Looking for the northern lights in Churchill, Canada

By Marcia Brandes
This article appears on page 6 of the January 2020 issue.
A frozen river winds through Winnipeg.

Seeing the northern lights has been on my “bucket list” since before I really had one. Having spent most of my life in southern or midwestern climes, I never had a chance to see them from my home. Many people hope to see them on a trip to Iceland or Alaska, but there is no guarantee, and I wanted something more certain than that. 

My husband, Steve, too, was excited at the prospect of seeing the aurora borealis, so when I found out that Road Scholar (Boston, MA; 800/454-5768, roadscholar.org) was offering an 8-day trip called “Into the Arctic Skies: Aurora and Astronomy in Churchill,” it seemed to be a good choice.

The tour

The tour information said that the light show in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, was almost a sure thing. Because of the extreme cold, clouds seldom form in the winter there. 

“How cold?” you ask? We were told to prepare for minus 40 degrees!

Churchill is well known as a destination for seeing and photographing polar bears, which come into the area in October and November. However, during the rest of the winter they are far out on the ice or holed up in dens far from town. 

Tourism related to polar bear viewing is the real money-maker for the area, and accommodations are fully booked months in advance (and are considerably more expensive than they are at other times of the year). There is tourism in the summer, too, when more than 3,000 beluga whales crowd into this portion of Hudson Bay. 

Our trip (Feb. 21 to March 1, 2019) was outside those peak seasons, starting with two nights in Winnipeg followed by a flight to Churchill, where we would stay five nights at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, located 23 kilometers outside the town. Our final night would be spent in Winnipeg at the airport Hilton

The cost of the tour was $3,500 per person, including all accommodations, all meals except for one dinner and one lunch and all in-country transportation from Winnipeg on, including the round-trip flight to Churchill. 

Getting ready

Steve, all bundled up, tests his skill on snowshoes.

Once I had signed us up, I started to collect suitable clothing. 

Living in Atlanta, Georgia, we don’t have much call for heavy winter attire. We had our parkas from our Antarctica trip, we both had long underwear, and I had ski pants. We purchased balaclavas and hats online and borrowed heavy gloves for Steve. 

Fortunately, rental gear was also available at the Churchill center, so we each rented boots for $10 a day, and insulated pants for Steve cost $15 per day. (Parkas were also available for $25 per day.) 

We flew to Winnipeg on Delta, changing planes in Minneapolis. I had decided to make the plane reservations myself because I thought I could use the companion ticket I get each year with my American Express Gold card. Wrong! I had forgotten that Canada requires an international flight, and my companion ticket is good only for domestic ones. 

Flying into Winnipeg was a severe change from Atlanta. The ground was pure white and very flat, with just a few trees, roads and buildings plus a wide ribbon of white that I assumed was a frozen river. 

We took a taxi from the airport to our hotel, The Fort Garry. (Those who purchased their airfare through Road Scholar received a free transfer to the hotel.) Situated in the heart of downtown Winnipeg, The Fort Garry was a beautiful, historic hotel with lovely rooms. 

That evening we picked up our travel packets and met the people who’d be our companions for the next week. There were 19 of us — three married couples and 13 single women. As we went around the room introducing ourselves, we learned that we were all on the trip to check off our bucket list item: the northern lights.

Museum visits

View of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg.

The next morning our tour guide took us to the Manitoba Museum, where we had a private tour starting at 9 a.m., before the museum opened to the public at 10. It was very interesting learning about the settlement of Canada; we didn’t get much of that in our US history classes. 

There were artifacts and crafts from First Nations peoples and even a replica of the type of sailing ships that first ventured into Hudson Bay. We were also treated to a planetarium show, with a taste of what the northern lights might look like.

After a box lunch at the museum, we went on our second excursion, to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. This was a spectacular contemporary building with five floors of highly unusual exhibits, starting with animated shadows of people writing “Welcome” on a wall in every conceivable language. There were many interactive exhibits plus art projects, historical photos, videos and explanations about all the ways in which people are and have been mistreated around the world. We left awed and humbled by the experience.

We had a little free time before dinner to wander around town. I was entranced by the completely frozen river that ran through the city, with people ice skating and playing hockey in the middle of this ribbon of ice. The temperature in Winnipeg was about minus 10°F. 

That night’s dinner was not included, but all decided to join the tour leader at the Prairie 360 restaurant (28-83 Garry St.; prairie360.com). The food was mediocre, but the view of Winnipeg as the room revolved at the top of the building was worth it. 

On to Churchill

A light snow greeted us the next morning as we left for our flight to Churchill on Calm Air. Once aboard the aircraft, we sat on the tarmac for 30 to 45 minutes while we waited our turn for the deicing truck. The flight itself took only about an hour and a half.

Landing in Churchill, we were greeted by a bus from the research center. Walking out to the bus, we were hit with a blast of frigid air. It was definitely colder in Churchill than in Winnipeg. 

Every day at the center, a white board displayed the temps for the day, including windchill, in both Celsius and Fahrenheit. The second day we were there, the board showed a windchill of -56°F. 

The wind is a serious factor there. The trees grow limbs on only one side because of the fierce winds. The air is also extremely dry, and our skin felt it immediately. The snow was so dry that it didn’t stick to the roads but, rather, blew across the pavement like grains of sand.

The Churchill Northern Studies Centre (churchillscience.ca) is an independent nonprofit research facility focusing on subarctic knowledge and education. The rooms are each furnished with two sets of bunk beds, accommodating four people to a room. 

When the facility is full, men and women are segregated. There are no private bathrooms for guests; it is like a dormitory, with separate bathrooms for men and women. 

Meals were included and were served in a cafeteria. There was a common room with a television and another room with computers available. Our cell phones did not work there. 

The center can accommodate 84 guests and is available to be booked by individuals as well as groups.

Since there were plenty of rooms available when we were there, we were able to bunk two to a room, allowing married couples to stay together. The food was substantial and quite good. 

We were far too busy to miss having a TV, and there was a Wi-Fi connection, so we were not cut off from the wider world.

Looking for lights

Dogsledding adventure in Churchill.

There were both outdoor and indoor activities scheduled during the daytime in addition to our nightly forays to photograph the skies. 

Road Scholar takes its name seriously and excels at providing learning opportunities for travelers. We had lectures on many aspects of astronomy and stargazing. Our instructor, Ron Waldron, was a retired teacher and lifelong amateur astronomer who was very knowledgeable. His enthusiasm was contagious, and he stayed up every night until midnight so that he could knock on our doors yelling “Showtime!” when the lights appeared.

The very first night we were there, the lights appeared, although we heard they were not particularly intense. Steve and I missed seeing them. We were so exhausted from having left our house at 5:00 that morning that we slept through Ron’s knocking on our door four times! 

The next night he came to get us at 9:30, and we got our first glimpse of the phenomenon. The following night was cloudy, but the night after again gave us a display. Nothing we saw, though, compared with the show on the last night we were there. 

Five days earlier there had been a sunspot flare, and that made all the difference. The lights covered the sky, swirling and twisting and changing minute by minute, bright enough to fade out most of the stars. This was the real deal!

Activities during the day included a dogsled demonstration and ride and a visit into town to see the Itsanitaq Museum, which has one of the widest collections of Inuit carvings in the world. 

But our very first outing, on the afternoon we arrived, was into town to visit the liquor and grocery stores. We could buy snacks and any beverages we chose and were welcome to bring them down to dinner. Although there were no refrigerators in the rooms themselves, there was a communal refrigerator specifically for our beer, wine and other personal food items.

A bit of background

We also learned a lot about the history of Churchill. At the time of our visit, the town’s population was around 700 hardy souls, down from about 900 a few years before. 

Until a few years ago, there had been train service as well as plane service to Churchill. (There are no roads that reach all the way to the town.) However, when bad weather destroyed part of the track, the company that owned the railroad refused to fix it, even though they were contractually obligated to do so. 

Stranded with only a $1,000 (one way) flight or a summer barge across Hudson Bay as transportation, many residents left Churchill if they could afford to. Grocery prices tripled. The town felt abandoned. 

As a show of support and to keep Churchill in the news, artists came from all over to paint murals on the sides of buildings. Finally, the federal government was prevailed upon to take over the railroad and fix the track. As of December 2018, the train is again running. 

Food prices have come down some, though they are still not back to normal, but at least inhabitants can get to other parts of Canada now for a fraction of the price. 

The research center was situated next to the now-abandoned Churchill Rocket Research Range, and one day we toured some of the old rocket-launch sites. Another day, we ventured out to learn about snow science, see how a quick snow shelter, called a quinzee, is built and try our luck at hiking in snowshoes. We also watched a demonstration of an igloo being built, the large slabs of ice cut with saws right out of the ground around us. 

On two afternoons we watched movies that were appropriate to our trip, and one evening we had a presentation by a local man who showed us how he traps wild animals for their fur.

Dressing for the occasion

But, of course, the highlight was the nighttime activity of watching and photographing the lights. 

Preparing to go outside took some forethought. I wore three layers: long underwear under knit pants and shirt topped by waterproof ski pants and my parka with hood. I also wore two pairs of socks and insulated snow boots and either a balaclava or a hat and neck scarf, with the hood of the parka pulled up on top. 

It was so cold that I couldn’t wear glasses or sunglasses, as, within seconds, my breath would create a sheet of ice across the lenses, blocking all sight.

My biggest problem with the cold was how to protect my hands. Steve had borrowed insulated gloves that came with a waterproof and windproof mitten to go over each glove, which worked. I had ski gloves, but the cold was too intense for them to do much good. I had also packed liner gloves and wool mittens, but the wind cut right through them and left me with painfully cold fingers. And since I wanted to photograph everything, I had to have some flexibility in my fingers. They couldn’t be wrapped up like Steve’s were.

When I realized the glove/mitten combo would not be enough, I tried adding hand warmers. I had taken with me some of these chemical warmers, the kind that creates heat when the contents are exposed to air. They come in small packets and last for about seven hours. 

At first I tried putting them inside my mittens, but every time I removed my gloved hands to work the camera, the hand warmer would drop out. Finally, I hit on a plan that worked reasonably well. Before I went out, I would open two packets and shake them to start them heating. These would go in the side pockets of my parka. Then, as soon as I took a photo, I would stuff my gloved hands back in my pockets and grasp the hand warmers.

Capturing the scene

Capturing the ever-changing light show.

Many people had trouble getting photos in the frigid air. A lot of people tried with their cell phones, but that didn’t work well, especially while trying to shoot the lights. It was necessary to use a tripod and a long exposure, usually about 15 to 20 seconds, to capture the lights. One night I even left the shutter open for 30 seconds, although this resulted in catching some slight star movement (ovals instead of pinpoints). On the last night, the lights were bright enough that I could take shorter exposures of 5 to 10 seconds. 

Since a fast, wide-angle lens is best, I rented one for this trip.

Another problem with photographing at these temperatures was that some of the buttons on my camera would freeze up. I have a Canon EOS 7dii DSLR, and, all in all, I was pleased with its performance, but on our coldest day, when we went dogsledding, my Tamron lens’ autofocus froze. And while photographing at night, I thought I would be able to keep my hands in my pockets and use my remote shutter release, but it also froze up.

The one thing that didn’t give me any problem was my camera battery. I had read that batteries can lose their charge very quickly in subzero temperatures, and people who were using their cell phones or point-and-shoot cameras found that to be true. However, the lithium-ion batteries that my camera used were able to outlast me. 

I carried spares in inside pockets and I’d taken tape to affix a hand warmer to the camera, but neither of those was necessary. Also, my carbon fiber tripod behaved just fine in the cold.

If you are not a photographer, this is still a wonderful experience and definitely worth the effort. The staff at the research center were delightful, the program was interesting, and the lights were spectacular. Don’t be afraid of the cold — just be prepared. 

And for those who do have a problem with the very low temperatures, the center even has a see-through dome from which to view the lights.