Date: 20th May 2015
We had barely been in Banff a week before hearing stories of how spectacular the northern lights are here. Because the entire expanse of Banff National Park to the north is uninhabited, the night sky is very dark indeed; perfect for stargazers. Our first trip to Lake Minnewanka, a local’s favourite and probably one of the most accessible locations for aurora watching, came after a few weeks…
Anne Marie receives a call at half eleven on a Tuesday night; our Australian friends David and Katrina are blaring down the line something about flares and are on their way to pick us up immediately. I think the worst; there’s no way I’m going to a fancy dress party at this hour, but gladly I’m informed they’re talking about flares of the solar variety. Solar Flares can cause highly charged particles from the sun to erupt in huge plumes, racing the 92 million miles through space to earth, where they interact with our upper atmosphere. Who cares if you have work the next day when there’s a solar storm on the loose!
We excitedly throw on our thermals, wrap up warm and prepare the camera gear, unsure quite what to expect, but already buzzing at the prospect of a late night adventure.
Twenty minutes drive through dark, windy forest road later and we arrive along the ice bound lake shore, along with what seems to be half the town. I can’t believe just how many people are already here, with plenty more still arriving. Some are clearly well prepared, set up in groups down by the water’s edge, snuggled up in camping chairs.
Being new to the whole scene we make do with our parking spot along the roadside and eagerly set up our gear, all the while gazing skyward, waiting for our eyes to adjust to the dark. With such a throng of spectators arriving, spurred on I’m told by aurora forecast text and email alerts, it takes a while for the car lights to settle down and for us to fully take in the night sky.
Slowly but surely a myriad of stars appear above our heads, the familiar band of the Milky Way only barely visible, but for the haze of light emanating from behind the mountains in front of us. The light, ghostly, with only the faintest suggestion of green, sweeps across the northern sky in a huge arc, as though reflected from the far distant pole.
We fiddle with the settings on our cameras; ISO, Shutter Speed, Focus, waiting with baited breath between the closing of the shutter and revelation of the image on the camera LCD. A camera’s eye is so much better than ours in some ways, particularly for night photography. Imagine if with every second you gazed skyward, the light of the stars was multiplied again and again. That’s what happens with a camera’s sensor, and after ten, twenty, thirty seconds or more, what it reveals is truly breathtaking.
“Oh yeah… it kinda looks like a giant green blob”, remarks Aussie David, insightfully.
Indeed, the great arc of light is rather green and blob like. But we needn’t speak so soon. After half an hour or so in ‘warm up mode’, the aurora, sensing our collective anticipation, bursts into life. There’s an audible gasp and an echo of hoots from along the lake front as huge pillars of light slice through the sky above. Appearing slowly, fading, shifting and dancing across the night sky like an ancient ritual of the heavens as old as the Earth itself.
Apart from the clunk of camera shutters and excited gasps from those around us, the aurora, now visibly green with a hint of red, performs its art in eerie silence.
I feel a shiver trickle down my spine and glance over my shoulder into the blackened trees behind. It’s only now that I think about where we are, in the heart of Banff National Park, home to wolf, cougar, lynx and bear, and I sense other eyes watching from the forest beyond, perhaps sharing in our awe and wonderment of the boreal lights of the North.