Saskatchewan is known across the country as “The Land of Living Skies.” It’s no surprise with the spectacular sunrises and sunsets that regularly light up the horizon. Well, at night, our skies are just as amazing with clear views of billions of stars and the dancing northern lights.
For all the details on how to see the northern lights in Saskatchewan, read on.
What Causes the Northern Lights?
The northern lights (also known as the aurora borealis) are caused by solar activity. Electrically charged particles from the sun travel towards the Earth where they hit gaseous particles in the Earth’s atmosphere. The resulting collision results in auroral displays of green, red, violet and blue. This is most often witnessed at or near the magnetic poles of the northern and southern hemispheres.
Interesting fact: The green-coloured aurora is from the collision of oxygen molecules 60 miles above the Earth’s surface. Red aurora is from high altitude oxygen about 200 miles up. Blue or purplish-red is from the collision with nitrogen
What is it Like to Experience the Northern Lights?
Whether seen once or a thousand times, this cosmic phenomenon is a viscerally emotional, near-spiritual experience that will leave you completely spellbound.
During a vibrant show, the sky explodes in colour as green and sometimes purple and red streaks of light pulse and flicker in rapid succession, unfurling in pillared arcs from horizon to horizon. The rippling swirls of the northern lights are mesmerizing as they swoop and dance, the colours blending in a complicated choreography on a star-studded dancefloor high above the earth’s surface.
When to See the Northern Lights
The northern lights are fickle – it’s hard to know when they’ll make an appearance and how long they will last. I’ve seen shows that started weakly but lasted the entire night. I’ve seen a five-minute performance that explodes across the sky and just as quickly disappears. I’ve also seen rare but exceptional shows that have raged all night in all directions. (It’s considered an exceptional show when you look in a southern direction and can still see the northern lights pulsing).
Thankfully, Canada is one of the world’s best locations to set out to view the wildest light show on the planet.
A good resource to check updates and get notifications is the NOAA aurora forecast. They issue 3-day forecasts and short-term forecasts in UTC time. The short-term forecast shows an easy-to-understand map with a green oval of where you can currently see the aurora.
It takes three days for the energy from the sun to hit the earth. Which is why forecasts are fairly unpredictable. The most reliable forecast is a half-hour ahead of time based off of satellite information.
There are several apps you can also use to get the aurora forecast. Most pull information from the NOAA. The easiest way to find an app regardless of whether you’re an Android or Apple user is to search “Aurora” and choose an app with the most downloads.
How to See the Northern Lights in Saskatchewan
The trick to viewing aurora is to keep an eye on aurora forecasts. When there’s a good projection, all you have to do is head out and sit patiently to watch and see what happens.
If you’re hoping to see the northern lights in Saskatchewan, you’ll want to head north and away from light pollution. The further north you go, the more likely you will be to see a show. The lights are visible more often in Saskatoon than they are in Regina. But even more often in Prince Albert National Park, La Ronge, Hudson Bay, Meadow Lake and other northern destinations.
What Time Will I See the Northern Lights in Saskatchewan?
The best times of year to see the northern lights in Saskatchewan are during our darkest months – i.e. during late fall, winter and early spring. With more dark hours this time of year, particularly between 11 PM and 3 AM, it’s more likely you will see them. Unfortunately, it’s also the coldest time of year. Good preparation includes wearing warm layers, packing snacks and hot drinks, fueling up before you go and carrying a car battery booster.
If there is light pollution, a bright or full moon, haze or fog, you’re less likely to see the aurora borealis in Saskatchewan.
While you can see the northern lights dozens of times a year, there are a few things to take note of.
- Most often, the northern lights are a dim arc across the northern horizon. Very rarely is it a spectacular show that fills the sky.
- If there is a strong electromagnetic storm (i.e. stronger chance of aurora), you’ll likely be able to see them further south.
Where to See the Northern Lights in Saskatchewan
Whether it’s from the warmth of a cabin, outside on a frozen lake, or simply from the front seat of your vehicle, Saskatchewan boasts the perfect trifecta of high latitude, low light pollution and long nights (from October to April) needed to take in these dazzling sheets of colour.
READ MORE: Best Cabin Rentals in Saskatchewan
The northern lights appear in the sky and can be viewed anywhere that is far north enough for the show to be visible. (Remember, this all depends on the strength of the geomagnetic storm and sky conditions in terms of clouds or fog).
What Specific Locations Can I See the Northern Lights?
For specific locations – you’ll want to head north and away from light pollution. It’s best to scout locations in the daytime. It’s easier and safer to see where you are and what’s around you. You’ll also want to make sure you’re on public land and not trespassing on private land. (Unless you have the express permission of the landowners.)
Some of the best spots are from national, provincial and regional parks. I recommend staying in dark sky campgrounds. The shorelines of lakes are also great, especially if they don’t have light pollution from cabins. If you’re at a lake, you’ll want to be on the southern shore so you can look north across the water. Reflections of the northern lights in the water can add an impressive flair to the northern lights show.
The northern lights can be seen from a city if the show is strong enough. But most houses and buildings block the view of seeing the lights – not to mention the high rate of light pollution within urban settings.
Safety Tips when Viewing the Northern Lights in Saskatchewan
When going out at night, you’ll want to consider your safety. If leaving your vehicle, it’s helpful to carry a headlamp. While cell phone flashlights work, many headlamps have a red-light feature that allows you to turn on the red light and reduce the impact on your eye’s sensitivity when viewing the northern lights. This is an affordable headlamp I recommend and use myself.
In Saskatchewan, many people pull off the side of the road to view the northern lights. It’s dangerous to stop or park on a highway or grid road. A safer option is to park on approaches. These are short roads or driveways that lead into fields.
As with any trip, make sure to take warm clothing, pack water and a few snacks, ensure you have a full tank of fuel, and consider carrying a battery booster. (I am guilty myself of killing the battery in my vehicle on a full night of aurora chasing and having to call for help. This jump starter could have saved me so much trouble back then and it now gives me peace of mind when I head out.)
Quick Tips for Taking Photos of the Northern Lights
The best way to take photos of the northern lights is to use a DSLR or mirrorless camera on a tripod with a wide-angle lens on manual setting using a wide aperture and slow shutter speed.
I recommend a lens that’s between 14mm and 24mm. An f/1.4, 1.8 or 2.8 works best. While other settings depend on how bright the show is, a shutter speed of 2 to 8 seconds and an ISO of 1600 or 3200 often work well. But half the fun is trying different settings to see what works best. I also recommend using a two-second timer or remote to take the photo to reduce any camera shake.
If you don’t have access to a camera, smartphones do a pretty good job as well.
Three quick tips when using your cellphone to get the best possible photo:
- Use a tripod or lean your camera up against something to keep it still
- Set a timer for 2 seconds so you don’t shake the phone when pressing the button to take the picture
- Use night mode, or if you’re shooting in manual, extend the time of your shutter speed
To learn more about seeing the northern lights, read about tips and tricks from local night photographer Jeanine Holowatiuk.
If you’re looking for tips to see and capture the northern lights or how to take photos you’re your camera, consider joining the online Facebook group Saskatchewan Aurora Hunters to meet up with people from all around Saskatoon and Saskatchewan with a passion for the northern lights – including myself!
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