especially for watching the lights. Or, if you can’t pass up an opportunity for first-rate unspoiled powder, in Finland’s northern Lapland region, you’ll find great skiing, up-close views of reindeer, and spectacular northern lights viewing via flights to Rovaniemi and Ivalo from Helsinki.

Nature’s light show

Aurora was the Roman goddess of dawn and Boreas the ancient Greek name for the north wind. These electromagnetic marvels were first referred to as the northern lights toward the end of the 17th century, but they have been captivating people with their beauty at least since the time of Aristotle.

The massive spinning ovals occur between 40 and 110 miles above the earth and span roughly 2,500 miles in diameter and have the power to disrupt radio, television, and satellite communications. Some people describe them as enormous silk curtains that blow in the wind, unfurling, disappearing, then appearing again instantaneously in another location in the night sky. On earth we receive only one two-billionth of the energy that comes out of the sun. As you gaze at this striking natural phenomenon, consider that it is the earth’s atmosphere that is protecting us from the dangerous full effect of the sun’s particles, which hurtle toward us at 600,000 miles per hour and if unmitigated would destroy all life on earth. Instead, they are intercepted, displaying a mesmerizing light show for our ongoing enjoyment and wonder.

 

Jeff Venables is the editor of Running & FitNews, the publication of the American Running Association.



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