Rounding the bend to Beaver Bay, a coyote howls. A half moon glows behind clouds. Snowshoeing through the poplar-and-birch forest, there is little to be heard but the rhomp-rhomp, rhomp-rhomp of snow underfoot.
In summer months Elk Island National Park buzzes with life and activity, but winter cloaks the land in a peace that is at once calming and unsettling. Life stirs beneath the snow, rustles in far off thickets and disappears around the next bend just before the mind registers what you saw out of the corner of your eye.
The aurora borealis is just as elusive as the wildlife, but that is what draws stargazers and adventurers like me and my friend Chris Tse out on a winter night.
“There were just a few of us camping one night, not really paying attention,” says Priscilla Haskin, recalling her most memorable sighting, “then it just happened—the northern lights, rising like a bird from the distance and coming up above us. It’s quite the spectacle, with the greens and blues weaving across the sky—it’s not like in the city.”
The owner and operator of Haskin Canoe lives on an acreage near the park, so she knows the difference being in (or near) a dark sky preserve versus brightly lit urban areas. Haskin offers guided canoeing in the summer and snowshoeing in the park during winter months. The majority of winter visitors come during daylight hours but she also offers a night tour, combining snowshoeing with sky watching.
The usual daytrip with Haskin takes one to two hours, with a stop along the lake for hot chocolate, bison pemmican and hot-on-the-trail maple toffee. Tramping along the trails on a bright, sunlit day, the broad expanse of Astotin Lake covered by snow appears white and cheerful. Warmed by golden, sticky-sweet maple and blue skies above, it’s easy to get lulled into a cozy complacence.
After dark, that all changes.
“At night, the sense of the world is so much bigger … and if you can see stars as well, that’s great,” Haskin says. “It’s mysterious, in a way.”
Mystery is a fitting description: for a northern lights expedition you can check skies, weather reports and auroral activity forecasts, but whether the dancing lights will appear or not—and whether you can see them from your place under the sky—is still up to universal whim.
The same is true for the wildlife in the park: spotting a bison, elk or coyote is completely up to chance. But we know they’re out there—a lone coyote is joined by a chorus, and not long after, the excited barks and yips of the hunt ring out from over the lake.
Elk Island National Park sits within the designated Beaver Hills Dark Sky Preserve, an area that totals 293 square kilometres, including the national park and Cooking Lake-Blackfoot Provincial Recreation Area. It’s the wildest, most remote place you can find within an hours’ drive of Edmonton—and quite possibly the darkest.
Yet when cloud cover sits low enough, the hazy orange glow of Sherwood Park, some 25 kilometres away, is still visible along the horizon looking west. In a place that feels so distant from the city, it’s disconcerting to see a vivid reminder of urban impact reflected so dramatically against the sky.
It makes me all the more grateful for the original visionaries who lobbied the government to found the park back in 1906. Yet even up until the 1950s, Haskin says, there were a few small backcountry cabins tucked into the hills off the back trail into Beaver Bay.
The huts are long since gone, but little fragments of history are still preserved. Oster Lake is named after the last person to keep up residence in the park, for example.
It would have been a far different experience snowshoeing around the park in those days. Nonetheless, some lingering sense of adventure remains amid the shadowy spruce and snowdrifts along the lake.
The wind that had been still all night picks up ever so slightly, and as it does, the clouds drift away to reveal the moon. As if small holes in a dark wool blanket, little pinpricks of light poke through the dark navy firmament.
Northern lights or not, this sudden reveal makes the statement plain: it may not always be what you expect, but the adventure will always be there. After all, if it were predictable, it wouldn’t be an adventure.