‘Road trip’: as its name suggests, it is the perfect gateway to experiencing nature and landscapes while roaming hundreds of miles with your car or your flowered-van, depending on how much of a 70’s-nostalgic you are! As our airborne NLC research campaign drew to an end in High Level, Alberta with the project PoSSUM (find more information at www.projectpossum.org) I took two weeks off in Canada to visit some of my friends I made from a few years back, but virtually without any solid plans. As it turned out, Post-doc and citizen astronaut candidate Aaron Persad was going to return his car in Edmonton after taking a four-day road trip, and honestly I did not know how on Earth I was going to get back anywhere because my all rides had departed the research site days before. Aaron was the only tangible possibility for me to get back south, and hey, in total honesty, how bad is it to take on a road trip?
On July 9th, after leaving the PoSSUM den at High Level, we decided to hit the road and to start our journey by making our way north. Jason and Chris- the main PoSSUM executive staff, were flying there anyways, and we set up a meeting there, only we would be driving 8 hours and they would be there in one and a half! From High Level to about Enterprise in the North West Territories, it was just flat out boreal forest with no view and millions of bugs waiting to devour you as soon as you step out of your vehicle. However the road circling the Great Slave lake, NT, is way more scenic, and the possibilities of viewing wildlife are endless. We stopped several times trying to get a clean picture of sandhill cranes or huge bisons. We stopped in the remote town of Fort Providence, just off the road, to visit an old church overlooking a the winding arms of the Mackenzie River.
At the northernmost point of our road trip (62.87 deg N), we took a picture at a small lake (among thousands of them) featured in the second scene of the movie, where the 11:00pm sun was just starting to set. The area towards Yellowknife is now strewed with granit prominences and trees get considerably smaller as a consequence of the lack of soil, and probably the acidity of it. After braving about three hours of gravel, bumps and potholes, our car survived all the way to the beautiful town of Yellowknife, secluded on the eastern shore of Great Slave lake. As we were trying to desperately find a place to sleep, the moon was just rising on top of floating houses (to avoid paying taxes) and we met Jason and Chris coming back from downtown and and gave them a ride to their hotel situated in the old town. I took advantage of the scenery to take a timelapse of noctilceunt clouds (we thought it would be too bright to see them) evolving on the shore, featured at 2’08’’.
After two wonderful days hiking, boating and sight-seeing in Yellowknife, we continued our journey back South. Aaron wanted to take a little detour to BC, but we decided to take the same way back to High Level for fear of getting a flat tire on gravel. That was our longest driving trip, lasting about twelve hours. At 11:30 pm, we finally hit the BC border, took a picture at the sign, and found a hotel in Dawson creek overnight. The next day was going to be more exciting for sure as we would head to the Rockies. From Dawson creek, we took the dangerous goods highway, and we found out the hard way, as we almost drove into a semi full of crude oil! However around midday, we were right at the gates of Jasper and it was a nice feeling to be surrounded by the majestic Rocky mountains again. Aaron and I were just blown away by their hight and the scenery they offered. We stopped multiple times, taking hundreds of pictures and clips at lakes, peaks, viewpoints, waterfalls, rivers and ice fields. The day was rich of adventures but wore us off, and we booked a lodge as we arrived in Banff. The next day would mark the end of our road trip together, and Aaron dropped me off in Calgary before heading back his way.
In the mean time, I had booked a car on the go in Calgary, because my road trip was far from being finished, and I still had about a week to stay. ‘Hmmm’ I thought, ‘what to do? Hit the road again, of course!’ After picking up my car at YYC, I headed back north in the beautiful southern Alberta sun. As I did not have access to the internet, I had to stop regularly to keep in contact with the friends I wanted to visit. As it went, one of my former OE students, Melanie, had just moved from Hinton, AB to Red Deer, AB, and that was just on my way! She met me with her boyfriend at Starbuck’s coffee in town and it was very delightful to we catch up on life! At the same time, I was chatting with some storm chaser friends that I met on twitter and who were living just 30 minutes away: Team Tanner. If you haven’t met these very sympathetic and talented ladies, Darlene and Theresa, I strongly suggest you check out their fabulous photography work, as they roam central Albertan roads to chase storms, auroras and much more (https://www.facebook.com/treeanddar/). The girls kindly invited me on an improvised storm chase that day, as I could already see huge cumulonimbus clouds forming on the Western horizon in Red Deer. I met them in Alix, Alberta where they reside, and we got into their fancy #teamtanner printed car in the afternoon to go after the growing clouds. As we headed towards the storm, they generously explained a lot on storm chasing and cloud formations, and how to spot tornadoes. In my mind I was really hoping to see my first one! A few minutes later, we drove just by the edge of the front and it was coming towards us. After waiting a bit, we saw a funnel forming under the wall cloud, but no tornadoes yet. As we followed the evolution of the clouds with a thorough attention, the wind started picking up around us, and as we looked up, a rotation started to form literally over us, with the possibility of a tornado touching down on us. I was holding my camera (and my breath!) to record it and the girls were busy live streaming to their twitter page, but we concluded that it was probably time to get the heck out of there! We continued chasing the storm north-east for about seven hours, after which we decided to go eat something and go home, but man, what an adventure! I got some brilliant shots and I am surely going to remember this excursion my whole life. I eventually ended up hitting the road again around 9:30 pm, and made my way to Edmonton, where Rasmus Korsholm was waiting for me. He welcomed me around 11:30pm and it was great to see and share a beer with an old OE colleague I hadn’t seen in a while.
I took advantage of the next day to recuperate a bit from all my emotions and lack of sleep, and I was already at 3500 km… At night we went to see a street performance festival in downtown Edmonton accompanied with Rasmus’ wife, Rachel, who kindly put me up for two nights. We spent the night and next day at their cabin by Isle lake, AB off of Yellowhead highway. At night I would show ‘K’ and Rachel how to take pictures of the nights sky and Rasmus got his first aurora shot, although faint. The next day we went boating and water skiing. As it was already time to say goodbye, I hit the road again and decided to go back to the mountains, because I knew a solar storm was on the way, and in my head, I was imagining myself taking pictures of the aurora by a lake above the mountain tops. After three and a half hours, I arrived back in Jasper and swung by the tourist info center where I asked where the best night photography locations where. They pointed me to several spots, and I decided to take my car on a short climbing trip to Patricia and Pyramid lake, just outside of Jasper, where I shouldn't really be bothered too much by light pollution. After grabbing a bite to eat, I bought water and food supplies for the night and parked at the lake. There was still about four five hours before complete darkness, so I went on a time-lapse hike around the lake, and also took a dip in it, probably ruining the background for dozens of Chinese tourists coming back and forth just to take a picture and not really experience the area. That’s when I realized I am not at all about just taking picture and go. I need to get a feel of the area, explore, take advantage, look, and truly experience. Pyramid lake has the advantage (and drawback, as tourists kept on coming) of having a very popular central island, accessible by a bridge. Tons of people converge here to take pictures and recreate, and you can also book the place for weddings. Around 11:30 pm, I thought I was alone, but several groups of drunken people who smoked pot, too, landed on the island. I waited for them to eventually go, and took some shots of the milky way as I was getting worried about the smoke. Light pollution was still an issue, but the smoke was worse. BC had experienced some of the worst wild fires in decades, as the resulting ashes and haze had engulfed the whole area, leaving no room for astrophotography. It was luckily clear enough all night for me to take some pictures, not of the milky way though. I was regularly checking north, because you never know when the aurora is coming. The NOAA had announced a G2-strong geomagnetic storm for the 17th, and we were the 16th, but I learned never to trust completely the forecasts. All you need to know is that there is a storm coming, and then you need to go out and take your chances. The one-hour forecast is way more accurate than the 3-day or 3-hour one, but having no internet, I couldn't check. Around 1:00 am, I was left with a group of loud girls from Quebec, sitting on the bridge trying to see their first northern lights while scaring off bears. They couldn't see anything, but I quickly spotted the arc on the horizon! It was happening now! The arc quickly grew into a full-sized aurora blast around 1:30, and I set up all three cameras in a hurry. My dream and vision came true, exactly like I had wished, but it is not due to coincidence (well sort of also), I believe it is due to experience and perseverance. The beautiful green, purple and blue pillars were winding on top of the lake and mountains, enabling me to get a gorgeous reflection on the still waters of the lake, but weirdly enough the smoke helped to get a very special atmosphere! You can witness some of the beautiful sequences towards the end of my movie. My favorite shot is the aurora photobombing the Big Dipper slowly rotating lower on the horizon, typical of northern hemisphere summer and Fall. What a night! I ended up crashing uncomfortably in my car for the rest of the night, as the Waning Gibbous moon light washed out the storm. After taking a morning dip, I decided to head back to town to get some breakfast and upload some pictures from the night at Tim Horton’s. As I looked outside, it was dooms day: the yellow haze and rain from wild fires took over completely, and I knew it was time for me to leave town!
The Tanner ladies invited me again for another day, so I made my way to back to Alix, under a constant and dangerous carpet of smoke and torrential rain the whole way. As I arrived in the remote village, it magically cleared up. believe it or not, these ladies must somehow have some kind of magical powers! After taking a well-needed nap at their place, we embarked again on board the 'Tannermobile', but to chase aurora this time around. They took me to a location near Bashaw, AB, to a lake by the road where we could have a reflection and get away from the remaining smoke. We were seeing an arc already, and I set up my cameras, and sure enough around 00:45 am, lady aurora hit again! She came overhead and started a bit of a corona, after slowly fading away. We were again able to get some tremendous shots that night, after which we went back to the house. I am so thankful for having met these wonderful friends, and really want to thank them for making this experience the highlight of my trip. That's how one should really benefit from 'SOCIAL' media!
The next day, I drove down south to drumheller to get shots in the hoodoos. Drumheller is the second best (after Dinosaur Provincial Park) location to experience Alberta’s badlands and is a classified archeological site, where one can find fossils dinosaurs. Again, I patiently waited until nightfall for everybody to beat it, so I can start taking pictures. The Hoodoo trail is prefect for that, as it has a back road where no one really ventures at night. I parked my car on the side of the road, and started recording the rotation of the night sky (actually the Earth, don’t get me wrong ;) ) above some of the most scenic foregrounds in the world. It is like I was back in the Carbon era, only the nocturnal beasts I had to deal with were merely coyotes and burrowing owls instead of Tyrannosaurus!
I continued my way back south to Lethbridge the next morning under the baking sun of Southern Alberta, and I was really happy to recognize some of the prairie landscapes I had been working in years ago. After passing through some more or less sketchy communities and backroads, I eventually landed in Lethrbidge, where Hector Carcamo, my old internship tutor and Ph.D at the AAFC Lethbridge Research Centre, treated me to lunch in town. I also met later with Haley Catton, my old table-tennis dream team partner, which also put me up for three nights. It was nice being reunited with her, as we enjoyed a lot of common hobbies like piano (she is a fantastic player!), table tennis, bugs and sushi! On the last day of my trip in Canada, I got invited to a meeting with Mark Zalcik, a researcher working on NLC. Although I had to drop off the car in Calgary, I decided to drive fives hours north to Edmonton again to meet with him, as I was hoping he could help me with some career opportunities. We met at the U of A, and chatted for about three hours about noctilucent clouds! I showed him my videos, which he was very impressed by, and he also showed me some of his very interesting research. It was totally worth it, and Mark is a very knowledgeable and kind man! I headed back to Rasmus’s place in the pouring rain, and spent my last night in Edmonton, before catching my plane back in Calgary. I wanted a seat on the west wing so I could watch for auroras in the plane, but nothing came up. Instead, I was able to witness a gorgeous display of noctilucent clouds right over Greenland! The stewarts thought I was a terrorist at first and were reluctant to allow me to get close to the door ‘for security reasons’ but after the pilot heard I was after those clouds and was part of a scientific project, every crew member got interested and let me capture these beautiful electric blue clouds! I was in heaven, as I was able to get super clean shots from the plane. As we are flying at 10km above sea level, we get rid of 80% of the atmosphere, enabling an major increase in contrasts (or signal to noise ratio). In other words, pictures look more pure and get this ‘ISS space’ look. These clouds really follow me around: it’s a sign!!
It was a very nice conclusion to such an amazing adventure, and I want to thank all the people who have helped and supported me. As a present of my gratitude to them and a tribute to my journey, I hurried to put together a film called ‘My Canadian Summer’ that goes back on the adventures of over 5000km on the Canadian roads in Alberta, BC and NWT. I really hope you enjoy the movie as much as I took advantage of the nature and people there. If you ask me whether I recommend the place, you can probably guess the answer!
WATCH THE SHORT FILM 'MY CANADIAN SUMMER'