FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS chasing the aurora as the clock ticks down to earth day

I broke free of the city just as the sun set and as I looked to the northern horizon I could already see the aurora borealis beginning to dance.

The Friday night lights were starting to shine.

There were already quite a few people out waiting for the show to begin. Pulling up to a series of ponds west of Airdrie - I wanted to get the reflection of the aurora in the water - I found a dozen or so people already there, cameras on tripods and headlamps glowing as they got set for the long exposures need to capture the nighttime shine.

I tired my best not to let my headlights ruin anybody's photos but it was pretty unavoidable. Hopefully, they were able to get a few pictures anyway.

Not wanting to cause any more disruption, I rolled on to the Dogpound Creek valley where I was pretty sure there would be no one else.

I was right.

Windows rolled down so I could attach my camera's window mount - so much faster than using a tripod - I sat quietly and listened to the night music as the long exposures chugged away.

I could hear the chirps of the chorus frogs and the strange quacks of the wood frogs, both species sharing the same ponds. Night birds were singing but, for the most part, I didn't recognize the songs. I heard no robins and the meadowlarks were still a good seven hours from their morning melodies.

But I did hear geese - really, when don't you hear geese? - and the occasional quack of a mallard. The cattle and horses I knew were in the nearby pastures were silent, sleeping away the night. But the coyotes were singing, their crazy yips and yowls echoing down the valley. Somewhere far off, a farm dog barked.

It all sounded so beautiful, I would have been glad to be out there in the middle of the night just to listen to that. The light show was just a bonus.

Rolling on, I followed Dogpound Creek as it trickled further north.

The exuberant bursts of red and green that had blasted across the sky earlier in the evening had dropped off to just a soft green glow as midnight ticked by. The northern horizon looked almost cloudy as the aurora started to fade but I could see stars shining through so I knew the sky itself was clear.

I could have turned back toward home right there and been happy with what I already had but I was wide awake and rolling so I just pushed on. By now I was between Cremona and Didsbury, driving with my headlights as dim as I could make them to preserve my night vision as I scanned the countryside for foreground elements for my photos.

Plugging my phone into the truck's stereo, I fired up some road music. Eyes watching the skies and the road ahead, I sang along as the gravel crunched under the tires.

But as the lights of Olds started to brighten the horizon, I decided to turn back. The sky was still jumping but I was already more than an hour from home and I was planning on making a leisurely drive back. Putting the aurora in my rearview mirrors, I headed back toward Calgary.

Less than twenty minutes later, the sky erupted again.

The lights just didn't want to quit. The colours fired up again, the greens so intense and bright that in places they made the land look like it was awash in mercury vapour light. And then the reds and yellows started mixing with the green again. Stopping to photograph a lone tree with a mirror-like slough in the foreground, I stepped from the truck to stretch my legs. The sky overhead was absolutely alive, sheets of green light tearing across the sky, flinging themselves from the northeast to the southwest. If not for all the frogs singing, I'll bet I could have heard them pass.

Now it was approaching 3 a.m. and my eyes were beginning to get a little droopy. I passed Madden and headed back towards Dogpound before turning south again toward Big Hill Springs and on to the city.

But with the lights still shining so bright, I decided to hit the ponds west of Airdrie one more time.

I had the smaller ponds to myself but at the big pond - it probably has a name but I don't know it - there was one last diehard with a tripod set up. And I probably ruined his picture.

The aurora was still blasting across the sky as I finally headed home, still just as bright and brilliant even as the morning sun was starting to make the eastern horizon glow.

For me, though, it was time to call it a night.

But what a night! Friday night lights. And they set the world aglow.

MIKE DREW ON THE ROAD

A LITTLE EXTRA

APRIL 21-22, 2017

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