If your kids love looking at the night sky, it’s worth considering taking them on one of the great once-in-a-lifetime travel experiences to view the Northern Lights. Photographer Joseph Bradley of Joseph Bradley Auroras has been taking photos of the Northern Lights for 9 years now and lives in Yukon, Canada with his kids aged 4 and 6 years old. He tells suitcases&strollers what you can expect to see, how to maximise your chances of catching a glimpse of them and how you will know if your kids are ready for a family holiday to chase the Northern Lights.
What are the Northern Lights?
That all depends on who you ask. Today we know that Northern and Southern Lights (aurora borealis) are caused from solar radiation from the sun reacting with our magnetic field. This can happen from a solar wind stream (coronal hole) or a solar storm from a CME (coronal mass ejection). Still...I think spirit still plays a part as well as science.
Some First Nation elders would say it is the spirits of our ancestors coming to visit. I have seen some amazing things. One day I was watching the Northern Lights at Carcross [in Yukon, Canada] and the lights were out quite strong. I heard singing; I noticed an elder was singing walking down the road. When he stopped the lights dimmed and he walked up to me and introduced himself. We talked for a short time and he said, “Do you want the lights to come back?” I said, “Sure” and he started singing again and the lights burst all over the sky even stronger than before. The old man continued walking down the road and the lights stayed out until I could not hear his songs anymore.
Why this fascination with chasing the Northern Lights?
I started shooting photographs of the Northern Lights the first time I saw them. When the auroras come out strong, they are always unique and different. You do not know the colour of the canvas or the shape it will take. You have to act quickly or you may miss them. I love the challenge and I love how they make me feel like a kid all over again. I have a spiritual connection to them that only grows with time.
[The first year I started taking photos of the Northern Lights] there was an amazing display that lasted around 8 hours. Every 30 minutes a coronal hole appeared above our heads. It’s like a portal opening letting out the most beautiful lights. If you ever seen one it’s like the gates of heaven opening up, raining down in every direction. I have seen many since however that night was one of the best I have even seen.
Where are the best places to view the Northern Lights?
Any northern community around the Arctic Circle will have a much greater chance of Northern Lights displays. Yukon, Alaska, Iceland and Norway are all in the Arctic Circle and have many small communities that do not give off much light that make for great viewing. Iceland and Norway have open water for much longer periods of time which makes for great reflections. The temperatures tend to be warmer but the wind might be problem. All in all each place has its unique gifts.
[For more family travel tips on visiting Iceland with kids, see the suitcases&strollers story Reykjavik With Kids.]
One of my favourite places to view the Northern Lights is the Dempster Highway in the Yukon. The feeling you get on this highway is amazing. The mountain valleys on this highway are breathtaking any time of year. I have waited for a few days in one spot and can count the cars I have seen with my fingers.
It is not for the faint of heart though. The Dempster Highway is great in the fall and the spring when temperatures rise to more tolerable levels. In the winter months it can dip down to -50 degrees Centigrade and with no sunlight and no services. The highway is over 700 kilometres long ending in Inuvik. This area is also along the Arctic Circle which makes for better displays because the aurora oval passes along this area all year long.
[For more family travel tips on things to do with kids in Canada, see the suitcases&strollers story on Vancouver with kids.]
What does a typical Northern Lights sighting look like?
This is a hard question. The Northern Lights can explode in the sky and be gone in minutes. The great thing is that's all you need to [ensure you] never forget them.
You will most likely see the Northern Lights when it is dark however good displays can be rare depending on the time of year and solar cycle. The most common Northern Lights are just a glow or are a green ark. A few minutes of a good display is something to be thankful for.
How common is it to actually see the Northern Lights?
Good displays are fairly common at certain times of the year however great displays are very rare. I have been out many times before and waited for 14 hours and seen nothing. Other times they were out all night.
The weather plays a huge role. If it is cloudy you will not see them....maybe only a green cloud. So visitors should have other activities planned in case the weather is overcast for there entire trip. That is why traveling to an area that has beautiful scenery is important.
The fall is my favorite time for Northern Lights. The temperature is still warm and the water ways are still open. For some unknown reason the Northern Lights come out more often during the winter and summer solstice. My guess would be that during these times the earth is tilted in its sweet spot letting solar rays enter through our magnetic field.
There are so many variables [involved in seeing the Northern Lights] that even the scientists struggle to predict [a sighting]. Sometimes they can only occur a few times a year. So if you have the chance to see a great display consider yourself blessed.
Are there particular weather conditions when you are more likely to see the Northern Lights than others?
Dark clear skies are the best. Having clouds can be really problematic. However if they are broken up with lots of clear spots it can enhance the experience and photography. Remember from May to mid August the skies do not get dark in the north so please avoid these months if you want to see the Northern Lights.
What is the best age to take kids to see the Northern Lights?
The Northern Lights can be very challenging for families. Young kids will not want to stay out and wait. For really young children aged 3 to 10, I would make sure you have a warm place set up for them to sleep. Going to remote places may not be the best choice unless you have an RV [campervan] or heated wall tent for them to sleep. As the parents you should be the ones who waits for the Lights. When the Lights come out, wake them up. But be quick because the Lights may only last for a short time.
One night I was out taking pictures and the Northern Lights came out strong. My wife was at home and woke up my two-year-old son and brought him outside. The Northern Lights were dancing all over the sky. He stayed up for a short time and wanted to go back in. As my wife was taking him back into the house he said, "Thanks mummy for showing me the dancing lights." [Although younger kids will only] stay out for short time, they will have great memories.
As they grow the kids will be able to stay out longer and longer to see the Northern Lights. As you wait the night sky is a magical place so have fun and enjoy the show. Play games and research the constellations in the area. It can be interesting to some kids to point these out. You may also plan your trip around a yearly meteor shower. I have seen amazing meteor shows in my outings. It is also a great time to talk and reflect on life. The night has a magic that, once you experience it, will change your life.
How can parents know if their family is ready for a trip to see the Northern Lights with kids?
Take your children out at night before your trip and see how they react. How much patience and interest do they have?
What are your top tips for capturing pictures of the Northern Lights on camera for an amateur travel photographer?
Photographing the Northern Lights is very challenging; a great location is half the battle. [You will need a] good, sturdy tripod that does not freeze up and a fast lens with a good clean high ISO camera.
[When taking photos of the Northern Lights], the better the equipment the better the result. Pick a camera the has good clean ISO up to 6400 (or as close as possible) and a lens no slower than F4. The better the quality of the lens the sharper and clearer your image will be. Know how to set your camera on infinity...quickly. Always have a flash light or two with lots of extra batteries. [Joseph shot the images in this story with a Canon 1DX camera with a 15mm lens.]
Practice taking night shots before you go. I would start your exposer at 30 seconds and work your way down. [Having a digital camera] makes it [easier to photograph the] Northern Lights however you need to be as prepared as possible.
[For more family travel tips on general travel photographer, see the suitcases&strollers story How To Take The Best Travel Photos.]
What are your top tips for viewing the Northern Lights with kids?
Depending on the time of year, the temperature can get very cold. It could start at -2 degrees Centigrade on a clear night and drop down to -30 degrees Centigrade or even colder. If it is November to March be prepared for temperatures to go down to as low as -40 degrees Centigrade or colder.Be prepared for the coldest weather. You can always reduce layers but you can’t add layers if you do not have them.
If it is -25 degrees Centrigrade or colder I would not recommend young children to go out to see the Northern Lights at all.
Keeping them in a warm car can be an option as long as you near a safe place just in case the car breaks down. Frost bite is a very real danger. Balaclavas are a must. Hand warmers, boots that are good for -40 degrees Centigrade or better, scarfs, layers or a Canada Goose jacket or equivalent all work great. You can also have a fire if you are in the right area. Always bring more than you need just in case.
If the night is clear the best thing is to be in an area that you can keep an eye on the night sky. Have a plan so when you see them you can move to a good spot as quickly as possible. The best thing to do if you really want to see the Northern Lights is have spot already picked during the day and just wait...and wait. For the Northern Lights, good things do come to people who wait.
Images: Joseph Bradley of Joseph Bradley Auroras