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]

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