A No-Nonsense Guide To Stalking The Northern Lights

It's that time of year for spotting the big disco ball in the sky. Yes, I'm talking about the aurora borealis, the northern lights, the ultimate light show presented by (ta-da!) Mother Nature herself.

Here's what you need to know if 2016 is your year for finally witnessing this cosmic, life-changing event:

1. Your odds go way up the closer you get to the Arctic Circle. The neon greens, the pinks, the reds, the blues, the violets that streak across the night sky are the result of collisions between gaseous particles in our atmosphere with supercharged particles from the sun. These head-on encounters happen 24/7 in a weird-shaped oval at the Earth's magnetic poles, so the closer you are, the better "the seats."

2. They can only be seen by the naked eye when it's dark and cloudless.  This means winter is the time to look. As in now. Right now. When there's no light pollution. They don't call the northern climes the Land of the Midnight Sun because it sounds poetic. In the summer, it's light. Nearly all day. But this time of year, when the air is crisp and the sun barely makes an appearance, Mother Nature starts auditioning for a Pink Floyd light show.

Anytime the sun's magnetic fields get distorted and twisted and sunspots and their solar flares start exploding, the pyrotechnics appear to dance and violently sashay across the sky. The good news is we're only a couple years out from what scientists call a solar maximus, so this is the best it's probably going to get for another 7 or 8 years.

3. Pictures and videos don't begin to cut it. Sure, you can watch Hotel Ranga's webcam for a live stream of southern Iceland's skies. The vibrant celestial ballet might even prompt an inadvertent sucking in of your breath. But until you've seen the real deal, it's like "dating" a picture of Miss September.

4. Your options diminish if you want to be comfortable. As you can imagine, there is lots of frozen tundra with a ringside seat to this celestial spectacle. Hotel rooms and people? Not so much. In fact, the reason you hear so little about Aurora Borealis' counterpart, the aurora australis, is because it's primarily visible in Antarctica.

Options for the northern lights are better. The Yukon, Alaska, Greenland, Iceland, the Scandinavian countries all offer packages and hotels and research stations. In Sweden's Lapland, for example, there's an ice hotel with suites carved by 100 artists and in Finland, you can watch the dancing display from a glass-topped igloo. But riddle me this: How long do you want to face bitter cold temperatures in an igloo? You can only showshoe, ice fish, and ride reindeer for so long. In Alaska, on the other hand, you can gaze at the Northern Lights from the warm, mineral-rich waters of Chena Hot Springs, but if those lights don't show up (and believe me, the aurora is a diva), you're going to risk looking like a raisin.

5. Best option bar none is Hurtigruten. This Norwegian freight line that runs the length of Norway's jagged coast offers 11-day cruises from Bergen in the south of the country to Kirkenes just nine miles shy of the Russian border. Not only do you end up 250 miles above the Arctic Circle, but 11 full days ups your odds of spotting the celestial display by well, 11. Hurtigruten will even give you a second cruise (for free) if, for some strange, unexpected reason, you go away empty-handed.

Hurtigruten has been around since 1893 when the government contracted it to improve communication in a country's that's more than 1000 miles long and only a few feet across. Okay, I'm exaggerating about the width. But not about the wonders Hurtigruten has wrought upon Norway as it drops off mail, delivers freight and, more recently, delights intrepid cruise passengers (it's not the QE2, not does it try to be) with 11-day round-trip journeys up and down its stunningly beautiful coast.

6. You get the guarantee without freezing off your tush. Hurtigruten doesn't have all the foo-foo stuff of most cruise lines (the casinos, the musical cabarets, the photographers trying to capture your every movement). But it does have warm, snug rooms and food that will knock your mucklucks off. Expect plentiful buffets with piles of fresh and smoked fish, pates, cheese, salads, yogurts and yummy three-course dinners at night. The captain will even alert you when the lights are doing their thing.

7. It never hurts to check in with NASA. Since solar weather affects spacecraft in orbit and can knock out power grids, NASA keeps tabs on the sun's aurora-causing activities.  They're one of several agencies that issue alerts if they're expecting an impressive show.  The National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration updates their forecast every 30 minutes.