Top of the World, Top of the List

In 2019, a UK lottery company surveyed two thousand people about what experiences top their bucket list.   Number 1:   see the Northern Lights.     What makes this interesting is that a similar survey held by a different company in 2013 came to the same conclusion, as did another media survey in 2017.   Travel tastes may change and destinations flow in and out of fashion, but the aurora borealis endures as the numero uno-big kahuna-grandaddy of sought-after peak experiences.   

Canadians don’t have to fly halfway around the world to see these legendary polar flares, just north to the capital of the Northwest Territories.   Yellowknife sits beneath a halo-like ring known as the aurora oval, where fall and winter conditions are ideal for a particularly bright and intense show.    With few geographical obstructions, minimal precipitation and a high percentage of clear winter nights, the lights here are particularly active from mid-November to mid-April, which is high season of aurora viewing.  The further one travels from city lights or physical obstructions, the greater your chances of seeing nature’s fireworks.   Having ventured north nearly a dozen times in the winter months, I can’t overstate the importance of stacking the odds in your favour.   For there’s no guarantee you’ll witness brilliant hues in the night sky any more than there’s a guarantee you’ll see lions hunt gazelle while you’re on safari.   Nature operates on its own time and with its own pace, and each aurora adventure will undoubtedly be as unique as the lights themselves.    

An aspect of aurora viewing that is often overlooked is physical comfort.  Remember, you’ll be heading north during a frigid, dark time of year. What’s more, the northern lights typically pop in the early hours of the morning.   Great Canadian Trails’ Northern Lights Eco-Escape takes all this and so much more into consideration.  For starters, it whisks you away by bush-plane to an eco-lodge far removed from light pollution or buildings.  As I learned one year in Hay’s River, even a street lamp can diminish the experience!   Immersing you in pristine northern wilderness, your aurora-viewing lodge is accessible by plane only, operating off-grid and powered primarily by solar and wind.  Expansive, open sky views surround you, which means you’ll be able to see the lights from the deck, the lounge, your room, and even the hot tub (talk about physical comfort!)  Depending on the season, your short days might be filled with snowshoeing, skating, skiing, igloo-building or fat biking, but you’re really here for the nights.  Rested, satiated on a delicious meal, and warmed up by bubbles or bubbly, the show is about to begin.

Beyond its heat and light, the sun also blasts solar winds across the galaxy, humming with the energy of protons and electrons.  If the solar winds are strong enough, they slam into the Earth’s magnetic field, funneled to the north and south poles by forces of magnetism.  Once these winds interact with gases and particles in our atmosphere, they release energy that results in shimmering displays of light.  We call this the aurora borealis in the north, and the lesser known (and harder to access) aurora australis in the south.    While we may think of a kaleidoscope of colours, it really depends on what gases are prominent in the atmosphere, as well as the overall strength of the solar wind.  Oxygen results in the reds and greens, while nitrogen causes a blue light.  Of all the colours on the spectrum, our eyes are adapted to see green more clearly, which is why it’s most common to experience the northern lights as a green, ghostly hue.   It’s also why aurora operators vigorously consult solar wind and weather reports:  the stronger the winds and the clearer the skies, the bigger the spectacle. 

One of the most important tips of travel advice anyone can ever give you is this:  temper your expectations.  Forget Instagram photos that took days or weeks to capture, or those epic magazine images that relied on a slow-shutter and specialized equipment.  There are all sorts of tips and techniques for capturing the northern lights on camera, patience being the biggest one.   If the lights are firing with enthusiasm, you’ll have plenty of time to snap your proof, although as with images of fireworks, a photo does little justice.  First and foremost, my advice is to take a breath.  Let your eyes accustom to the sky.  You’ll see lights that appear organic, like flames licking around a campfire, or ocean waves washing upon a shore.   Appearing with no warning, ghostly clouds will flicker and dance, playing tricks on your mind in the icy temperatures of the northern night. Flying back to Yellowknife, and then onwards still, one can be forgiven if the entire experience feels like a dream.  Although the next time you read a survey about the world’s most sought-after experiences, you’ll know exactly why the northern lights top many a list. The aurora borealis may be ephemeral, but our desire to see them remains strong as steel.  Along with the comforts of a bush lodge eco-adventure, your northern escape is waiting.  

The World’s Most Extreme Places

hot

The World’s Hottest Place

Here’s a contentious category, with various contenders vying for the top hot spot. Historically, the victor was El Aziza in Libya, where the ground temperature was recorded in 1922 at a whopping 58°C. Furnace Creek in California’s Death Valley clocked in at an impressive 56°C, but it was not until satellites could measure thermal temperatures that the true victor could scorch their way to the top. Researchers at the University of Montana analysed infrared satellite data and the results were surprising. According to five years worth of data, the hottest place on Earth is Iran’s Lut Desert, where the land skin temperature was measured at 70.7°C. At that heat, you can fry an egg on your hand!

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The World’s Coldest Place

On November 23, 2010, Alberta recorded temperatures that made it the second coldest place that day on the planet. What’s remarkable about this fact is that it included populated cities like Edmonton and Calgary, where the wind chill cranked the chill to around -41°C. Pollockville, 250km east of Calgary, had to deal with -49°C. But that’s toasty compared to how cold it can get in Antarctica, which reigns supreme for recording the coldest temperatures on Earth. Scientists in Vostok, near the magnetic south pole, recorded land temperatures at a brrrr-isk -89.2°C, measured during the dark winter months of June and July. The coldest permanently inhabited town is said to be Oymyakon in Russia’s northern Sakha Republic, which clocked in at a frisky−71.2 °C.

rain

The World’s Wettest Place

There are half a dozen contenders in this category, with different research methodologies determined to soak up the glory. When I visited Kauai, Hawaii’s Garden Island, I was told by proud locals and guides that Mount Wai-‘ale-‘ale is the wettest spot on Earth, with rain falling between 335 and 360 days a year, drowning in up to 13,000mm each year. The Guinness Book of World Records recognizes this achievement, but the US National Climatic Data Center gives the title to Colombia’s Lloro, which receives over 12,000mm a year. Cherrapunji in north-eastern India is another contender, even more remarkable since its annual rainfall (almost 11,000mm) falls mostly in the monsoon months between June and August. Back in Colombia, a freak rainy season in 1974 deposited 26,303mm of rain on the town of Tutunendo. It puts living in rainy Vancouver, where the average annual rainfall is just 1588mm, in perspective.

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The World’s Windiest Place

For 75 years, Mount Washington in New Hampshire held the record for the highest wind speeds ever recorded, 231 miles per hour at the top of its peak. It was a freak event, much like the cyclone in Barrow Island, Australia that blew right past the record, clocking in at 253 miles per hour. The most consistent windiest place on the planet is Commonwealth Bay in Antarctica. As for the windiest cities, forget Chicago. Citizens in Wellington New Zealand, Reykjavik Iceland and Cape Town, South Africa would do well to invest in extra strength umbrellas.

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The World’s Driest Place

The Atacama Desert stretches across northern Chile into parts of Bolivia and Peru, and is known as the driest place on the planet. Average rainfall is as little as 1mm a year, with some weather stations having never recorded any rain at all. The town of Arica, a launchpad for tourism excursions into the Atacama, did not record any rain for over 15 years! Crossing the Atacama in a 4×4 is one of my highlights of visiting South America, witnessing its otherworldly landscapes and rock structures. Scientists have compared the Atacama to conditions of Mars, which is why NASA test-drove their Mars Rovers here. Oddly enough, the driest continent is Antarctica, which receives less than 2mm rain a year, even though it is primarily made up of compacted snow and ice.

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The World’s Deepest Place

James Cameron, director of Avatar and Titanic, broke the world record to become the first human to visit the deepest spot on the earth – the desolate, alien and lunar landscape that sits almost 11km deep at the bottom of the ocean known as the Mariana Trench. Located in the Western Pacific, the 2550km long trench forms the boundary of two tectonic plates. While pressure at the bottom is over 1000 times that found at sea level, researchers have still found life in the form of fish, shrimp and other organisms. Decaying animal skeletons, shells and other organisms give the seabed a yellow colour. Cameron filmed his descent in 3D for a documentary, and collected samples for scientists to shed more light on the darkest of ocean deeps.

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The World’s Highest Place

The world’s highest mountain is Mount Everest, towering at 8848m above sea level. If you dared to climb atop its dangerous peak, as thousands of climbers do every year, you would not however be the closest to the moon. The planet’s shape is an oblate spheroid, much like the shape of a balloon if you were to sit on it. The result is that mountains close to the equator stick out further than mountains closer to the poles, not in terms of height above sea level, but in terms of its closeness to the stars and distance from the earth’s centre. Cleverer people than I have done the calculations, and determined that the 6310m high Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador lies on the bulge, and as such is about 2.4 km closer to space than Everest!

deadsea

The Deepest Place Below Sea Level

On dry land, you can’t get any lower than visiting the Dead Sea, the salty lake that shares its banks with Israel and Jordan. To get there, you’ll drive along the world’s lowest road, and float in its famously buoyant waters 423 metres below sea level. 67 kilometres long and 18 kilometres wide, this lifeless sea is 8.6 times saltier than the ocean, which is why you can comfortably sit back and read a newspaper during a dip. The health benefits of the mineral waters and thick mud of the Dead Sea have been prized since Biblical days, making it one of the world’s first health resorts. A drop in groundwater and flow of water from the Jordan River has resulted in significant shrinking of the Dead Sea, causing much concern for both the tourism and cosmetic industries that support it.

danger

The World’s Most Dangerous Country

Forbes Magazine went through data looking at crime rates, risk of terrorism and kidnappings, police protection, corruption and political stability to determine the world’s most dangerous countries. Receiving the bronze medal on the podium is Somalia, which has not had a real government for 15 years, where militants run wild and piracy is rampant. The silver medal goes to Iraq, a hotbed of fundamentalism and instability, its citizens living under the constant threat of bombings and deeply corrupt government officials. Winning the gold medal, which will probably make its way to a Swiss bank account faster than I can type this sentence, is Afghanistan. Tribal warfare and corruption is rife, especially on the Pakistan border, where it is estimated that every citizen owns an automatic weapon. And of course, let’s not forget Syria. Hopefully all will one day be in a position to safely add to the Global Bucket List.

young

The Youngest Place on Earth

Iceland, the real land of Fire and Ice (Game of Thrones notwithstanding) boasts the youngest place on the planet with its southern-most point, Surtsey Island. This 1.4 km2 island dramatically emerged from the sea during a volcanic eruption in 1963. The volcano stopped erupting almost four years later, with the intense flow of lava resulting in a new island in the Atlantic. Since then, erosion has whittled away some of the land, but its hard igneous core has remained firm. The island was declared a nature reserve in 1965, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, for its scientific value. Scientists are studying how plant, bird and marine life are evolving on the island, with human impact carefully monitored and kept to a minimum.