Fort McMurray
Wood Buffalo

Searching for the aurora in Fort Mac

BARB MARTOWSKI

Aurora Borealis, Fort McMurray, Alberta Canada
The Aurora Borealis dance in the night skies over Fort McMurray, Alberta.
Courtesy TRAVEL ALBERTA

FORT MCMURRAY, AB — Alberta's Winter Road begins north of Fort McMurray, but before you hit that wintery trail, spend a few days exploring the many winter adventures that are available in this dynamic city that acts as the urban gateway to Alberta's northeast and beyond.

Snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, skating, winter hiking and ice fishing make up a large part of the outdoor activities that keep the winter blahs away, but one outdoor pursuit that brings tourists from around the world to Fort McMurray, located 435 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, is catching sight of the Aurora Borealis or as many Canadians simply call them, the Northern Lights.

"Fort McMurray's geographical location makes it an ideal place for viewing the aurora phenomenon," said Bill Rockwell, a guide with Alta-Can Aurora Tours. "You can see the lights nine out of 10 nights here with the best month being March."

Knowledgeable host

Unfortunately for our tour group, we only had the one night in Fort Mac ... and it was overcast. So we settled in for a quick hour with Rockwell as he walked us through the science and historical trivia of the Aurora Borealis. As much as I appreciate the science, I was more fascinated by the trivia. 

Anecdotes like the ancient Chinese referring to the lights as the Dragon in the Sky. For many in the Northern Hemisphere, they were considered bolts from hell,  which fits with the United Kingdom where the lights were considered a bad omen. Maybe people only noticed them on the eve of any one of the invading marauders who pommelled the islands during the early days.  

Bad to some cultures, but good to others, such as the Scandinavian countries where the lights were a sign of good. This fits in, not with any theories I have, but with the fact that I like some things in Mother Nature to remain magical, especially the Northern Lights. 

Sometimes it's more important to just enjoy the beauty rather than dissecting it. And if it gives you a sense of magic and peace – how can it be anything but a good thing?

Oil Sands Discovery Centre in Fort McMurray
The Oil Sands Discovery Centre in Fort McMurray, Alberta.
Courtesy TRAVEL ALBERTA

Rockwell is also an accomplished photographer, showing us a collection of his photos that had all of us drooling and envisioning similar shots of our own. Before any tour, Rockwell gives a quick lesson on the best tips to successful shooting of the Aurora Borealis. The tours also include accommodations, daytime activities and while out on your night tour, viewing the constellations. If you are able to, bring your telescope along with your camera.

Discovering the oil sands

Another excellent activity if you are pressed for time is a quick visit to the Oil Sands Discovery Centre. Located at the junction of Highway 63 and Mackenzie Blvd, the Centre is a fascinating tour through the history and development of the Oil Sands, current environmental initiatives and a children's area that looks thoroughly entertaining. There's also a small room with a collection of local artists' work that's influenced by the landscape and animals in and around Fort Mac, with many of the pieces quite beautiful and vibrant.

Fort McMurray offers a number of accommodation options from B&Bs to hotels and motels in all price ranges. One hotel chain that you can always count on for both comfortable beds and ambience is the Sawridge Inn and Conference Centre. The Fort Mac hotel lives up to its siblings in the Alberta located-only chain.

Built around an interior courtyard that features plenty of patio seating, interior landscaping and a small meandering river that holds koi and water plants, the hotel includes both an indoor pool and hot tub, fitness and spa centre, a relaxing lounge and large dining spaces that feature private rooms.

Alaskan King crab anyone?

One of the key elements that make the Sawridge family an excellent place to stay is the quality of the food. Whether it's breakfast or dinner, you can count on delicious cuisine. And while there are opportunities to order off the menu, go for the buffet – especially if you just can't make up your mind.

Dawn Farrell, Fort McMurray, Alberta Canada
Local gal, Dawn Farrell tucks into some Alaskan King crab at the Sawridge hotel in Fort McMurray, Alberta.
BARB MARTOWSKI/SnowSeekers

After enjoying some laughs and drinks in the Hearthstone Lounge, we headed into our own private dining room with a single focus when it came to our dinner – the Friday night all-you-can-eat Alaskan King Crab buffet.  Now if it had only been the crab along with sides, many of us would have survived, but it was not to be. 

You know how it is with buffets, there's so many entres – each looking just as taste tempting as the last that you can't help yourself but try a 'little.'  The only one of our group not to succumb to the feast and keep her eye on the prize was Debbie Olson from Lacombe, Alberta.

"Fish and seafood do not go over well with my kids and my husband, so evenings out like this are a real treat," said Olson, as she cracked open yet another large crab leg with relish and anticipation.

Whether you are in Fort McMurray for one night or several, check out the Sawridge; the staff are friendly and helpful and the overall experience is one of welcome that starts right at the front desk where a large tray of equally large, moist cookies are there for the taking.

For more information on Fort McMurray, Alberta, the many winter adventures to be had, events and accommodations, visit www.fortmcmurraytourism.com.

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