The Aurora Was So Mystifying We Shot Rockets at It—Now You Can Watch at Home
During the Cold War, American and Canadian forces shot thousands of rockets at the Northern Lights. But now, the millions of us housebound due to coronavirus can watch them online.
It's a blistering cold night, 24 degrees below, and we are barreling along a frozen creek somewhere near the groovy town of Churchill, Manitoba. For hours, a small group of women, a rifle-slinging bear guard named Trent, and me have been holed up in a cozy cabin in the boreal forest, waiting for the Northern Lights. The conditions are ideal; the black skies clear, the stars dazzling. Already, it’s been a magical night.
During a trek in the snowy woods around dusk, Trent leads us into a clearing and abruptly stops, waves us to hold still. His heart was pounding, he later told us. I’m right behind him. About a hundred yards away, a moose stands in the white soundless landscape, starts walking toward us. Soon, another bigger moose emerges from the thick knot of spruce trees. It’s a mom and her calf, Trent whispers, a sight the Churchill native and hunter rarely witnesses.
Meanwhile, Judy Wilson, our Canadian guide, has been obsessively monitoring the aurora on an iPhone app, its steady march in the skies over Hudson Bay. But as we linger in the cabin that night, the mystical lights never appear. We have only a few days left. Will they come out?
It’s late February, and I’m here in Churchill, on an all-female trip with Natural Habitat Adventures expressly to see the Northern Lights. Over its history, the town has variously served as a home of indigenous peoples, a thriving fur trading post, and a Cold War era hub for the U.S. and Canada partly to spy on the Soviets. Because of Churchill’s unique location under the auroral oval, it’s also one of the best places to see the aurora borealis on earth.
Of course, no one is traveling now, much less to Churchill, a town of 800 accessible only by two-day train ride or chartered plane. But there's still a way to see the Northern Lights every night: the live aurora cam run by the Churchill Northern Studies Centre. Watching the livestream, in fact, is how one of the women in our group became enraptured with seeing the aurora in person.
As part of our trip with Natural Habitat, the eco-expedition company, we’re also learning to survive the Canadian sub-arctic. Considering how freezing and isolated we are, this is probably good. We’ve gone snow-shoeing to inspect the remnants of a cargo plane named “Miss Piggy” that crashed in November 1979. (Thankfully, no one died.) We’ve built fires using flint, shredded cotton and paper in heart-shaped metal pans. In the cabin, we’ve been shown by Alexis, a tiny 25-year-old local resident with pastel-streaked hair, how to make a delicious bread called bannock, in a cast iron pan over a wood-burning stove. Alexis, who occasionally treks outside to chop wood, is also mighty handy with an axe.
Now we’re riding along in our heated snow coach in the middle of nowhere. It’s almost midnight, black as a cave. “Hey, Linds,” Wilson suddenly says to our easygoing 26-year-old driver, Lindsey Abell, who’s also a travel agent. “Can you please stop and let me out for a sec? I could swear I can see something changing out there.”
Bundled in layers of down and merino wool, our giant gloves stuffed with hand warmers, we spill out onto the eerie tundra. Wilson cautions us to stay close. There could be polar bears afoot. (Churchill is best known as the “polar bear capital of the world.”) We stand, in our giant hooded black parkas, snow pants, and heavy rubber boots, gazing toward the sky. The wind howls. In minutes, my eyelashes are caked in ice. But then a band of bright green light shimmers, swirls, bursts, falls like a curtain. Then another swath of emerald arcs across the horizon, grows before our eyes.
“It’s so cool,” says Megan King, a 34-year-old quality assurance analyst in the video game industry, and mom of a five-year-old daughter. King is one of five women on our trip, one of Natural Habitat’s first such all-female adventures. She’s always longed for the cold, even though she lives in sunny Oceanside, California, where the temperature rarely dips below 60. “It’s like space in our backyard,” she says of the lights. “Just why it happens and how it happens; it’s a phenomenon you don’t see anywhere else.”
Over the centuries, observers have assigned many meanings to the aurora borealis. Some early cultures found the lights menacing, others a harbinger of hope. In the northernmost reaches of Canada, the Inuit believed the aurora was a giant celestial game of soccer, played across the sky by the souls of their ancestors. The ball was a walrus skull. They called the fastest-moving auroras “the dance of death.”
The scientific reasons for the mysterious display are not quite as whimsical. The aurora is caused by the solar wind smashing into Earth’s magnetic atmosphere, which holds different gases. Oxygen elicits greens. Purple and reds are excited by nitrogen. Another thing I didn’t realize before my trip: unless you’re staring through a camera lens, you won’t see the vividness of the colors with the naked eye. The aurora looms as a white and gray ethereal presence, ghostlike.
During my February odyssey to Churchill, one of the best places to observe the Northern Lights on earth because of its position over the auroral oval, I got lucky. I saw the awe-inspiring lights three of the four nights of our visit. Some aurora thrill-seekers never do.
Renee Vollerthum, a widow and retired I.R.S. worker from Baltimore, Maryland, was also in our group. After seeing a friend’s magnificent aurora photos from Iceland, she yearned for a similar experience. Last November she set off on a cruise in Norway, even though it meant going alone. She was hugely disappointed. The skies, alas, were cloudy every night. Voollerthum decided to gamble on the elusive spectacle again. She searched “northern lights,” and up popped our all-female aurora trip. She isn’t disappointed anymore. “It was beyond my expectations,” she said of the dancing lights.
I felt the same way about Churchill and its fascinating history. One day we visited the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, a sustainable, blue and white research facility that was once home to a bustling military operation. During the 1950s and 1960s, the Churchill Research Range was the site of a brisk U.S. and Canadian rocket program. A handful of old rockets still poke out of the tundra. Short and long-range missiles were considered key to air defense, but the magnetic Arctic skies often wreaked havoc on radio communication and navigational instruments. So rockets were used to gather data about the atmosphere.
But the rocket program was also used to illuminate the mysteries of the aurora. From the late 1950s until the mid-1980s, more than 3500 rockets were shot into the sky to explore various questions about the strange beautiful lights. One such weird experiment was Project Waterhole. This involved sending rockets through the aurora and detonating a bomb to see if water could mess with the lights.
Today, researchers come to the distant Centre from across the world to study all manner of wild and interesting things endemic to the Hudson Bay region. Constellations and polar bears. Subarctic plants and climate change. One of the young Canadian women studying there, Jordan Amatuzio, taught us how to build an igloo one frigid afternoon. (Hint: you need a machete.)
On our third evening in Churchill, we hunkered down in a specially designed building called the Aurora Dome, miles outside of town. The structure had two big domes up wooden stairs, where you could sit underneath and watch the aurora. To sustain us as we waited, we had pizza, hot chocolate and Bailey’s, wine and beer, jelly beans, gummy bears. At one point, we got a little excited: a brown furry critter called a vole skittered out from the kitchen, disappeared, then leapt out behind me over the couch. Soon, we dashed out into the bitter night, when great long ribbons of luminous green exploded across the sky. It was so cold I could only stand there for seconds before my cheeks burned and I had to hurry back inside. I have never felt so small.