You’ve got a few months left after seven long, (partly) grueling semesters at university.
You’re living in the heart of a city that’s known for its incredible weather — people would give a lot up to move to where you live.
You’ve grown up in cities where the weather was more often than not just… perfect. Never too hot, never too cold, 365 days a year, 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, 60 minutes a… well, you get the point.
And… you’ve got your last spring break as an undergraduate coming up.
A time that’s borderline sacred with traditions that are meant to be kept — traditions that dictate that you, an undergraduate at a university in the United States of America, are meant to spend in the balmy, warm weather of a country south of the border where most rules seldom matter, most grub is dirt cheap, and if you’re dressed in anything but board shorts or a bikini people look at you like you’ve just swam ashore from a sunken ship that was meant to leave from Seattle to Alaska but had an intoxicated skipper who couldn’t tell north from south and sunk his ship off the coast of Mexico.
It really is a tradition at this point — going to Cabo (Tijuana if you’re stingy) for spring break. Which is why I was, well, baffled at the simple fact that it didn’t take too much time to convince three friends to join me on what is quite possibly the weirdest vacation you’ve ever heard of — a vacation to — wait for it — Fort McMurray. Which is in northern Alberta. Which is in Canada.
We were in Los Angeles, we could have gone anywhere, and we didn’t just go to Canada, we didn’t just go to Alberta — we went to Fort McMurray.
The inevitable question I’m expecting at this point is “Why?” — which is, you know, a whole lot better than “You didn’t go to Cabo to go to freeze your ass off in Northern Canada, are you an absolute moron?”
The tl;dr answer to the former question of those two is we wanted to see the Northern Lights. The short answer to said question is we were lazy and indecisive and wanted to see the Northern Lights. The not-so-short answer to said question is we were lazy and indecisive and wanted to see the Northern Lights and didn’t do enough research about what places were the best places to see the Northern Lights that weren’t Google’s first suggestion and weren’t too expensive.
I’d like to point out that it’s (quite surprisingly) very hard to find a simple packaged “we’ll-take-care-of-everything-and-you-sit-back-and-enjoy-these-awesome-green-lights-in-the-sky” tour. At first glance, you’d think people would line up to do these tours given how absolutely awe-inspiring and magnificent the Northern Lights truly are… and then it hits you that people do line up to do these tours, only they do to travel to countries like Norway and Iceland where there’s plenty to do while you’re not waiting until nightfall to see pretty lights in the sky which, in turn, balances out having to deal with the bitter cold. As opposed to, that is, Northern Canada — where every small town’s sole purpose is to drill the earth for liquid gold. Welp, looks like I’ve answered my own question.
That said, we bought our tickets, bought our ridiculously thick winter jackets (because, you know, who on earth owns ridiculously thick winter jackets if you live in sunny Southern California), packed our bags, and were on our way. It took us three flights, two stopovers in Calgary and Edmonton, and having to explain ourselves to at least twenty absolutely-bewildered faces that belonged to friendly strangers who had just heard we were traveling from Los Angeles to Fort McMurray. This would follow us through our entire trip in Canada— heck, if we had a dollar for every perplexed face we encountered before, during and after our trip, I’d reckon we could’ve recouped a solid portion of our total costs.
I’m not going to lie — I wasn’t expecting much from the town per se, or whether there was other stuff to do during the day. The entire purpose of the trip seemed straightforward — the Northern Lights, the starry skies, from an isolated area, with no light pollution in the night.
I don’t remember what the average night sky in Hong Kong looked like. I do remember what the skies in Bangalore look like —only because Bangalore’s skies were, are, and always will be cloudy. And you’d be forgiven for thinking Los Angeles is the other “city that never sleeps” given how atrocious its light pollution issues are.
So… Fort McMurray. A town that seemed to serve just one purpose — produce oil. The people were extremely friendly — which fits the entire Canadians-are-the-nicest-people-in-the-world cliché, but contradicted the overall vibe this town gave off, which, on first glance, was far from friendly.
It really isn’t my place to judge, but that being said…
It was dark. It was cold. It seemed deserted. It didn’t seem like there was a whole lot that made it worth staying here.
I suppose those involved in the oil industry are paid well? I wouldn’t know.
It does put things into perspective though. The next few times someone said “You live in LA! That must be nice”… I knew what they were talking about.
We did make the most of it though.
Or at least I’d like to think we did.
I digress. We were there for the lights. They were a bit of a tease — over a 3-hour period, they tended to show up for a few minutes in all their glory, and then quite literally vanish into thin air.
But when they did show up…
I had my camera and tripod for all of it. The bitter cold did have my camera die on me temporarily every now and then, while the freezing weather had me struggling to focus my images properly.
The biggest takeaway from my first day shooting the Northern Lights? Auto-focus can be your friend. Especially in situations where there is no background to bokeh — everything needed to be in focus.
While we got clear skies on our first night, our second and third night were absolutely ruined by clouds and rain.
It didn’t matter though.
Because some of these views made it all worth the trouble.
If you got all the way here… I really appreciate you taking the time to read this! Hit the recommend button if I didn’t just waste your time with this. And if I don’t know who you are (or if I do), feel free to say hi on Twitter.