Ottawa Life magazine
January 2000; page 56

Millennium magic in the sky

Come, dance with the Aurora at Fort McMurray, in Northern Alberta

By Katharine and Eric Fletcher

“Can you see Aurora? She’s over there, dancing in the sky!”

All we can hear is Dr. Johan Louw’s voice, compelling me to scan the night sky for the shimmer of light that is the Aurora Borealis -- otherwise known as the Northern Lights.

We are outside, in the cold night, staring at the canopy of stars twinkling above Fort McMurray in northern Alberta. There’s a handful of us craning our necks to catch a glimpse of this celestial phenomenon that the Japanese believe brings good fortune to children conceived beneath their glimmering curtain.

None of us are Japanese -- so we all have our clothes on...

Instead, toques cozily planted on our heads, we have tripods and cameras poised and are at the ready to photograph Aurora.

“Is that a cloud... or is it really Aurora?” cries one expectant viewer. It’s difficult to tell, because there is a great deal of ambient light cast by the half moon.

“Yes,” says Dr. Louw, “That’s her.” Gasps and shouts split the silence of the night. Calm is temporarily restored as we fall into a restless silence. Described as a moving ribbon of light, Aurora shifts and glimmers through the heavens above us.

Like diaphanous silk, Aurora’s gossamer lightstream permits us to see through the ribbons: yes, we can see stars shining through the thinnest part of the shafts. The heavens dance above us: for perhaps 10 minutes, we are regaled with a heavenly spectacle.

Suddenly, it’s as if two dancers are holding and shaking a ribbon of light. The ribbon twists and then, in a spectacular burst of energy, Aurora forms a dazzling loop in the sky. Truly, the Aurora resembles a rapid-filled river whose ephemeral form shivers and twists along a star-strewn path.

We are spellbound.

Some of our colleagues are from the southern states, so they have never witnessed this phenomenon before. What exactly are the northern lights, they ask.

Travelling at 3 million miles an hour, protons and electrons are speeding from the sun in a solar wind. As the wind penetrates earth’s magnetic field, it streams toward the magnetic poles, energizing atoms of nitrogen and oxygen -- among others -- in its path. After the wind passes by the atoms, they return to their normal state, all the while releasing the energy they have just received. The energy release manifests itself in light... in the dancing colours of red, green or the diaphanous white that we saw in northern Alberta.

The Northern Lights occur between 90 to 500 kilometres above us in the ionosphere. No wonder we have to crane our heads to see it! A colour graphic in the December 1999 issue of Backpacker magazine depicts its range very clearly: Satellites orbit Earth over 500 kilometres above us; the space shuttle sails past at up to 500 kilometres above us... so Aurora is right up there -- a natural phenomenon that must be astonishing to see from the shuttle itself, don’t you think?

So far, we don’t know of any Space Shuttle Aurora trips.

But we can recommend watching them with your feet planted squarely on terra firma.

Conveniently, year 2000 is one of the best times to view them, so we advise you to put Aurora viewing on your millennium agenda. Northern Lights activity is dependent upon solar sunspots -- and scientists tell us that their 11-year cycle is reaching its climax this winter.

So it’s an absolutely perfect opportunity to plan a celestial millennium holiday.

We highly recommend you book a “far-out trip” to Northern Alberta to view Aurora from Fort McMurray. Dr. Johan Louw of Alta-Can Aurora Tours offers six- or four-day millennium tours that not only introduce you to this fantastic celestial show, but also to a truly special northern Canadian experience.

A particular delight was meeting his friend and astronomer Bill Rockwell. He brought along his portable telescope so everyone could view planets Saturn and Jupiter, as well as the craters of the moon while we waited for Aurora to appear.

Mr. Rockwell is also an accomplished night photographer.

Be absolutely sure to pack your tripod and camera. We guarantee you will be delighted as we are with the results. If you want, you can also get expert assistance not only with time-lapse photography, but also with composition and framing.

Our Pentax WR90 camera took good shots of the shimmering well as the half moon peeping through the spruce trees. Advice: try to plan your trip on moonless nights, for the half-moon really did cast a lot of light, making Aurora less vivid. Take plenty of film and take a flashlight so you can reload with film. Tip: always ask your fellow-photographers FIRST -- before you turn the flashlight on, so that you don’t ruin your fellow holidaymakers’ shots.

Okay, so your millennium Aurora holiday sounds intriguing for night-time activity, but what are you going to do during the daytime?

Dr. Louw has everything figured out. You can select from several options: try your hand at dogsledding and snowshoeing; enjoy an aboriginal experience (make your own dreamcatcher... or perhaps participate in a sweet-grass ceremony); or go on a wilderness experience that incorporates learning how to build an emergency shelter.

If you go

Contact Dr. Louw at; e-mail:; regular mail: 10823--138 Street, Edmonton, Alberta, T5M 1P1. Tel: (780) 452-5187; Fax: (780) 452-5180.

Getting to “Fort Mac” as the locals call Fort McMurray is easy. From Edmonton, catch a one hour and 10 minute flight with Air Mikisew. Contact them at\ or by phoning (780) 743-8218; Fax (780) 743-8225.

Accommodation: We enjoyed the three-star Sawridge Hotel in Fort McMurray. Ask Dr. Louw about his package deals because accommodation is included.