One of nature's greatest shows

SNOW STEPS: Snowshoeing is one of the many cold-weather activities in the area around Churchill in Manitoba, Canada.
SNOW STEPS: Snowshoeing is one of the many cold-weather activities in the area around Churchill in Manitoba, Canada.

The moment I stepped out of the airplane, Churchill took my breath away.

It wasn't the vast wilderness landscape or the way the sun danced off the snow that gave me pause; it was the air itself, which hovered in the vicinity of minus-20 degrees Celsius.

I'd left Texas and balmy 21-degree temperatures just two days earlier. A short stay in Winnipeg, where the mercury dipped just below freezing, left me with a false sense of hardiness.

As the cold Churchill air flooded my lungs, I momentarily wondered what I'd gotten myself into.

But once the initial shock subsided, I stepped onto the tarmac, ready for the awaiting adventure.

Located on the fringe of the Arctic Circle, Churchill, Manitoba, is neither a predictable vacation spot nor an easily accessible one. Perhaps that's part of its multifaceted charm.

It's known as the best spot in the world for seeing both polar bears and beluga whales - something that attracts TV and film crews, adventure-seekers and celebrities ranging from Martha Stewart to Julianne Hough.

It's also one of the top locations on the planet to watch the spectacular light show known as the aurora borealis - the Northern Lights.

The lights are typically most active from September to November, and again March to April.

But they're enjoying a particularly stellar year in 2013, thanks to the uptick in solar activity created by changes in the sun's magnetic field.

The solar activities (flares, sunspots, solar winds and other forms of radiation) follow a predictable 11-year cycle known as the solar maximum, and will peak around September.

That means sky watchers travelling to Churchill this year will be richly rewarded with sights that words can barely describe.

The lights come out late at night - an ideal arrangement for anyone who, like myself, prefers the cover of night to the crack of dawn.

That leaves plenty of time for daytime activities in this quaint rustic town, which is as offbeat as it is off the beaten path. Churchill is home to just 900 residents ... and as many polar bears.

Residents leave their cars unlocked - not just because they trust their neighbours, but because it provides an immediate haven for any pedestrian who runs into a polar bear that has wandered into town.

For this sort of trip, you'll definitely need to be part of a tour group, and in my case it was Frontiers North Adventures, whose guides made the entire trip fun and extremely educational.

Our group piled into the van and headed to Wapusk Adventures, home of the "Ididamile" dog-sled ride, a one-mile trail ride through Churchill's boreal forest.

We huddled together in our parkas and snow pants, while owner Dave Daley - wearing just a sweatshirt and jeans - talked to us about the finer points of dog sledding.

Aptly nicknamed "Big Dog," Daley is passionate about his animals, and a walk through the dog yard proves that the feeling is mutual. After spending a few minutes meeting these happy huskies, Daley's crew harnessed up two dog teams and asked for volunteers who "like to go fast."

My hand shot up, and Daley pointed to a waiting sled; Cindy, my photographer, settled onto the hard wooden seat in front. I stood on the sled's rails behind her.

Impatient and eager, the dogs barked and leaped in the air, anticipating the journey ahead of them. One of Daley's mushers climbed onto the sled behind me, and in seconds we had were off, gliding across the snow as the dogs joyously broke into a run.

It took just moments for them to find their stride and settle in as a team, ushering us through a frosty, twisting, snow-covered course.

Although the air was beyond brisk, this time my shortness of breath came from the beauty around me and the thrill of the ride.

By the mile's end, the dogs pulling our sled had flecks of ice covering their faces, and when I looked at our musher, his beard was also flecked with ice.

While the next riders eagerly boarded, I retreated to the warmth of the small office. Alternating between thawing out and venturing back outside to watch more riders complete their mile-long quest, I couldn't yet say that I was acclimating to the weather, but I did, at least, believe I would survive it.

After dinner at Gypsy's Restaurant and Bakery - one of two eateries that were open during our time in Churchill - we piled into a Tundra Buggy and our guide, Doug Ross, explained what we were about to encounter.

As with anything else in nature, there was no guarantee that the lights would appear, so it might require patience on our part.

The Tundra Buggy - a massive, Hummer-dwarfing vehicle designed specifically to manoeuvre across the frozen landscape - was equipped with a heater and a toilet, which was really all any of us were concerned about.

Travelling at just about eight miles per hour, we made our way out of town, crawling across what was a river when temperatures allowed it to thaw. About 40 minutes later, we arrived at our destination - a barren, frozen plateau far from the disruptive glare of Churchill's city lights.

As the photographers set up their tripods and cameras, the skies cooperated, breaking open with streaks of green that travelled like haze through the sky.

It was a majestic, awe-inspiring show that continued for hours.

Ethereal shapes made by atmospheric gases slithered through the sky in shades of green that varied from deep emerald to bright neon, often resembling colourful smoke.

It was fascinating and hypnotic; each of us repeatedly pulled away from the sight just long enough to warm ourselves in the Tundra Buggy, then returned to the frigid show.

VAST WILDERNESS: The area around Churchill in Manitoba, Canada, is one of the best spots in the world to see polar bears.
VAST WILDERNESS: The area around Churchill in Manitoba, Canada, is one of the best spots in the world to see polar bears.

Time passed quickly, and even though we had arrived around 9 p.m., midnight arrived faster than seemed possible.

Finally, around 1 am - just as we were about to call it a day - the lights turned up their intensity, doing what is referred to as "dancing."

Shimmering and shimmying brightly across the sky, they kept all of us spellbound for several minutes, oblivious to the cold and enchanted as we craned our necks to fixate on the skies.

It was silent, except for the occasional whispers of "oh," "ahh" and "amazing!" We could not have asked for a better nightcap.

We allowed ourselves a later start the next day, which let us catch up on sleep and look at our photos. Shooting the Northern Lights requires a certain amount of trial and error, and everyone shared what had worked (and what hadn't) the night before.

We were ready for another day of Churchill activities, but everyone was eager for night to fall so we could see more lights.

We spent the afternoon exploring the boreal forest in one of the most magical ways possible: on snowshoes.

Once we finally all got the hang of our snowshoes, we found ourselves practically gliding through the area, like little kids enjoying a snow day from school.

Evening brought a blizzard that made viewing the lights impossible, so we stayed in and hoped the next day would be more fruitful. As morning arrived, our guides were checking the roads to see if it was safe to venture out.

Snow was blowing and the temperatures plunged to minus-40 degrees. (We learned that, at minus-40 degrees, the temperature is the same in Fahrenheit as it is in Celsius. Interesting to know, but I could have done without the firsthand lesson!)

It became an "indoor adventure" kind of day, which included visiting Churchill's Eskimo Museum, where we gained fascinating insight into the area's culture, and the Arctic Trading Post, which appears to have been plucked out of the 1800s.

After that, a trip to the Wapusk General Store, owned by Valerie Daley, wife of the "Big Dog," yielded great shopping for souvenirs.

By nightfall, the storm had passed so we loaded into vans and drove to a different area outside of Churchill. Again, it was as if the lights were waiting for us.

Every bit as spectacular as they had been two nights earlier, the vivid green lights were shot through with majestic hues of purple. The lights moved quickly among the stars, seeming to encircle us like an animated, elusive ribbon.

The night was still and cold, with stars twinkling above the trees as the lights glimmered. I thought about how fortunate I was just to have experienced this even once in my lifetime, but something told me I wasn't done. I'm definitely going to have to do this again.
IF YOU GO: Churchill is accessible only by air or rail. Flights provided by Calm Air,, rail by VIA Rail.

LODGING IN CHURCHILL: The Tundra Inn, 34 Franklin St., Churchill, Manitoba.

TOUR COMPANY: Frontiers North Adventures.

FOR DIY ADVENTURERS: The Tundra Buggy Adventure and Wapusk Adventures.

Travel Manitoba