Finding Solace in the Charged Particles of the Aurora Borealis

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Hugo Sanchez, 48, immigrated to Canada to escape the brutal civil war in El Salvador. As David Wolman reports in this moving profile at Outside, Sanchez’s friendly, kind exterior hides the horrors he experienced growing up in Central America and the pain and grief he endured after losing his son Emilio, who died unexpectedly at age 10. Sanchez, a passionate photographer, finds solace in capturing the Northern Lights on film.

Growing up in Central America, Hugo had never heard of the northern lights: la aurora was a phrase used only to describe the special glow of dawn. But since relocating to Edmonton, Alberta, nearly 30 years ago, he’s had scores of sightings of what he sometimes calls Lady Aurora. Nowadays, when the forecast looks good or half decent, Hugo will load up his 2007 Mazda and drive, alone and often in the middle of the night, to Elk Island National Park, about 40 minutes from his home on the northwestern edge of Edmonton. There he’ll set up and wait. It’s a calming place, he says, where he can reflect on what he’s been through, what he’s lost, and what he still has.

Before peeling off from the group, Hugo and I listened to a Wiseman local give an informal lesson about the physics of auroras. He stood outside a cabin filled with furs and mining-era memorabilia, and, with mittened hands gesturing toward the sky, explained how nonstop nuclear fusion in the sun sends electrons and protons zooming into space—the solar wind. Some of these charged particles make their way into earth’s upper atmosphere, where they smash into oxygen, nitrogen, and other gases. The collisions emit visible light: greens mostly, with cameos from pink, violet, blue, yellow, and red.

A rare happy memory from that time came when Hugo first saw the northern lights. He and Jamie were driving on Highway 2 between Calgary and Edmonton, far from any cities, when they saw a glow rising from the horizon, gradually lighting up the sky. Even to Jamie, who had seen many auroras, it was stunning. Later she told Hugo that her people, the Cree First Nations, believe “the northern lights are dancing spirits of loved ones who have passed on.”

A few minutes later, Hugo steps away from his cameras. He looks up at the sky, alive with color and motion, and takes a deep breath. “I’m happy to see you, Emilio,” he says, sniffling, his voice cracking slightly. “I miss you, buddy. And I love you. Mom loves you, too. So, thanks for everything you’re doing lately because this is…” he says though tears. “I love you, buddy.”

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