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Travel Writing Sample: Aurora Borealis

We waited for the aliens — the only explanation that made sense to three small boys on a midsummer’s night. Red and green lights had overwhelmed the sky, slowly descending upon the city, gaining in intensity, at once both beautiful and ominous. Could the spaceship be far behind?

Alas, the Martians never landed. But the mystery and magic surrounding that 30-year-old memory remains. Aurora borealis — the northern lights — are an otherworldly gift to the lands of cold winters and long nights, an unforgettable spectacle that inspired Canada’s First Nations long before the days of Lief Eiriksson or John Cabot. For untold centuries, many of this country’s indigenous peoples rejoiced beneath the auroras, believing they were witnessing their ancestral spirits dancing before the Great Spirit. For the far north’s Inuit, the arsaniit are sky people playing.

What wonderful legends! Mystical, whimsical, gentle.

No wonder. Watching the northern lights proves humbling, then and now. It’s impossible to see the aurora and not believe this country is sacred.

Even scientific analysis fails to dim their luminosity. According to accepted theory, auroras begin with the solar wind’s electrons, attracted by the Earth’s geomagnetic poles. The electrons bombard the upper atmosphere’s oxygen and nitrogen; the atomic and molecular particles absorb the electrons’ energy and later release it as iridescent light. Emerald greens, fire-engine reds, vinous purples. Nature’s silent fireworks — which sometimes last for hours — make ordinary nights seem extraordinary. I’ve seen northern lights flicker along the horizon, a soft cosmic light show where land meets sky. And I’ve seen auroras usurp the blackness overhead, like colorful waves billowing through the heavens.

Only in Canada’s far north do auroras regularly grace the midnight skies, in every season. They are best seen there, where manmade illumination is scarce and the horizon seemingly limitless. But occasionally auroras will venture southward to skies near more populated regions, like a cherished friend making an unexpected but welcome visit.

Those nights are blessed. This country is blessed.

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