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BLANE KLEMEK OUTDOORS: Northern lights are commonly observed and deeply appreciated

We stood up to look, followed quickly by a short walk out onto the lake for an unobstructed, panoramic view of one of the most beautiful displays of northern lights that any of us have witnessed.

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The northern lights are spotted along Fox Lake on Nov. 3, 2021, near Bemidji.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

My geologist friends and I recently returned from our annual winter camping and lake trout fishing trip into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness far off the Gunflint Trail north of Grand Marais. Because of the exceptionally deep snow, we were unable to, for the second year in a row, trek to our usual lake. So instead, we chose a new lake with easier access.

Even so, we had our work cut out for us. Underneath the snow-covered lakes was six to eight inches of slush. On numerous occasions we broke through the snow in our snowshoes and skis into the ice-cold water, which made it even more difficult to pull our gear-laden pulks.

Yet with persistence, daylight and sun, and excitement on our side, we eventually arrived at our chosen campsite on a beautiful pine-studded point of land along the south-facing shore.

Once at camp, a brief rest was followed by a flurry of independent activity: unpacking gear, selecting and shoveling out tent sites, setting up tents, and drilling holes for fishing. Wood was collected, cut, and split, the fire grate was dug out from beneath the snow and tip-up fishing rigs were set.

And not long after that, all of us were sitting in our chairs enjoying the last rays of sunshine, content on having made the trip together once again.


This year’s adventure offered something that other trips haven’t, or at least haven’t in recent memory. On our second night, March 24, while sitting around the fire, someone noticed through the towering canopies of white pines, spruce, and fir trees surrounding our campsite, bits of the nighttime sky aglow in an unusual green spectrum of bright light. Craning our necks and looking skyward, we all saw the same thing: northern lights, a.k.a. the aurora borealis.

We stood up to look, followed quickly by a short walk out onto the lake for an unobstructed, panoramic view of one of the most beautiful displays of northern lights that any of us have witnessed. Waves of pulsating green flames splashed the north, east, and western skyline, often stretching directly overhead and southward.

We were nearly surrounded by a lively and moving Nature show of incredible, almost unbelievable, northern lights spectacle. Grown men, gawking like kids watching fireworks, oohing and awing the entire time we stood together in the middle of the lake, were thrilled with the light show.

All five of us are scientists, yet we had a difficult time explaining exactly what the aurora really is. These shimmering waves of inexplicable beauty painting the black sky in flames of color in brilliant, unworldly fashion are, simply put, impossible to take one’s eyes from, let alone describe or explain. And yet, what are they?

From sources in Wikipedia, northern lights occur because of disturbances in the “magnetosphere” surrounding Earth. This magnetic field envelopes and protects our planet from harmful solar and cosmic radiation. When solar windstorms occur from the sun or other stars, charged particles within Earth’s magnetosphere are blown around and then precipitate into Earth’s upper atmosphere.

Once the charged particles enter our atmosphere, which are mostly electrons and protons, they undergo chemical changes that create the northern lights we see. The intensity of the bands of light are also dependent on how fast the charged particles precipitate into the atmosphere of Earth’s polar regions. It’s a fascinating, complex, and colorful dance in the cosmos, to be sure.

Also interesting are the meanings behind the names given to northern lights: aurora borealis. Aurora comes from the Roman goddess of dawn, who came from the east to the west to announce the sun’s arrival. In Greek mythology, borealis is a word derived from ancient gods of the north wind.

We live in a special place here in northern Minnesota. Living relatively close to the Earth’s north pole, northern lights are commonly observed and deeply appreciated. Throw in a backdrop of backyard pine trees, prairie grassland landscapes, or the Boundary Waters on cold spring nights, lucky we are as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.


Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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