After Dark in Banff National Park? It's Time to Search for Steve
He’s elusive. He’s mysterious. He’s as hot as the Earth’s core.
“That baby snowshoe hare isn’t impressed with our lights,” says my guide, Jeff, motioning for us to turn our headlamps from white to red. We’re at the edge of Johnston Canyon, a waterfall corridor in Banff National Park, crunching through the night’s mid-December snow.
We putter along the bridge, the water like cannon fire beneath us, but I’m busy looking at the sky. Jeff’s waxing poetic about our ancestors using the night “just as it came,” about how torches and artificial light actually made them see less. He’s explaining how humans hear and smell better in darkness or low light. I’m listening, but admittedly distracted. Besides the hare, we've come across fossils and even had a run-in with a fox. But my thoughts are stuck on Steve.
Steve’s been avoiding me these past few nights in Banff. After all, he can be unpredictable—the bad boy type. The kind of guy who shows up just after you’ve given up. You know the kind: Elusive. Mysterious. As hot as the Earth’s core.
And I just want one night with him.
We're talking about a celestial phenomenon
Steve is kind of like the northern lights, but not exactly. He’s a strip of ionized gas that’s 10,800 degrees Fahrenheit and moves at 3.5 miles per second. He’s 16 miles wide, thousands of miles long, and loves to hang out around the Canadian province of Alberta and specifically Banff National Park, where he can typically be spotted much lower and later than his aurora cousins.
Though he’s been documented on and off for centuries, Steve didn’t garner widespread attention until 2016. Amateur aurora chasers were perplexed by the celestial phenomenon, which hadn’t ever been named. Eventually, they went with “Steve,” in reference to a DreamWorks movie called Over the Hedge—in the film, a character named Hammy the Squirrel gives the titular and awe-inspiring hedge that same name. Scientists quickly caught on and managed to give Steve a backronym: Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement.
To the naked eye, Steve usually appears whitish-purple and wispy. He prefers to ham it up for the camera; somehow he transforms into a dazzling ribbon of pink, with green fingers hanging down from his long, lanky, nearly vertical arc. He can look like the disappearing contrails of a plane, but he’s full of energy—his electrons move as fast as 15,000 mph.
With that much charisma at his disposal, it's no wonder he won't so much as glance at me.
Desperately seeking Steve
By night two, Steve has become my mission. I decide to go somewhere out in the open to let him know I’m interested, to lay my cards out on the table. It’s time to make myself vulnerable, which means no more traipsing around limestone canyons with Canadians named Jeff.
But I do need a guy named Paul—Paul Zizka, to be specific. I reach out to the Banff-based photographer who then points me to the north end of Banff National Park where "light pollution is nonexistent,” recommending spots like Bow Lake and Graveyard Flats. Zizka has met Steve on roughly 20 occasions and mentions that, if he shows up, he can stay put for up to an hour—another way in which he differs from his more fleeting cousins. Apparently, even if he initially plays hard to get, he’s no player once he makes a connection. I’m practically swooning.
I weigh my options and go with Bow Lake, one of the largest bodies of water in Banff. I had been there earlier in the week, driving down the Icefields Parkway, and there was nary a soul in sight; nighttime, of course, is no different. I look up to see the dust of the Milky Way and the peaks of the Waputik Range—but no Steve. With the wind picking up and Bow Lake being especially gusty, my hope tanks. I’ve been stood up.
On my way back to town, though, I have an idea: Lake Louise. It’s a world-famous spot, and I shared it with only a dozen or so people a few days back. On a snowy mid-December night, that number would surely be close to zero. I’d get a remarkable show, regardless of whether Steve decided to grace me with his presence.
Bingo. I was right: This place is all mine.Though I know the lake is covered in a sheet of white, nightfall makes it seem blue again. To be alone somewhere so nearly mythical feels akin to time travel—or to experiencing the apocalypse, depending on whether your glass is half-empty or half-full. Either way, it's a reminder of nature’s rich existence without us.
I quickly find that I'm alone, perhaps, because I’m too early. Steve believes in being fashionably late to the party: He’ll often show up 30 to 45 minutes after any aurora show ends, if he shows up at all. With a sliver of moon to light up my night sky, I tramp along the trail that skirts the lake’s edge, too nervous to walk out onto the early-winter surface. The night sky sparkles. The Milky Way seems to whisper, "No Steve." I kill time fumbling with hoarfrost, convincing myself that I can hear foxes. But the cold gets to me, the night gets to me, and I head back to my car.
We’ve still never spent the night together, but Steve’s somehow already sending me on a walk of shame.
Basking in the glow
It’s my last night in Banff, and I’m torn: Do I give Steve another chance? Do I waste my time on yet another man who has shown zero interest in me?
No. I would’ve fallen for that in my 20s, but I’m in my 30s now, and I know what to do instead: carbo-load and stay busy. Strengthening my spine at Lupo—an Italian joint that hand-rolls their pesto campanelle—I head for the Banff Gondola and Nightrise, a light experience that honors the sky from the Stoney Nakoda perspective. I didn’t need Steve to have a radiantly good time.
“Diamond Dust. Alpenglow. Cosmic rays,” says the voice emanating from my gondola pod. “At the top of this mountain, there are mysterious, fleeting wonders awaiting in the dark.”
Really, gentle and disembodied Stoney Nakoda voice? I thought. Don’t tell me Steve has been up here the entire time.
Eight minutes later, I’m out on the platform of the Sulphur Mountain summit—what the Stoney Nakoda call Mînî Rhuwîn. From up here, I can see all of the town of Banff and the Bow Valley. The city lights glimmer quaintly below the fat, jagged peaks.
Still, no Steve.
In a glowing, giant font, the platform floor reads, “Listen to this view. Slow down and let go.” I take this to mean it's time to wave my white flag. I have to accept—and I do—that I may never see Steve. In my mind, he's still a fleeting wonder waiting in the dark.