The aurora borealis are a beautiful wonder of nature. Over my entire life, I have seen the night sky erupt in dancing northern lights a few times – usually unexpectedly when I am camped in the woods and I happen to poke my head out from the tent in the middle of the night. Watching them silently move across the sky, it is easy to understand how people have believed them to be spirits of animals and ancestors. In all honesty, in the awe of the moment it is still easy to believe this. It really is a magical experience, and one that I have found to be elusive and unpredictable.
Generally, the further north you are the greater your chances are of witnessing the aurora. This past summer when I was pushing north in the Yukon I had high hopes of seeing some spectacular displays, but these hopes were dashed by evening clouds and short summer nights. Only on one night, across sections of twilight sky peaking through the patchwork clouds, were lines of aurora. Enticed, we kept an eye on the sky on subsequent nights, but to no avail – it was just a tease.
My home on the Canadian prairies is on the 49th parallel, which is the far south as far as aurora activity is concerned. But the prairies are flat and with this comes the advantage of unobstructed views far into the distance. Without hills to block the view, you can sometimes glimpse the aurora’s green crown on the northern horizon. When luck would have it, a solar storm bombards the earth with cascades of light particles and there is a very real chance of seeing that faint green crown erupt into a dance across the sky. Aptly, this past St. Patrick’s Day the green danced over our heads – not to mention the purples, reds, and oranges usually not visible to the naked eye.
On this particular night, I had already been watching the weather satellites closely and was considering going aurora hunting if I could wrangle a couple friends into it – all too often the aurora doesn’t show itself and, on these nights especially, good company is…well, good. Intense solar flare emissions were on their way, the sky would be dark and moonless for the greater part of the night, and cloud cover looked like it would be minimal. The conditions were just right for a chance at an aurora show. Around 8pm, a text from a friend came in just after sunset saying that she could see the aurora from downtown Winnipeg. Stopping what I was doing, I looked out my window and there they were – and I immediately knew that I wasn’t going to be getting much sleep this night. It was time to find some dark skies.
Getting a late start, I missed most the early aurora show…well, kind of – I was on the highway and they were dancing over me like spirits. As I reached my favourite stargazing field however, they faded away into my imagination. The sky quickly went quiet, as it so often does. A while later with no new activity, the friends I was with decided to go home and call it a night. Persistent, I set up my hammock in the cold night air and counted falling stars to pass the time. A couple of hours later, the late night aurora show commenced and I was glad I had stayed. An owl to my left began to hoot in his metronomic way and a pack of coyotes started howling in the distance to my right. The animals were there to bear witness, and so was I.
Arriving at my favourite stargazing field the greens had already faded, but the the rest of the color spectrum lingered for another moment or two…
…before fading as well. As is typical, the crown of the aurora settled on the northern horizon for a couple of hours in nothing but a faint green mist. At this point it is uncertain when, or even if, the dance will start again.
But on this night, just a couple of hours later, striations and bright spots started appearing in the crown as activity began to ramp up.
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