San Diego Zoo

On Thursday we went to San Diego Zoo. Glen finished up at the conference around lunchtime and we caught an Uber car to the zoo. I’ve never used Uber before but the hotel has a promotion running whereby you get $20 off your first ride and considering a taxi would cost about $25 I thought we’d give it a go.

I set it up on my phone, ordered the car and we waited out the front. Glen was incredibly unsettled by the whole experience because he didn’t know how it all worked and I had very few answers for him other than that I’d called for a car, it was on its way, and somehow it would get paid for.

Our drive was from Zimbabwe and had been living in San Diego for 14 years. For some reason because this wasn’t a typical taxi ride, I felt much more inclined to talk to the driver than I would otherwise. The guy liked to talk so it was easy and plus we got to hear about the political situation in Zimbabwe.

We arrived at the zoo a little after 12. I’d arranged to meet Seth, a horticulturist who worked there and had been on exchange to Perth Zoo, at 12:30 and he soon arrived to greet us. We then went on a guided tour around much of the zoo, getting a horticultural perspective on a lot of things, which was interesting.

As Seth had been to Australia and brought back a number of cuttings and seeds, including some from our zoo, he showed us a variety of them and how they fared. Being such a similar climate (and today was something like 32°C), it was a bit like being at home.

We also got to meet a few of the staff and have a chat to them, as well as seeing their signage/printing workshop. I was very envious of this as they print their signs and maps in house and create custom-made intricate signage as well. Very cool, but it makes sense for a zoo this size and with its money.

We went for a ride on the sky gondolas before he had to head back to work. It was great to see him and talk shop for a while, and to have him spend the time with us.

Glen and I then had a bite to eat before trekking back across the zoo to find the baby hippo. Julian had let us know that a hippo had been born at the zoo recently so we were excited to see that. We eventually got to where we needed to be (the zoo is even more maze-like than ours) and found the crowd of people trying to see it. We got glimpses. It’s very cute, especially as it tried to keep its head above water.

We saw other animals along the way there and back, but having seen quite a few species, there weren’t too many ‘must-sees’ for us. We even gave the giant pandas a miss. The Zoo does a good job with its theming, the plants being a major part of this, but also the signage, the flooring, the sculptures and more. The zoning is a little different to what I’m used to or expect.

For example, the Elephant Odyssey section does indeed have elephants but the theme for it is Southern California 12,000 Years Ago, and includes life-size sculptures of extinct species that used to live in the area and then live exhibits of their modern equivalent. One example of this is the elephants versus the mammoths. It’s certainly a different way of doing it.

Around 3:30, we’d decided we’d had our fill, and our skin was already going bright pink (we didn’t have sunscreen and we were wearing singlets/tanktops…yes, bad Australians). I ordered us another Uber and a San Diego native picked us up and got us home pretty quick, all for just $12. Bargain!

After returning to the hotel, I went for a walk along the beach, while Glen had a nap. Lots of people were out soaking up the sunshine but there weren’t many people actually swimming. It was too damn cold. My feet went numb just walking along the shoreline. It was a pleasant walk though.

San Diego Explorer

Tuesday we didn’t get to do much. Glen went to the conference, while I stayed in the hotel room and caught up some work. Fun way to spend a holiday. We went down the road to have a late breakfast. In the afternoon I took a dip in the pool (the ocean looked a bit chilly). I saw a hummingbird hovering over the lawn too, which was pretty cool.

In the evening we went for dinner at one of the hotel restaurants with a couple of consultants from the hospital in Toronto. Two of them (husband and wife) are from South Korea and we heard about the turmoil they saw in South Korea while at university in the 80s. I had no idea South Korea was ruled by a military dictatorship for a while after the war. I thought that was just North Korea’s deal.

The food was nice, though outrageously expensive for what it was. That’s hotel restaurants for you. Found out later that the hotel (Hotel del Coronado) has quite the history and played host to presidents, royalty and film stars. It’s also featured in Some Like It Hot. How cool is that?

Wednesday Glen went off to the conference for a little while and then we went to explore the city. We couldn’t come all this way and not have a look at the city. We walked down Orange Ave in Coronado, grabbed some food, and then boarded the ferry to take us across the river to the convention centre. I was very happy because on the short ride over we saw a seal swimming in the water.

From the convention centre, we walked into the Gaslamp Quarter, which looks old and Victorian, then checked out the San Diego Chinese Historical Museum. It’s a small museum, slightly underfunded, with a few displays about Chinese history and the Chinese in San Diego. There was a Chinese warlords bed there too and a bunch of pottery from different dynasties (stretching back to 200 BCE).

We then took the long walk through the city to Balboa Park, a 1200-acre park that’s filled with not only grass and trees but also a bunch of museums. It was a bit of a walk to get there, and it was a bit warm. My legs were tired by the time we arrived at the cultural centre.

We looked at the rose garden, then had a sit-down lunch. We looked at the stunning buildings, went into the botanical garden building, but decided against going into the museums. There were plenty to choose from but we weren’t feeling it.

We decided to catch the bus back as taxis were few and far between, and plus the cost was much less. We think we paid too much for the first bus, and then the second bus took an hour to get back across Coronado. Still it was much cheaper than a taxi ride.

Back at the hotel, I had a nap then we went to the beach, determined to at least try this Pacific Ocean. But it was freezing! We went to the pool instead and played with pool noodles. We had dinner down the road, which was a really disappointing meal but we’ve found somewhere else we can go tomorrow night.

Stamping our gay card in the Castro

We slept in on Monday, catching up on some much needed shut-eye. I felt a bit more aligned to San Francisco hours then. We packed up our stuff and checked out of the hotel at 10am, then caught the rickety old tram down Market St to the Castro District for breakfast. Like Alcatraz, we could not visit San Francisco without going to the Castro. We’d lose our gay cards if we didn’t.

We had breakfast at a place called Squat and Gobble. The food was filling and it was nice to sit out on the sidewalk on this sunny day. After breakfast we walked, lugging our suitcases behind us, down Castro St, did a bit of shopping, had a look around and then, just as quickly as we’d gone in, we were out of the area and ascending hills in our search for a recommended Peruvian rotisserie chicken restaurant.

The Castro is no doubt livelier after dark but it was actually a pleasant area to be in. Much nicer than San Francisco city centre. It appears that the Castro is in a valley because we had to walk up a lot of steep hills to get to this chicken place. We even passed Chattanooga St, and a railway line running along it.

We were eventually blessed with some downhill streets, though these were just as step as on the way up. I’m writing this a day later and my ankles are still throbbing from the strain. We certainly got a lot of exercise in on this walk.

We found the chicken place. It was indeed tasty. We ate a lot (Glen almost to incapacitation phase) before walking the five blocks to the BART station, where we caught a train to the airport. Check-in was fine. We were punished for having a near-empty flight into San Francisco by being crammed into a completely full plane. We also were in separate rows right in the middle. Thankfully the flight was only an hour and a bit.

We landed in bright San Diego, wary of there being such warmth and sunshine. We caught a taxi across to the spit of land called Coronado where Glen’s conference is taking place. We checked into the Hotel del Coronado, a resort hotel that has various claims to fame because famous people have stayed here including presidents and Lucille Ball. It’s an old wooden Victorian hotel, designed so you don’t have to leave. The beach is right there, but there’s also a pool, restaurants, spa and gym.

After we checked into our suite, we had a look around, went for dinner at a pizza place on site and then came back to the room to watch The Devil Wears Prada. Such excitement saw us in bed by 10.

Alcatraz!

We’d made plans on Saturday to meet Anna for breakfast with her friend Chris at 9am on Sunday. We were feeling a little sleep-deprived when we woke up in the morning, the three-hour time difference between San Fran and Toronto taking its toll. But we roused ourselves and went on a little adventure on San Francisco’s public transport system. We took the BART.

As I’m sure most people do, all I could think of was Homer Simpson shouting, ‘Bart!’ BART actually stands for something: Bay Area Rapid Transit. We went down into Powell St station, asked how to buy a ticket and then faffed around for a while before we succeeded. Then went downstairs and waited for the train.

The trains could really do with some sprucing up. They look like they haven’t been upgraded since the 1970s and are designed in a weird sort of futuristic style—or what would have been futuristic to people in the 70s. Anyway, we went through the tunnel to the other side of the bay, switched trains and then ended up in Downtown Berkeley.

We were having breakfast at a place called Venus. Glen and I walked in and claimed a table of four. Glen then asked me whether the two guys—who had Australian accents—that had been standing in front of us were waiting for Anna. I said they couldn’t be because Chris was picking Anna up and she wasn’t there. Two seconds after I said that, one of the guys walks over and asks if we’re meeting Anna. It was Chris and his mate Alex. Anna wasn’t getting a lift and was walking instead. She arrived a few minutes later.

Breakfast was good and filling, conversation was easy and interesting and we whiled away an hour or so before four of us (Alex headed home) set off to go for a hike in Tilden Park (or whatever it’s called). We climbed to the peak, which was an easy-ish walk. We didn’t see any mountain lions or rattle snakes or Lyme ticks, however, we did see two birds of prey when we reached the top. They were cool.

We took a little longer getting back down the hill as we’d gone another way but we eventually reached the visitors centre and a small farm with cows, ducks, geese, sheep and pigs. One thing I noticed on the walk was how dry the ground was. It was cracked like those photos of deserts you see. California is in the midst of its worst drought in years and despite the greenery around us, the place is suffering from lack of rain. (Never mind that it rained later that night, but I’ll save that for later.)

Back to the car, Chris drove us all back to where we needed to go. Anna was dropped off first. She was heading off to Utah in a few hours for a conference. Then Chris drove us back to our hotel in the city, which saved us having to take public transport again. I was tired, so doubly relieved. We then napped for a couple of hours (I know, we’re weak) before heading out for the next round of exploration.

Alcatraz

I’d booked us evening tours of Alcatraz over a month ago so we needed to head to the pier for 5:30 to catch the ferry. This gave us time to check out what was on the other piers. Glen had been recommended this place that sells sour dough with clam chowder in it. When we arrived, Glen decided he didn’t like clam chowder and opted for tomato soup instead. I had a chicken sour dough sandwich. The experience didn’t live up to the hype. Sour dough is really difficult to chew; it’s quite leathery.

We then walked around Pier 39 which has a lot of entertainment on it, and therefore was packed with people. Lots of shops and fast food places, but also an aquarium, Madame Tussaud’s and the San Francisco Dungeon. I was much more interested in the hundred or so Californian Sea Lions that were lounging on the pontoons. I wasn’t alone in this. They were all lying there, not bothered in the slightest with the scores of people crowding the jetty to get a look at them on the water below.

Having had enough of the crowds, we took the quieter route back to the end of the pier and walked down to Pier 33 to catch the Alcatraz Ferry. We were herded onto the boat for a 5:55 departure and set sail for The Rock. We arrived while there was still light so we could to take in its size in sunlight. I had expected something bigger. From the movies and TV shows I’ve seen that feature Alcatraz, it always seems to loom large and imposing. That’s camera angles for you I suppose.

We shuffled off the boat and were divided into two groups of 100, with a guide who gave us some instructions, a bit of history, and then led us up to the jailhouse proper where we collected our audio guides. We started by going through the checking-in area where the prisoners would have been given their uniforms and showered. Seeing these showers all lined up chilled my spine as my mind equated it with mass processing in a Nazi concentration camp.

Once given our guides, we ascended the steps to the next level and were told when to press play. I held back a bit to get some photos and was then summoned over by one of the guides. I thought I’d done something wrong but had no idea what. Turns out he just wanted to show me where the mirrors were positioned so a guard standing at one point could see a guard at the other point.

The audio guide was very good. It directed you through the cellblock, to the administrative section, outside, and then back into the jailhouse. There was one narrator with a bunch of previous inmates and prison guards telling different stories. It was very personal and you can see why it won awards.

The cells were pitifully small and there were only three walls to each. The fourth was all bars so there was very little privacy. The isolation chambers were not all that nice either and having to sit in that darkness would have been maddening. We heard stories about famous inmates like the Birdman of Alcatraz (who never got to keep birds at Alcatraz) and Al Capone, as well as the “Battle of Alcatraz”. The hospital was especially creepy as most of it was in shadow with various bits of equipment strategically placed to enhance its creepiness.

There was also an Ai Wei Wei exhibition on that featured five artworks in different places around the island. They were ok. Very contemporary.

Once we’d finished our guide and checked out the artwork, we made our way back to the pier so we could catch the 8:40pm ferry (the next and last was an hour away). We’d seen enough. Perhaps there’d be more to see during the day (I know we missed out on the garden), but overall it wasn’t the thrilling and exciting experience I’d expected.

Too many people have said how great it was, and that always makes it hard to live up to. Perhaps we’ve also been spoilt by seeing other impressive prisons like Fremantle Gaol and Chateau d’If. Still, I’m glad we saw it as we couldn’t go to San Francisco without paying a visit. (And from the moment we’d landed in San Francisco I’d had Eddie Izzard’s voice going, “Alcatraaaaaaaaz.”)

Searching for Food

We landed back at Pier 33 around 9pm and decided to go find some dinner. We waited for the F bus but by the time it arrived (it was late too), it was packed and didn’t stop. The next one wasn’t for an hour, and as Eddie Izzard has pointed out, there are about five taxis in San Francisco. We decided to walk.

Some of San Francisco’s city streets are as deserted as Perth City’s after 6pm. We barely saw anyone as we hurried to find some life and some food. We eventually found a Hong Kong kitchen place that was open in a dodgy part of town. We ordered and ate food. I didn’t like it but it filled me up enough. Then we stepped outside into the rain.

We desperately wanted to catch a taxi but there were none so we walked. The rain eased up eventually and we got home about 20 minutes later. Safely, despite our fears of being mugged and/or murdered. We collapsed into bed and slept soundly.

Cycling in San Francisco on a Saturday

Quite unbeknownst to us when we booked this trip to San Francisco, our friend Anna, one of last year’s radiology fellows from Toronto, was going to be in town at the same time as us. We’d only found this out about a week before – much to our joy. She arrived early Friday from Sydney and was leaving on Sunday afternoon so we had some time to meet up and explore. We’d organised to cycle across the Golden Gate Bridge and arranged to meet near there at midday. This gave us the morning to do a bit of sightseeing.

We had breakfast at the hostel, which supplies carbs and fruit for free, and then went down the road to hire bikes from Blazing Saddles. We were fitted with good bikes, helmets and locks, given some maps, and off we went.

We didn’t get very far at first. Glen’s hands were cold so he wanted to go back to the hotel to get gloves (which we did…and he got my gym gloves too), and then his footpedals had no grip (he’d already bashed his leg on the frame from it slipping off). We returned to the shop, replaced his bike, and then went off. We had three hours ahead of us.

We hadn’t gone far down Market St towards Golden Gate Park when we passed a restaurant that had been recommended to Glen for breakfast. So we stopped and had midmorning breakfast, having some eggs and some hot drinks. Even though it was only roughly 9am I was already feeling a bit tired, and worried that I’d be too exhausted to make it to the Golden Gate Bridge, let alone across it. But we persevered.

Glen navigated up and down some streets…and hilly ones at that. I knew San Francisco had a lot of hills but honestly, does it have to have so many? We had to walk our bikes a couple of times because the incline was so steep (and our fitness so poor). We eventually found the start of Golden Gate Park, by which point the sky, which had been overcast, cleared and it was set to be a beautiful day.

Golden Gate Park

We made a stop at the Conservatory of Flowers and went inside to check out their many orchids and pitcher plants. I’ve never seen quite so many pitcher plants before. Some looked downright monstrous with barbs and furry bits. It was a great display and a nice interlude. We jumped back on our bikes then and cycled through the rest of the very large park, past the museums and the bison, before getting to the Dutch windmill and then – surprise – the ocean.

A dip was tempting, even though it doesn’t look like the nicest beach, but by that stage we had to hustle it to meet Anna. The time had shifted to 1am, which suited us, especially as everything was so much bigger than it looked on the map.

We cycled (uphill again) along the coast road, around Lincoln Park and then through another park and off-road track (having to carry the bikes up stairs at one point), then finally, blessedly, there was a long downhill section we took at breakneck speed. Then it was under a bridge, up another hill, down another before reaching our meeting place at a shop called Sports Basement.

Glen and I went in, hoping there’d be some place to eat. There were big letters around the top of the walls that said ‘Dairy’, ‘Bakery’ and ‘Frozen’, but a quick search revealed that these must have been remnants from when the building was something else. Instead we found new gym gloves and a ‘nutrition’ section that sold Cliff Bars and Gatorade.

Anna and her cousin’s family were running late so that gave us time to recharge (though not long enough to have a nap). By that stage, we’d been cycling for about four hours and were starting to feel it. I haven’t done that much cardio in a long time, or spend that long on a bike for ages either. Thankfully, there were some soft chairs for us to sit on.

Anna arrived at 1:30pm and it was such a strange feeling to see her. It just felt weird to see this person who was meant to be in Australia but was now in San Francisco with us, completely by chance. Such a wonderful surprise. We met her cousin, Kate, and her family, husband Scott and kids Nick and Eliza. Everyone was ready with their bikes so after a bit of a chat we set off for the Golden Gate Bridge.

Cycling the Bridge

There was one hill to the bridge path that we had to take, but that wasn’t too bad. Being such a beautiful Saturday there were plenty of people out making the most of it. We cycled across the bridge, which was a nervewracking experience. The paths on either side of the bridge serve pedestrians going one way and bikes the other, so that means there’s two-way bike traffic on a path that’s not all that wide. It’s even skinnier when people (including us) stop to take photos. Then there’s the traffic that’s zooming by very loudly and the whole experience can’t help but raise your blood pressure. It’s an amazing bridge though.

We reached the other end without incident (thank god), though Anna was nearly taken out by a pro cyclists. We then took the path around to Sausalito, which was a really nice cycle ride. One of the things we noticed here, and in the park, were the very tall Eucalypts growing around the place. Glen and I had smelled the gum trees, which instantly made us think of home. Of course, here the trees are a pest and grow extremely well.

Sausalito is a little bayside town popular with tourists and locals. It feels like a little holiday location, sort of like Dunsborough or Margaret River back home during Easter. There were people everywhere and trying to find food was a bit of a challenge because there were a lot of queues. We eventually settled on a burger place that served the kind of burgers you’d make for yourself at home. My grilled chicken burger was very nice.

We sat on the grass, eating our food and swapping stories. We then began to get organised for the ferry ride back to San Francisco. Our bike hire place had already given Glen and I tickets (if we hadn’t used them, we wouldn’t have been charged for them) but the others still had to get tickets. There were a lot of people eager to catch the ferry. We couldn’t get on one ferry because it was just leaving once we were ready, so we got in line for the next. Glen and I stuffed things up by going to the loo and then joining the queue about ten people behind the others.

When it came time to board, they very kindly waited back for us until we got to the front of the queue…and then they stopped letting bikes board. At least we were all together and were guaranteed a place on the next ferry that was due to leave in about 45 minutes. We watched the crabs on the rocks and chatted while waiting.

The ferry came and we boarded. We then had a drink upstairs during the crossing. The ferry we boarded was due to land at pier 31, which was much more convenient for Glen and I, but less so for the others. When we landed, Scott cycled to Sports Basement to collect the car, while the rest of us stayed and had tacos and margaritas at the Mexican place right on the pier. The tacos were really good, and of course it meant we had more time to catch up with Anna.

Scott made it back to us probably around 8:30pm or so. Eliza had fallen asleep at the table, poor love. We said our goodbyes and went separate ways. Glen and I cycled back to the bike hire place, which was a little worrying as we didn’t have any lights on our bikes and it was dark by then. We made it there safely, however, and returned the bikes and walked back to our hostel.

Being a Saturday night in San Francisco, how could we not go out? Well, pretty easily, once we got over the guilt. I was wiped out after 11 hours on a bike. Glen found a couple of places to go but we figured that as it was just the two of us, there wasn’t really much point in heading out. A club is a club, after all. If we’d been with friends, we would have sucked it up and gone out, but as it was just us, we committed the social sin of staying in and went to bed. Despite this, it had been a good, jam-packed day in San Francisco and I had enjoyed seeing a little bit of this city.

Friday night flight to San Francisco

Three-seat Glen

Three-seat Glen

Our flight to San Francisco left Toronto on Friday night at about 8:30pm. I’d walked to the hospital to meet Glen at five and then we caught the train out to the airpot. There’s a recently opened “express” train from Union Station, downtown, to the airport. It takes 25 minutes and costs something like $27 one-way.

For Glen and I to make use of this service, it would take us at least 45 minutes (to get from our place to Union St) and then cost a total of $30. Compare this to taking the subway and bus for $3 from our place and taking 45 minutes, it’s definitely not worth using this “express” service. I can’t imagine many people using it though. Who lives near Union Station?

We got to the airport much earlier than we really needed to and then went through security without any hassle. We scrounged around for some food. Glen had a cheeseburger while I had a pizza type thing. Perhaps we should have brought food with us.

Our flight departed on time. It was less than half full so I abandoned Glen as soon as the doors closed and stole the row of three seats in front of him. I was very pleased with all this extra space. Less pleasing was the incredibly bumpy five hour flight to San Francisco. I haven’t been on such a turbulent flight for years. It was not pleasant.

I watched the third season of Rev, a British comedy about a reverend that I’d seen in Australia (but only the first two seasons), and then curled up to get some sleep. I’m not sure if I actually passed out or not. I could have done with a pillow.

We landed in San Francisco at 11pm, walked through the airport to the taxi rank and set off for our hotel in the city. There was a shuttle bus available but I figured that at $19 each, we wouldn’t spend much extra on a taxi and at least this way we’d get dropped off at the hotel. I watched the meter closely, though at times though I’d must have blacked out because it jumped up in such large increments. In the end it cost us $50 (which included the tip) so it wasn’t all bad.

I’d booked us a room at USA Hostels, which was one of the nicer places I could find that wasn’t ridiculously expensive and was well positioned within the city. In the end it still cost as much as we’d spend on a hotel elsewhere (which gives you some idea of how expensive San Francisco is). I was a little worried about the location as it was situated on the edge of a part of the city called the Tenderloin.

We’d been warned about this place and told not to venture down its streets at night. This fear mongering fed into the apprehensions I already had about San Francisco and the warnings that it wasn’t a safe place. The drive through the streets revealed a lot of drunk and homeless people on the streets and sidewalks. We didn’t see any violence so I didn’t think it was as bad as I was expecting. It’s still not an attractive sight and a bit of an indictment on poverty in America.

We checked into the hostel and went up to our private room with ensuite. It was pretty good, the room large enough and both it and the bathroom were clean. There was even a TV (which we didn’t turn on) and a fridge and microwave (despite the sign saying no food or drink allowed in the rooms). As it was about 2am in Toronto at that time, we decided it would be best to go to bed and try to get some sleep.

Northern Lights on a technicality

On Tuesday my Facebook feed was going a bit crazy with photos of aurora Australis and notifications of storm level aurora activity for the northern lights. Ever since we started making plans to come to Canada, seeing northern lights had been on my list of things to see. One of the top things in fact. We went to iceland and didn’t see any. Didn’t see any in Churchill either.

Two hours north of Toronto is the Torrance Barrens Dark Sky Reserve. There’s a page for it on Facebook and I follow them to keep track of what you can see from there, northern lights being one of them. Anyway, with the storm level so high on Tuesday, I kept an eye on the alerts but didn’t think we’d actually make the trek out to the dark sky preserve. Not unless it was highly likely we’d see something.

Besides, we had plans to go to the movies tonight to see Second Best Exptic Marigold Hotel with the neighbours. But just before Glen got home, I was looking at the aurora report again. ‘Storm Level!’ it shouted. ‘It’s on!’ Could this be too good an opportunity to miss? When Glen came home, we conferred and decided a road trip was in order. Julian was only too keen to head up there as well. We cancelled movie plans and at 7:30pm (after Glen went to get some road trip supplies from the supermarket), Julian, Nat, Glen and I set off on our adventure.

Distances don’t seem so bad here in Canada. While I’d seriously baulk at the idea of driving two hours to go somewhere (Bunbury springs to mind), it doesn’t seem like such a terrible idea here. Perhaps it’s because I’m not driving or that there’s the chance of seeing the Northern Lights at the end of it.

We headed off, stopping at one of the OnRoute places so we could get dinner (the first for Julian, second for the rest of us), and then continued into Muskoka. The dark sky preserve is a bit of a trek down a long, windy, bumpy road. In fact the road you take when you get off the freeway feels interminable. It’s also going into backwoods country and late at night, my imagination runs away with me. When a car’s headlights appear behind us, I imagine all sorts of nightmare scenarios.

Eventually we make it to the dark sky preserve. We pa so a car that’s parked on the road, then stop and check they’re ok. They were fine. They were looking at the Sky, saying there were a lot of cars in the car park and a lot of people so they were looking for somewhere quieter. Thanks to their comments, we were expecting a great horde of people at the preserve and I was preparing myself for a spectacular display.

When we pulled in there were about three cars there. And about as many people. Because it’s a dark sky preserve, there are no lights and people get shitty if you use any. We asked for directions on where to go and were given a vague idea so we headed north towards the lake. We went down a ditch and into some trees, not exactly a sensible thing to do. Apparently there’s a path. In the summer. At the moment the area is still covered with snow that disappears when you step anywhere and so you plummet up to your knees. Luckily Glen and I had ski pants on,

We then saw people coming from the direction we wanted to go and we realised we’d wandered completely off the path. We scrambled to the right spot, though it was still a massive effort to get anywhere as we kept plunging into the snow. We laughed and squealed a lot. The people we passed directed us where to go and they asked if we could keep the light down because one of the guy’s had his camera set up on a timer.

We’d missed the really big show. About 30 minutes to an hour before there was a lot of activity, with the lights reaching halfway up the sky. What a sight that would have been to behold! As it was we got to see a light greenish hue low on the horizon. Technically we have seen the Northern Lights though they were not doing what I’d hoped they would do, and it’s really only on the camera that you can make out the colour.

Nevertheless, I set up my camera and took a bunch of long exposure shots. I don’t have exactly the right equipment for this and there is a lot to improve on technique wise but for an idea of what was out there, and with the little we had to work with by that time, it’s acceptable. We stayed for perhaps 45 minutes. For all that it’s dubbed a dark sky preserve, it’s not all that dark. There are two dome-like glows on the horizon that signify sizable human settlements, which is a bit disappointing.

On the way back to the car, Glen and I talked to one of the guys and he told us how spectacular it had been earlier. His friend was showing up in a minute and had given him news that it was supposed to be peaking again. I thought it would just be our luck for it to shoot up after we left. However, looking at the aurora reports on the way home made it seem that the storm was over for this part of the country.

More people arrived as we left. I saw their heavy duty camera equipment being taken out of their car as we drove out of the car park. I don’t have anywhere near what they have, and really, I’d much rather see the lights dance than try to take photos of them.

It was a quiet ride home as Nat and Glen fell asleep. Julian valiantly got us home safely, which was a big effort considering he’d worked all day too. We got back into Toronto at around 2, dropped Nat home and then went back to our condo and to bed.

Even though it wasn’t as spectacular as I’d hoped, I’m glad we went. It was a rare moment of spontaneity that, for nothing else, got us out of the city and looking up at the stars in a clear sky. I now know how to get to the preserve and don’t consider it as onerous as I once did so wouldn’t feel too shy about trying again another night if the conditions are right. And plus, we did, technically, see the Northern Lights. Next time will be better.

[The photos are a little misleading. The lights weren’t this green when we were there. They look like this because of the long exposure rate of the shots. Another guy got much better shots but he’s more experienced and has better equipment. For instance, his lens was better and his setup more sturdy – wind knocked my camera around a bit. Anyway, first attempt]