Last November, millions of amateur astronomers in the Lower 48 were treated to a rare southern showing of the famous northern lights, courtesy of some unusually dramatic solar activity. If you liked what you saw -- a yellowish-green glow in the northern sky -- and you'd like to see more, read on, because when it comes to the nearly nightly northern spectacle known properly as the aurora borealis, you ain't seen nothing yet.
WHAT THEY ARE: Best described as amorphous glows or dancing curtains of colored light, the aurora borealis -- and its southern sister, the aurora australis -- are the results of the solar wind (billions of electronically charged particles emitted from the sun and traveling at speeds of up to 37,000 mph) smashing into the Earth's magnetic shield and being deflected downward toward the magnetic (as opposed to the terrestrial) poles. The most common color is yellow- green (the rarest is red), with the curtain "hanging" some 70 miles above the surface and billowing upward to as high as 600 miles.
The aurora borealis is worth the trip to Blachford Lake in Canada's Northwest Territories.
WHERE TO SEE THEM: Any place north of 60 degrees latitude (D.C. is at 39 degrees) is considered optimal, with the best viewing periods coming during October and November and then again in February and March. Even then, however, sightings cannot be guaranteed since auroras -- and especially active ones -- depend upon the simultaneous confluence of stronger-than-normal solar winds and above-average magnetic field activity. And there is always the danger of cloud cover. Bottom line: The more nights you can devote to looking, the better your chances of seeing something truly out of this world.
HOW TO SEE THEM: The remoteness of the best viewing areas and the difficulties involved in getting there during the winter months make seeing the northern lights at their finest a challenge. Here are three of the more promising possibilities:
Some form of the aurora borealis is visible from Fairbanks roughly 240 nights a year. In addition to having regular winter air service, Fairbanks offers visitors a handful of other far-northern sights such as professional dog sled races and the International Ice Sculpture competition in March.
One interesting way to view the lights is about 60 miles east of town at Chena Hot Springs Resort (800-478-4681, www.chenahotsprings.com), where you can soak in an outdoor thermal tub (104 degrees) while taking in the show. Its three-night "Northern Lights Package" starts at $377 per person and includes two nights at the lodge (the first night is spent in Fairbanks) and a four-hour snow cat tour.
General info on Fairbanks: 800-327-5774, www.explorefairbanks.com.
Because of its greater proximity to the north magnetic pole, north-central Canada offers top viewing opportunities, which is why most professionally led tours go there. Unfortunately, getting to this region is cumbersome and expensive, and even after arriving, you may find yourself stranded by the elements. For these reasons, package tours that include all ground transportation are heavily recommended.