CRACK! The lake ice is restless tonight, crackling out in the darkness like old bones, weakened by wind and warm spring days. But I am safely on solid ground along the mainland portion of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. It is nearing midnight. The stars overhead are as bright as sparks from a campfire. But it is not lake ice or campfires that have me out this late, alone and in the cold. It is what is happening just above the ice: here in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore the northern lights are out.
The northern lights, or the “aurora borealis,” is one of the treasures of the dark skies over these islands. Far from the lights of big cities, with a clear and cold atmosphere, and open views, the lakeshore provides good night sky watching opportunities. The Milky Way arches across the sky. The constellations spell out wonder and meteors punctuate it all. But for all of that, it is the northern lights that most stir the imagination — bright ribbons of green unfurling across the horizon. Spikes of orange and red reach up like the tines of a crown into the stars. On nights when the aurora is visible, the sky over the Apostle Islands comes alive.
There are scientific explanations enough for the lights: protons and electrons streaming away from the sun at 3 million miles an hour on the solar wind interacting with the magnetic field of the earth, colliding with and energizing atoms of oxygen and hydrogen until they glow and shimmer with light. Since the solar wind is constantly buffeting the earth, the lights are almost always shining somewhere on the globe. The aurora occurs most often in an elongated ring known as the “auroral zone” that encircles the polar regions. The further you go south from the green-gold ring of the auroral zone, the intensity and likelihood of seeing the northern lights decreases. Places like Denali or Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska fairly shimmer with northern lights and you can see several hundred displays a year. Further south, Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota claims over 100 nights of aurora a year. Here in the Apostles, we are on the southern edge of good aurora watching but still get displays perhaps a dozen times a year.
On nights when it does happen, all the scientific explanations fall away. To view the northern lights is to stare straight into the wonderous. Like few other experiences in nature, the northern lights stir a sense of wonder, beauty, and power beyond anything man-made. People shout and clap their hands at displays of fireworks but under the northern lights, most stand quietly, talking in hushed tones if at all. Watching a luminous patch of sky 600 miles high flickering like an eternal flame humbles us to silence. It is night. I am alive. And the sky is dancing.
AURORA VIEWING TIPS: There are no trail signs or GPS coordinates that can lead you directly and reliably to the northern lights but you can increase your chances of experiencing the lights by:
- Following one of the many aurora prediction websites or phone apps such as NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center at https://www.swpc.noaa.gov/products/aurora-30-minute-forecast.
- Plan your trip for a moonless period for the darkest skies.
- Choose an open area far from city lights.
- Plan to stay up late since the best viewing comes between 10pm and 2am.
- Give your eyes plenty of time to adjust to the darkness.
- Camera sensors can do a better job of capturing the light and colors than our eyes do. Don’t be surprised if these images are more vivid than what you can see with the naked eye.
Jeff Rennicke is Executive Director of the Friends of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. He is also an educator, outdoor adventure travel writer and photographer.