The northern lights have long been a source of wonder for human beings. Vikings believed that the green fire in the night sky was caused by light reflecting off the armour of Valkyries as they carried brave warriors to Valhalla. In the land we now call Canada, the Algonquin people interpreted the lights as a reassuring message from the creator, Nanabozho, lighting a vast fire far to the north.
Scientists would tell you that the Aurora Borealis is, in fact, caused by collisions between gaseous particles in the earth’s atmosphere and charged particles released from the sun – but that would be taking the magic out of one of nature’s greatest spectacles.
Every year people travel across the globe for a chance to see the northern lights. The best places to observe them are dark skies free of light pollution. You’re in luck – Grande Prairie has plenty of that. Today, we’re going to explore how to maximize your chances of witnessing a phenomenon many consider to be prime bucket-list material, as well as sharing some of the best snaps of the lights in our region from our Instagram community. Let’s jump in!
It’s true that you have a chance of seeing the northern lights all year round. But as they are best seen at night, it makes sense that the longer the darkness lasts, the greater the odds you have to see the blue, green, and purple hues in their brightest form. Nights in our region are the longest from September to April.
Some other factors come into play as well. Remember all those gaseous particles? The earth’s geomagnetic activity has a big hand in determining whether the lights will occur or not. Geomagnetic activity is typically strongest around the equinoxes, which fall in September and October and in March and April.
All that said, for the best chance to see the Aurora Borealis, plan a trip to Grande Prairie anytime in the late fall, winter, or early spring.
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Because the northern lights rely on many things from both the Earth and the Sun happening simultaneously, accurately predicting when they will appear is difficult beyond a few hours of them occurring.
But there are still a few steps you can take to tip the odds in your favour. First of all, check the weather regularly. You won’t be seeing the lights if it’s a cloudy night. Secondly, aurorawatch offers real-time monitoring of geomagnetic conditions across Alberta. It helpfully translates all the science into an easy-to-read percentage chance of the northern lights occurring, too!
Even in larger cities like Calgary or Edmonton, the northern lights can be seen when the conditions are right. But heading away from sources of artificial light – those typically cast by city buildings – can significantly improve your chances of seeing the lights in all their bright colours.
And because the phenomena occurs near the magnetic poles, the best places to watch the lights in North America are in the northwestern parts of Canada. Given that Grande Prairie is actually far enough north that it’s considered to be within Canada’s circumpolar north zone, our region is among one of the best places in North America to see the natural lightshow!
The Grande Prairie and wider Peace Region offer a host of great spots for stargazing and night-time photography. Here’s a handful of spots conveniently located within a short drive from downtown Grande Prairie:
Kleskun Hill, about 20 minutes east
Saskatoon Mountain, about 30 minutes west
Nitehawk Adventure Park, about 20 minutes south
Dunvegan Bridge, about 1 hour north
A shot of the iconic Centre 2000 sundial underneath the Northern Lights would be truly magical – and you don’t even have to leave the city for that!
The Northern Lights are a treasure of all Alberta. Here are some other places further afield in our province where you can marvel at the sky:
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Thanks to one of Grande Prairie’s top photographers, Darrel Comeau, we’re pleased to bring you some expert advice to help you capture the best possible photo of the Northern Lights.
For those of you with high-end cameras such as a DSLR, the settings are easy to get exactly right for the perfect shot.
Use a 1-second shutter speed, an aperture of F1.4 at ISO 800, and fine-tune from there.
If your camera doesn’t have the above capabilities, still adjust your aperture to its lowest setting, dial up the ISO, and adjust the shutter speed.
Zoom in on one star and adjust the focus until the star is sharp. This will give you what is called “infinite focus” and will get the strongest shots of the aurora.
While Dedicated cameras may get you a better photo, some simple tips and tricks will help you take great shots with your phone.
Become familiar with the manual or pro modes which allow you to adjust settings manually. Set the aperture to its lowest setting, with the ISO set higher. This will allow the sensor in your camera to take a great picture at night.
Shutter speed can be variable; keep the shutter open longer for a brighter image, as more of the aurora’s light will be captured. This will give photos a softer, more “airy” look. A fast shutter speed will “freeze” the lights, giving them a sharp and crisp quality.
When in doubt, try night mode. While the image may not be as strong, it is a great start.
Use a tripod. Nighttime photography is tricky. Regardless of your camera, you’ll need to keep it as steady as possible.
Invest in a remote shutter release to take a shot without touching the camera. Or set the timer to a two-second timer to give the camera time to stop shaking before the shutter opens.
Like all professional photographers, Darrel isn’t finished after simply shooting the photo – most edit their images to give them a little extra shine. Adjust the contrast, clarity, and vibrance to make your photos pop (Darrel uses Adobe Lightroom). As with everything, practice makes perfect!
Whether you happen to be passing through our region on other business or are planning a getaway to hunt for the northern lights specifically, Grande Prairie offers a variety of comfortable accommodation options. The Four Points by Sheraton and the Sandman Hotel are both located conveniently in the city and offer an excellent array of facilities to make your stay most relaxing.
If you’re looking for other great winter activities – from skiing to ice fishing to dog sledding – to keep you busy while you’re visiting our region, be sure to check out our Winter Activities Roundup blog here.
Don’t forget! If you’re heading out in winter, remember that in the Peace Country the temperature at night can often drop to as low as -40°C/-40°F. Dress appropriately, and make sure your vehicle has plenty of gas and an emergency survival kit just in case. We wish you the best of luck – and if you do happen to be fortunate enough to catch the heavens dancing, hit us up on Facebook or Instagram by tagging us or using the hashtag #GPTourism! We’d love to see your photos!