“…and today’s forecast is for green skies with a slight chance of slime.” (Aurora Borealis from the International Space Station)
When my grandmother was very young, she saw the Aurora Borealis – or Northern Lights – dancing in the sky above her house. By her own accounts, it was quite an incredible sight, if not perhaps a little frightening to a small girl in the pre-internet age of innocence. Her tale whetted my own desire to see this breathtaking natural phenomenon, but being a city slicker, that was easier said than done.
One of my favourite things when travelling is gazing at the night sky away from the blinding light of the city. I can stare at the heavens and lose myself amid the constellations and billions of twinkling stars. I get excited by satellites and thrilled by meteors. Although I impress myself by identifying Venus (my brilliance never ceases to amaze me!), I couldn’t distinguish Betelgeuse from a Betel nut and I am therefore that most amateur of amateur astronomers…the astro-moron.
Whenever I have been in the wilds of the reasonably-far north or reasonably-far south, I have hoped for a glimpse of the Northern or Southern Lights, but they’ve always proved elusive either due to weather, light pollution, alcohol or my inability to determine direction.
Landing in a small airport in Northern Ontario late one Christmas Eve, our car made its way from the airport along pitch-dark snow-covered country roads. As there were no street lamps, houses or businesses to mar the view, I couldn’t resist gazing into the crystal clear night sky at an ocean of stars and the dancing lights of the airport.
The airport searchlight was huge and weaved and waved across the sky. It must have been visible for miles…which I guess is the whole point of such a thing. Instead of being a static pillar of light as I had seen elsewhere, it wobbled like a tower of Jell-O and swayed like a drunken stilt-walker on ice, deftly painting the sky with its white and blue illumination. Although quite mesmerizing and captivating, it was also a source of annoyance as it obscured my views of stars that I couldn’t name if my life depended on it.
It didn’t seem to matter how far we got from the airport, the light continued to hamper my view of the heavens and all too soon we were back amongst the electric lights of the city and my window of opportunity for stargazing had slammed shut.
“Beautiful evening” my hosts said to me upon arrival. “Did you see the Northern Lights on the drive in…all blue and white and swaying.”
Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009
Photo by: NASA