Dancing color in the starry Arctic sky
Churchill, Manitoba , is one of the finest spots on Earth to see the majestic Northern Lights.
CHURCHILL, Manitoba - The moment I stepped out of the airplane, Churchill took my breath away.
It wasn't the vast wilderness landscape or the way the sun danced off the snow that gave me pause; it was the air itself - about minus-20 degrees Celsius, minus-4 Fahrenheit.
As the frigid air flooded my lungs, I momentarily wondered what I'd gotten myself into. But once the initial shock subsided, I stepped onto the tarmac, ready for the waiting adventure.
Located on the fringe of the Arctic Circle, Churchill, Manitoba, is neither a predictable vacation spot nor an easily accessible one. Perhaps that's part of its multifaceted charm.
It's known as the best spot in the world for seeing both polar bears and beluga whales, something that attracts TV and film crews, adventure-seekers, and celebrities from Martha Stewart to Julianne Hough.
Churchill is one of the top locations on the planet to watch the spectacular light show the aurora borealis, the Northern Lights.
The lights are typically most active from September to November, and again March to April.
But they put on a particularly stellar show in 2013, thanks to an uptick in solar activity created by changes in the sun's magnetic field.
The solar activities (flares, sunspots, solar winds, and other forms of radiation) follow an 11-year cycle.
Some simple facts: Manitoba, one of the Prairie provinces, sits like the nose on Canada's face, between the cheeks of Ontario and Saskatchewan, the chin of the border along North Dakota and Minnesota, and the forehead of Nunavut, a federal territory with a sizable Inuit community. About 60 percent of the population (1.2 million) live in the capital (Winnipeg), an urban concentration no other province can claim. Another boast: The country's second-largest French-speaking community resides here, so you might want to brush up on your conjugations.
Among childhood sentimentalists, the hero of Winnipeg is Winnie the Pooh, who was more than just an imaginary friend. A.A. Milne's literary character was inspired by an orphaned cub adopted by a Canadian veterinarian, who named his ursine pet after his hometown. He eventually donated the bear to the London Zoo, where it received the attentions of one Christopher Robin, Milne's nonfictional son.
But the lights are a main attraction. They occur late at night, an ideal arrangement for anyone who, like myself, prefers the cover of night to the crack of dawn.
That leaves plenty of time for daytime activities in this quaint rustic town, which is as offbeat as it is off the beaten path. Churchill is home to just 900 residents - and as many polar bears.
Residents leave their cars unlocked - not just because they trust their neighbors, but because it provides an immediate haven for any pedestrian who runs into a polar bear that has wandered into town.
For this trip, you'll need to be part of a tour group; in my case it was Frontiers North Adventures, whose guides made the trip fun and extremely educational.
Our group piled into the van and headed to Wapusk Adventures, home of the "Ididamile" dogsled ride, a one-mile trail ride through Churchill's boreal forest.
We huddled together in our parkas and snow pants, while owner Dave Daley, in just a sweatshirt and jeans, talked to us about the finer points of dogsledding.
Aptly nicknamed "Big Dog," Daley is passionate about his animals, and a walk through the dog yard proves the feeling is mutual. After we spent a few minutes meeting these happy huskies, Daley's crew harnessed up two dog teams and asked for volunteers who "like to go fast."
My hand shot up, and Daley pointed to a waiting sled; Cindy, my photographer, settled onto the hard wooden seat in front. I stood on the sled's rails behind her.
Impatient and eager, the dogs barked and leaped in the air, anticipating the journey. One of Daley's mushers climbed onto the sled behind me, and in seconds we were off, gliding across the snow as the dogs joyously broke into a run.
It took just moments for them to find their stride and settle in as a team, pulling us through a frosty, twisting, snow-covered course.
Although the air was beyond brisk, this time my shortness of breath came from the beauty around me and the thrill of the ride.
By the mile's end, the dogs sled had flecks of ice covering their faces, and when our musher's beard was also flecked with ice.
As the next riders eagerly boarded, I retreated to the warmth of the small office. Alternating between thawing out and venturing back outside to watch trip riders complete their mile-long quest, I couldn't yet say that I was acclimating to the weather, but I did, at least, believe I would survive it.
After dinner at Gypsy's Restaurant and Bakery, one of two eateries that were open during our time in Churchill, we piled into a Tundra Buggy and our guide, Doug Ross, explained what we were about to encounter.
As with anything else in nature, there was no guarantee the lights would appear, so it might require patience on our part. The Tundra Buggy, a massive, Hummer-dwarfing vehicle designed specifically to maneuver across the frozen landscape, was equipped with a heater and a toilet, which was really all any of us were concerned about.
Traveling at just about 8 miles per hour, we made our way out of town, crawling across what was a river when temperatures allowed it to thaw. About 40 minutes later, we arrived at our destination - a barren, frozen plateau far from the glare of Churchill's city lights.
As the photographers set up their tripods and cameras, the skies cooperated, breaking open with streaks of green that traveled like haze through the sky.
It was a majestic, awe-inspiring show that continued for hours.
Ethereal shapes made by atmospheric gases slithered through the sky in shades of green that varied from deep emerald to bright neon, often resembling colorful smoke.
Finally, around 1 a.m., just as we were about to call it a night, the lights turned up their intensity, doing what is referred to as "dancing."
Shimmering and shimmying brightly across the sky, they kept all of us spellbound for several minutes, oblivious to the cold and enchanted as we craned our necks to take in the show. It was silent, except for the occasional whispers of "oh," "ahh," and "amazing!" We could not have asked for a better nightcap.
We allowed ourselves a later start the next day, which let us catch up on sleep and look at our photos. Shooting the Northern Lights requires a certain amount of trial and error, and everyone shared what had worked (and what hadn't) the night before.
We were ready for another day of Churchill activities, but everyone was eager for night to fall so we could see more lights.
We spent the afternoon exploring the boreal forest in one of the most magical ways possible: on snowshoes.
Once we finally all got the hang of them, we found ourselves practically gliding through the area, like little kids enjoying a snow day from school.
Evening brought a blizzard that made viewing the lights impossible, so we stayed in and hoped the next day would be more fruitful. As morning arrived, our guides were checking the roads to see if it was safe to venture out.
Snow was blowing and the temperatures plunged to minus-40 degrees. (We learned that, at minus-40 degrees, the temperature is the same in Fahrenheit as it is in Celsius. Interesting to know, but I could have done without the firsthand lesson!)
It became an "indoor adventure" kind of day, which included visiting Churchill's Eskimo Museum, where we gained fascinating insight into the area's culture, and the Arctic Trading Post, which appears to have been plucked out of the 1800s.
By nightfall the storm had passed, so we loaded into vans and drove to a different area outside of Churchill. Again, it was as if the lights were waiting for us.
Every bit as spectacular as they had been two nights earlier, the vivid green lights were shot through with majestic hues of purple. The lights moved quickly among the stars, seeming to encircle us like an animated, elusive ribbon.
The night was still and cold, with stars twinkling above the trees as the lights glimmered. I thought about how fortunate I was just to have experienced this even once in my lifetime, but something told me I wasn't done. I'm definitely going to have to do this again.