Sandra Woods
Art despite pain

In the news

During a late-evening drive from Montréal to Ottawa in the spring of 1989, a friend and I pulled off the highway to watch a stunning natural phenomenon; the Aurora borealis, or Northern Lights. Pulsing across the sky in waves of greens, pinks, and purples, I recall being captivated by this extraordinary sight.
I'd never before seen the Aurora borealis, and we soon found out that this natural lightshow had appeared much further south than usual due to a major geomagnetic storm.
This storm, caused by solar flares, was in the news when we arrived in Ottawa as it had also knocked out much of Quebec's hydroelectric grid and caused a half-day blackout for more than five million Canadians.
Until this past weekend, that night thirty-five years ago had remained the only time I'd seen the Northern Lights.
So when I heard recently that another major geomagnetic storm was expected to once again push the Aurora borealis further south than usual, I scoured local news reports and autonomy websites for details.
The Northern Lights were expected to appear over Montréal Island overnight on Friday, then continue through the early hours of Sunday, but we'd only have clear skies on the first night.
Astronomers advised that this geomagnetic activity would likely make this Aurora borealis more colourful and vivid than usual, as well as pushing it over a much larger area; not only over swathes of southern Canada, but also into the Midwestern US and parts of Europe that wouldn't normally experience this phenomenon.
Even with an almost cloudless forecast for Friday night, experts recommended leaving the light pollution of urban regions and traveling to darker places for the best chance of seeing the Northern Lights.
The reality, though, is that my usual bedtime is about 2200. Living with two different rare diseases means that I rarely sleep well, and keeping the same bedtime is supposed to help.
Before hitting the hay I went outside and looked skyward, but couldn't see anything other than stars in the sky.
At about midnight I was woken by intense pain in my right hand and arm, from one of my rare diseases.
Hoping to finally see the Aurora borealis, I quietly dressed and slipped outside - trying not to wake my sweetheart. With the streetlamps still lit, and several homes in the vicinity bright with excessive outdoor lighting, I still couldn't see the Aurora borealis.
Given the level of pain in my hand, I knew that it'd take at least an hour before I'd be able to get back to sleep, so I decided to drive to a darker area not too far away.
My sweetheart woke as I was getting my keys, and opted to go back to sleep - a decision I think he later regretted, because what I saw was so spectacular!
I headed northwest, over a bridge off Montréal Island, towards a specific spot I knew would be dark - some waterfront farmland on the way up to the Ontario border.
News reports had said that this geomagnetic storm might push the northern lights as far south in the U.S. as Alabama and Northern California, and I didn't want to miss the opportunity to see them again.
My destination was a lakefront park, facing north across the water and the forest beyond; a perfect choice. Several other people were already there, and I spent a spectacular hour watching the gorgeous waves of colour ebb, flow, and pulse... and chatting quietly with strangers.

An elder gentleman was letting everyone take a look through his telescope, a young woman with her binoculars; I later found out that they were grandfather and granddaughter. One person was off to the side, wearing a dress that could've been a representation of the Aurora borealis, using a tripod-mounted camera. I approached and complimented the dress, asking if they'd mind some company - away from the haze enveloping the others, who were mostly smoking... something.
We had a lovely one-thirty-in-the-morning conversation ranging from astronomy to birdwatching to gardening, all with our heads tilted upwards to watch the lightshow across the sky.
Every now and then a few camera shots would be taken, then I'd try to capture the overhead scenes using my phone - with no success. My images were dark with a few vague blurs, and I didn't want to ruin my night vision by adjusting the settings.
So my new aquaintance, Émilia, shared a few of her photos with me and gave me permission to post them on my social media; with photo credit to Émilia Goulet (she's taking a break from social media, and asked that I not tag her; she has one of my "handles" in case she changes her mind).

Just before 0200 we'd both decided to head back to our homes, so I helped Émilia stow her photography equipment in her car-sharing vehicle - and declined her offer of a swig of the "super-stong coffee" she'd brought in a thermos.
It was a beautiful and ethereal event, and I'm glad I opted to head to a darker location rather than simply hoping to eventually see the Northern Lights over my home.
I hope you had an opportunity to see this geomagnetic storm in action as well, without any of the power outages or communications interruptions that occurred in 1989.
For more information on this geomagnetic storm, CBC News (the Canadian Broadcasting Company) has a good summary
* Photo credits: Émilia Goulet 11.05.2024, Montréal, Canada.