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Chasing the Northern Lights in Jasper

I flipped the lights on and shook my mom. “Wake up!” I whispered, trying to get her attention without startling her.

She slowly opened her eyes, squinting in the dim light of the hotel bedroom. “What?” she muttered.

Northern Lights Over Jasper

This is what I was getting my parents out of bed for.

“The clouds are clearing. We need to go,” I said urgently.

Somehow, we were all in the car only 10 minutes later. The time was 1.15am — a time I had never dared to wake up my parents before (at least, on purpose). However, there was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity on the line, so I knew it had to be done.

As my dad drove, bleary-eyed, up to the lookout we’d scouted earlier that night, I looked up at the sky. The clouds, which had threatened our mission all night, were crowding back in. By the time we reached Lake Patricia, just north of the town of Jasper in the Canadian Rockies, the cloud was a blanket that stretched seemingly from horizon to horizon.

Surprise Sunset at Lake Patricia

The view we had at Lake Patricia at sunset was slightly more inspiring than the blanket of cloud we found at 1.30am.

Luckily, we had a plan B, courtesy of the receptionist at our hotel — who also happened to be a keen photographer (and really, how can you not be when you live in a place surrounded by as much beauty as the Canadian Rockies has to offer)? He’d never been keen on our idea of Lake Patricia, even though I thought it would be a great place to see reflections of the night sky. Instead, he’d suggested driving as far towards Edmonton (300km to the east) as we could and then just pulling off the side of the highway.

Unfortunately, since we’d been so set on the idea of driving just up the road, we’d forgotten one key detail earlier in the evening: petrol. We were running low, and oddly enough, petrol stations in Jasper weren’t open at 1am. We had enough to go a short way out of town, but we wouldn’t be making any epic treks into the wilderness that night…not that my parents were too interested in doing that anyway.

Milky Way Rising

The Milky Way was fully visible — always a good sign when you’re looking for the aurora.

As soon as we got on the highway, we knew we were onto something. I could see the cloud that had blanketed the sky at Lake Patricia; it seemed to be intent on staying there (and only there). The rest of the sky had only the occasional cloud skimming across, always in a hurry to get somewhere else. Behind them, the Milky Way blazed bright all the way down to the silhouettes of mountains on the horizon.

In between two silhouettes, I began to see a moving mass in the sky. As we moved further from the lights of Jasper, I could tell that, despite its whitish colour, it wasn’t a cloud. We’d found what we were looking for: the northern lights.

Luckily, the fuel light didn’t come on until we found a perfect turnoff to pull into; what was clearly a picnic spot next to the river by day became our own observatory by night.

Our 'Picnic Spot'

Our ‘picnic spot’ — complete with northern lights to the north and Jasper’s lights lighting up the sky behind us.

Having previously seen the northern lights in Norway, Sweden, and Finland, I knew what to look for. I could pick out the dancing, magnetic movement that is a signature of the aurora, and with a lot of pointing and attempted description (“It’s like lines, all moving in parallel across the sky”) my mother found them too. Even in the dark, I could see the grin spread across her face.

My dad was a bit more skeptical, but after I took a few long exposure photos and proved that the whitish colour was actually a very faint green that became significantly brighter in the extended exposure time available to the camera (but unfortunately, not to our eyes), he believed me.

Wobbly Northern Lights

The wobbly lines that are the signature of the northern lights, and what convinced my parents that they were actually seeing something other than cloud.

Of everything we did on our trip, of all the glaciers we walked on and amazing mountain vistas we saw, the evening when we got out of bed at an ungodly hour and essentially just stood in a parking lot for a few hours ended up being one of the most memorable of our trip. It gave my parents a glimpse of a natural phenomenon that they thought they may never see, given their unwillingness to travel to cold climates, and it gave me the chance to show them the aurora (and convince them of what they were seeing).

So what are my tips to you for chasing the northern lights?

  1. If you’re on a tropical island, it’s pretty certain that you won’t be seeing the aurora. But if you’re in a reasonably northern (or southern) latitude, don’t rule out the chance. You definitely don’t have to be in the Arctic Circle — its latitude is 66ºN, whereas Jasper is only 53ºN. Tasmania and southern New Zealand often get auroras during geomagnetic storms, and in those same storms they can stretch as far south as Colorado in the US. I knew that they occasionally see them in Banff so I kept my eye on SpaceWeather.com the entire time I was there.
  2. Be aware of the fact that the northern lights do not always appear green or light up the entire sky as you might expect from photos. I’ve written about this in detail in my post The Northern Lights: Photos vs. Reality.


    Vertical beams: another telltale sign of the aurora.

  3. Be willing to give up a good night’s sleep. Yes, we ended up sleeping through most of the morning the next day, but we were still able to go hiking and see what we’d planned to see. Plus, we would have kicked ourselves if we’d heard the aurora had happened and we’d missed it.
  4. Scout out a place before sunset. It’s much easier to get your bearings in daylight to make sure you don’t get out of the car in the middle of the night and accidentally stumble into a marsh. Or a bear’s den. That would be much worse (albeit much less likely).
  5. If the forecast is for overcast, grey skies, you might be out of luck, but don’t give up too early in the night. The sky was full of cloud when my parents went to sleep, but by 1am, it was almost completely clear. If you don’t want to waste the whole night staying up and watching the sky, I recommend two things:
    1. going to sleep and setting an alarm for an interval (say, an hour) and checking before going back to sleep again,
    2. looking at webcams for areas nearby (which can usually be easily found with a quick Google search). Not only will they show you if auroras are present, but it will show you if anywhere around you is having better luck weather-wise.

Have you ever seen the aurora before? Would you have thought to look for it on a summer trip to a northern (or southern) destination?

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