Cascading Light
Credit: Paul Zizka

By Sarah Hewitt 

At the frozen edge of Vermilion Lakes near Banff, Alberta, photographer Paul Zizka crawls out onto a questionable patch of ice to set up his camera.

He’s setting up for the iconic image of Banff with Mount Rundle looming in the background. Only right now, it’s 2:00 a.m., and Zizka is hoping the aurora borealis will put on a show. Zizka is an Aurora Chaser, and if there’s any chance at all to see the northern lights, he thinks nothing of grabbing his gear and venturing out in any weather, prepared to stay out all night to capture his extraordinary photographs.

Zizka invited me to join him — I arrived at his Banff home close to midnight. Zizka grew up in Quebec City and started photographing his expeditions in the Rockies for family and friends. He began to take mountaineering — and photography — much more seriously and his attention soon shifted to the night sky. 

“The landscape here is magical to start with,” he says, “but when you add the stars and the Milky Way and occasionally the aurora to that, you can get images that have a sort of surreal feel to them.” 

He still vividly recalls being blown away the first time he saw the swirling greens and reds of the aurora borealis, while working at Bow Lake, Alberta. He had assumed they were only visible further north. It’s true that the aurora appear more often at more northerly latitudes — but in Banff, an aurora chaser needs more patience. Zizka constantly watches Facebook and Twitter feeds and scans dozens of websites that track solar flares, solar wind speeds and magnetic fields. 

Massive eruptions on the sun’s surface spew charged particles towards Earth, causing a surge in solar winds, sometimes in excess of 1,000 kilometres per second. Although Earth’s own magnetic field deflects most of these charged particles, some energy from the solar wind can penetrate into near-Earth space and excite oxygen and nitrogen atoms in our atmosphere. The energy released from these interactions result in the aurora borealis. Websites like boil down the complex parameters to a simple percent-based likelihood of seeing the aurora tonight. Sign up for email alerts and you don’t even need to check the site yourself.

On the morning of the night I had agreed to meet Zizka, he emailed me hopeful messages all day.

“We might get some aurora action tonight. Stay tuned!”

Zizka’s passion for aurora chasing is shared by a growing fraternity in Canada and around the world. He tells me that when conditions are right, you can see the colours from downtown Banff. It’s not uncommon to see a crowd of people taking time away from the pubs to enjoy the night sky at nearby Lake Minnewanka.

“Those are the nights when you try to make it count and hit as many locations as you can,” says Zizka, who sometimes travels hundreds of kilometres in a single night. Unfortunately, on this night, the conditions no longer look good, but he packs his gear and we head out anyway.

Even at the peak of the solar cycle, generally the most favourable time for auroras, Zizka is lucky to see them three or four nights a month. Still, it’s the possibility of the aurora that draws him back each night.

“It’s one of those phenomena that makes you want to grab everyone you know by the hand — you just want the rest of the world to experience it,” he says. “It’s one of the most magical things that nature can put together.”

It’s now 2:00 a.m., and we’re at Vermillion Lakes. The stars are vivid but there’s not a sparkle of aurora in sight. In the moonlight Zizka talks about the intimacy of getting to know a place at night. Even a landscape you thought you knew, he says, reveals surprising things. No sooner are the words out of his mouth when six wolves appear from the trees in front of us. They begin to howl, first one, then another, a beautiful, otherworldly chorus under the night sky.

 This article appeared in our Fall 2014 issue.