Aurora Borealis in Absentia

It's not like I haven't seen them before.

The first time that they presented themselves to me upon the northern evening sky, it was a late-summer or early-autumn evening. I wasn't expecting them: they just appeared, silently, not so much drawing attention to themselves as they had walked in on me, enjoying a quiet moment to myself, and they were doing the same, not realizing that I was already there.

I was at a friend's house, along March Road, just north of Kanata and just before the bend that brings you to Dunrobin Road. It was the late 1980s, and the urban sprawl was still several kilometres away. Back then, this house was way out in the boonies.

There was a party in the house, and there was lots of noise and even more drinking. I was enjoying myself, but I needed a break from the loud music, needed some fresh air.

The house backed on to a large field, with tall trees a couple of hundred metres in the distance. It was fairly flat land, and when the faint, red fibres of light reached upwards, above the treeline and over my head, all I could think of was that I wished I had my camera in hand. My camera, of course, was inside the house. I could have run in to grab it, but I had no tripod with me, so the photo would be shakey, but most importantly, this silent moment with me and a rare phenomenon to our nation's capital would have been lost.

Instead, I stayed outside a little longer to enjoy this beautiful sight.

For the past two nights, the Ottawa area has been promised some of the strongest Northern Lights in years. Both nights delivered perfectly clear skies: all one had to do was to get out of the city.

I drove northwestward, along the 417, toward Arnprior, but left the highway at the Galetta exit. I figured that being close to the Ottawa River, not far from Fitzroy Harbour, I would have lots of dark sky.

I did, except that in the 30 or 40 minutes that I sat, at the side of an obscure road, under power lines, I saw countless twinkling stars, but no electro-magnetic bands of light.


I'd like to say that glow was from the Northern Lights, but most likely, it's the warm glow of Arnprior.

The next day, I saw a few photos that a friend had taken, not far from where I had parked. The lights, he told me, were low on the horizon and didn't last very long. Where I had set up my tripod, I had a channel of cleared fields, for the powerline towers, but there were plenty of evergreens that obstructed my view of low-lying Aurora Borealis. I would have to try again.

Last night, I decided that I would drive to the launch for the Quyon ferry. Where the road ends, right at the Ottawa River, I would have nothing obstructing my view. There is a wide channel of river between the Ontario side and the Qu├ębec side, and the Gatineau Hills were not obstructing a northern view of the horizon.

At night, the Quyon launch is lit brighter than Checkpoint Charlie during the Cold War. With the noise pollution, I could barely make out the river, let alone the horizon. Only the brightest of stars could pierce the bright haze.

I drove back, upwards, away from the launch, and stopped on high ground, surrounded by open field. I pulled over and got out of my warm car, the night air showing more chill than the previous evening. The stars were plentiful, but there was no glow of any phenomena. I got back in the car, and drove.

Ferry Road ends at Galetta Side Road. If I turned right, I would retrace my route, passing the spot I reached the previous night. I turned left and took Galetta Side Road to its end, at Dunrobin Road.

I knew a couple of spots where the ground would be high and open, and so I raced there, only to find more disappointment. The only glow that I saw on the horizon was the dull indication of Ottawa, to my right. The same bad luck greeted me in two more spots near the village of Dunrobin. I considered driving to Constance Bay, for better luck along the shores of the Ottawa River, but my car reminded me, with a ping and a light on the dash, that it was running low on fuel.

I was running low on energy, on patience, and on hope. My low-fuel indicator told me I should give up, should go home... right after I found a gas station.

My silent friend, the Northern Lights, eluded me this week. Perhaps they're meant to come to me when I least expect them, like they did on the night we first met.

I've seen them before. I'll see them again.

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