In Awe Of Aurora

Renegade Collective

June 2014


It's nature's most exquisite show – glittering, dancing ribbons of colourful lights. And we caught up with the man who’s made it his business to share the spectacular aurora borealis with the world, writes Tatyana Leonov. 

It’s not every day you meet someone who has seen the northern lights thousands of times. It’s a safe bet to say Johan Louw has probably seen more aurora borealis displays than most people – including the fervent fanatics who travel numerous times a year in the hope of catching a view of the celestial phenomenon unfold over and over again.

“I just love the aurora borealis,” gushes Johan, while keeping his eye on the tour group he’s looking after that night to make sure everyone is happy. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years and can’t see myself stopping any time soon.”

According to Norse legend, these dancing lights are battling horsemen; to Eskimos they are spirits on their way to heaven; and to Siberians they are soccer-playing children in the sky. Some Japanese still believe that a child conceived during an aurora borealis will be blessed for their whole life. In that vein, Japanese tourists remain a major market to the northern lights viewing tours in Canada.

We’re in Fort McMurray, an oil sands town in the beautiful Alberta province of Canada. Unlike the more common vantage points of Yellowknife and Whitehorse in the Yukon province further north, Johan’s Alta-Can Aurora Tours aren’t as notorious but offer some of the best northern lights viewing opportunities in the world because they have the longest season of them all.

“[It’s] because of our unique location,” explains Johan.

“Our tours run from September to May, which is unusually long compared to other tours. And now [2014/2015] is an amazing time to see them because of where they’re at in the sunspot cycle.”

Johan says with growing excitement, “They call it the heartbeat of the sun and it has many sunspots. It’s an 11-year cycle. Four years from minimum to maximum and four years from maximum to minimum. 

“There’s a lot of BS [bullshit] flying around when it’s max,” he laughs.

“The point is that for the first time in recorded history we have had two years of solar minimum, so we’re heading towards two years of solar max. I think the solar max is 2014/2015.”

There’s a jiffy of science and a lot of plain old guesswork involved in working out when it’s best to view the lights that have the world in awe, and Johan is grateful for his two decades behind him.

He’s been running Alta-Can Tours for 26 years, specifically the Aurora Tours for 20 of those. The first six years he focused on soft adventure in the Rockies (horseback trips, canoeing, rafting) but then fell in love with the lights and when an international business partnership arose, he jumped at the chance to view the spectacle night after night.

“I was interested in the aurora and I did some research about Fort McMurray – it’s a gem of a spot for northern lights viewing. And then it so happened that an airline company called Canadian Airlines International (CAI, bought up by Air Canada later on) approached me about northern lights tours specifically for Japanese groups. We’d built up a decent name already and they asked if we would do northern lights here. The decision to say ‘yes’ was an easy one.”

The Alta-Can business model is multifaceted. “I mostly work directly through receptors, and these receptors work with tour companies around the world. I like to work with tour operators who sell my product as part of a bigger package. It’s a complicated business model but it works,” explains Johan.

“The tour operators have the rights and insurance to take people overseas.

“They work with a whole heap of travel agents who put together brochures and sell the experience.

“These are the people that sell my tour directly to the public. So the travel agents work with the tour operators, who in turn work with my receptors. I finally deal with the receptors.”

Initially, Japanese nationals were the bulk of Johan’s clients, who seemed happy to witness the fabled lights in below-freezing temperatures year in, year out. As a result, Johan hired bilingual staff and honed his tours for the needs of a Japanese audience.

“Usually Japanese groups get very emotional; when they see the aurora they jump around and scream,” beams Johan.

“It’s the most beautiful sound to my ears. I’m kind of leading the screaming.”

And while Japan remains a major player, the new visitor growth areas are Australia, the US and the UK. Depending on the size of the group (Johan has led tours of 300 people), he has nine part-time guides who work the nights.

While travellers are busy sky-gazing at night, by day Johan schedules in a variety of activities as part of the tour, like wilderness walks and dreamcatcher making. Otherwise visitors can enjoy Fort McMurray’s sights via tubing or skiing at Vista Ridge.

“The reason we survive is because we care and look after the people,” says Johan. “And my staff really like working here too. For example our astronomer and photographer, Bill Rockwell, has been with us for 19 years.”

It’s easy to see Bill loves his job. “Watching the sky is very soothing and relaxing,” he says, looking up at the sparkling stars. It’s -40 degrees outside and there’s ice forming across his eyebrows, although he doesn’t seem to notice or care. “I used to read a lot of science fiction and used to wonder if the names were real, and that’s how I started to learn about the sky.”

Bill works with Johan every night, patiently helping guests set their cameras up to capture the lights, as his job is solely to help tour-goers record the phenomenon. It’s a very specialised skill set. Cameras need to have wide-angled lenses and be manually controlled with the capability to keep shutters open for at least 30 seconds. Tripods too are a must, as any movement will blur the photo.

Bill’s role also entails showing and teaching the group about the night sky while they wait for the aurora to make an appearance. Each night the group spends about three or so hours waiting to glimpse the lights.

They alternate waiting inside the private building, with snacks and hot drinks provided, with bursts of time spent outside depending on how cold it is.

The tours run over nine months of the year, so temperatures vary greatly depending on the month.

“What separates us is the individual attention. It’s not a cattle call. I spend a lot of time with people, adjusting the cameras and making sure everything is cool.” Bill laughs as he realises what he’s said, trying to brush some solid ice off his eyelashes. He gives up and breaks the ice straight off.

Later that night we hear a piecing scream, then more screams. The aurora has begun, rather early in the evening.

Because it’s cold it’s not as simple as running outside, but the 20 or so people inside the assembly area quickly start putting on their layers – jackets over jackets under massive survival suits, plus beanies and balaclavas.

Somehow the cold makes the already- magical experience even more ethereal.

Most tours are three nights long (Johan says that with Alta-Can over that time frame there’s a 90 per cent chance of viewing the aurora borealis) and on the first two nights enthusiasts were treated to white glowing canopies across a black prairie sky.

Tonight the colour and movement have emanated – and it’s what most people dream of seeing.

Pinks, greens and white dance around the midnight sky, the shimmering curtains of light bouncing around as if the gods are trying to look out their window.

Through the eye-sized gap in my balaclava I see Johan running towards the curtains of colour, and like he said earlier, he’s leading the screams.