Travel Tale: Taking the Train to the Northern Lights

Candice Gaukel Andrews September 25, 2014 3
Green northern lights and mood

I’m in the last compartment in the train’s last car, traveling to an end of the Earth. ©Eric Rock

It’s a fact: you can’t write on a train. The words come out all crooked and jumbled and wild within the lines. It’s best to just watch out the window.

I’ve discovered this truth while on The Hudson Bay train, sitting in the almost empty dining car, now that it’s after dinner. I’m on Natural Habitat Adventures’ Northern Lights & Arctic Cultures tour, riding rails that will take me from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, to the town of Churchill, a trip of 1,056 miles and 36 to 40 hours, depending on the weather. In 1929, it took more than 3,000 men to lay these tracks over permafrost and muskeg.

Inuksuk and northern lights

Most people travel to Churchill for either a polar bear tour in the fall or a beluga whales expedition in the summer. I’m searching for the northern lights in winter. ©Eric Rock

This trip to Churchill will be far different than the ones I and most other travelers have undertaken: either a polar bear tour in the fall or a beluga whale expedition in the summer. I’m searching for the northern lights on this journey, so I’m on this train in February, and I’m looking forward to gaining some bragging rights for choosing to go to the sub-Arctic in the dead of winter. I want to touch and absorb, just for a brief moment, some of the strength of those steely men who put down tracks to the white North so long ago.

The temperature is now –21 degrees Fahrenheit, with a windchill of –50. The train’s crew likes to tell us passengers that it gets so cold here on some days that exposed human flesh freezes in 30 seconds. One VIA Rail Canada worker tells me to take off my earrings when I go outside since the metal could make my earlobes more susceptible to frostbite. That’s going to make a great story—and up my bragging-rights ante—when I get back home, even though I won’t be able to write it down now.

Treetops and northern lights

Oxygen in the atmosphere typically produces green and yellow northern lights, while nitrogen produces red, violet and occasionally blue. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

I watch out the window for a couple of hours, as we roll through the boreal forest. The arms of the thin and hungry trees hold small globules of snow, as if they’re trying to cradle something—anything—against the wind. It’s a black-and-white-and-brown world I’ve entered; somewhere between full-color and completely right and entirely wrong.

I listen to the soprano glasses clink and rattle in their trays to the baritone-bass beat of the train wheels rolling over the tracks. Just like the songs of an old, favorite, teenage rock band, it’s the music of my “Comeback Tour.”

Northern lights hot spot

Northern lights and sun

Aurora activity happens only in the far north or far south because of the magnetic fields near the poles. ©Eric Rock

Because Churchill lies directly beneath the auroral oval in the Northern Hemisphere, it is one of the best places on Earth to see the northern lights. In fact, aurora activity occurs on more than 300 nights a year in Churchill. But in order to see the lights, however, there must be 1) clear skies and 2) solar winds.The sun has a number of holes in its corona (or outer layer). High-energy particles stream out of these holes and then are thrown out into our solar system. When solar wind particles collide with molecules of nitrogen and oxygen in the atmosphere, the agitated energy is released in the form of light. Oxygen typically produces green and yellow lights, while nitrogen produces red, violet and, occasionally, blue. When billions of these collisions happen at the same time, they produce the northern lights.

Aurora activity happens only in high latitudes (far north or far south) because of the magnetic fields near the poles, which pull the solar wind particles into the Earth’s atmosphere. The southern lights are known as the aurora australis. 

Sleep stop

Churchill train

“The Hudson Bay” train occasionally stops, long enough to take on water and for a check of the axles against freezing. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

The thin and hungry trees are all gone now. We are rolling on tundra where only short shrubs and willows can hack it—and do some boasting of their own about steely determination.

I go to my sleeping compartment. It turns out that writing is not going to be the only thing that’s hard for me to do on a train. I can’t fall asleep, despite the train’s lulling rhythm. After four hours, I give up trying. I lift the window shade next to the bed. During the night, the train occasionally stops, long enough to take on water and for a check of the axles against freezing. At this particular stop, I watch the trainmen outside, doing their work as quickly as they can. Overcome with a feeling of thankfulness for being warm inside my compartment—the last one in the last car on this train traveling to an end of the Earth—I finally doze.

Colors in the night

Yellow northern lights

Outside my train window, a yellow-white, swirly line percolates across the sky like a long, faded ribbon. ©Eric Rock

My shut-eye doesn’t last long. Two hours later, around midnight, my guide comes down the aisle and softly announces that there are northern lights outside. I raise my window shade again and see them for the first time, very faintly. A yellow-white, swirly line is percolating across the sky, weaving through the dark like a long, faded ribbon.

Celestial lights in swirls of lemon. An orange slice of a moon. The rocking motion and soft clacking of the rails.

I sleep wonderfully.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,

Candy

3 Comments »

  1. Harvey Spears September 29, 2014 at 1:22 pm - Reply

    Wow! Your photos got me very interested in this journey. Thank you for sharing them and your comments. Where do you get the Hudson Bay train to begin the trip and is there a best time to go?

  2. cristina September 25, 2014 at 8:15 am - Reply

    We saw the northern lights from our train ride back from Churchill last year in August! Everybody was asleep on the train except of us who were too excited to sleep!

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