Chasing the light in Calgary, Alberta

Writer Kim Gray muses on a unique urban landscape

Peace Bridge / Calgary / Photo by Lori Andrews

As I write this post, the sun spills through the window into my small office. It seems fitting as I re-visit a story I’ve been continually revising for more than two decades now.

Twenty-one years ago, I uprooted myself from the West Coast and headed to Alberta to get married. My friends in Vancouver joked that my move must have been for love. We’re a smug bunch on the coast—deeply attached to our ocean, our forests and yes, even our clouds and torrential downpours.

True, I was moving for love. But there is a second, unexpected and ongoing affair that began in the first month of my arrival—an affair involving the uniquely beautiful natural light that won’t go unnoticed in this prairie city.

To be honest, nothing could prepare me for the marvel that is Calgary light, especially during those magic hours of early morning or late afternoon, dawn or dusk.

 

Photo by Lori Andrews @theoriginal10cent on instagram

Photo by Lori Andrews @theoriginal10cent on instagram

 

When I first inquired about the phenomenon, prominent architect Jeremy Sturgess summed up Calgary’s saturated light with these words: “The light here is harsh, extreme, even brittle. It smashes, explodes and transforms space, especially when there’s a Chinook (a warm, dry wind that blows in from the West) and it’s late afternoon. The sunlight is squashed between cloud and horizon. Shadows become long and the whole landscape becomes intensely coloured.”

 

Sunalta neighbourhood / Photo by Lori Andrews @theoriginal10cent on instagram

Sunalta neighbourhood / Photo by Lori Andrews @theoriginal10cent on instagram

 

The colour. I still recall the morning I first experienced it as if it were yesterday.

We had just moved into our first apartment—located in the legendary Anderson Apartments off 17th Avenue Southwest.

I awoke, startled, the way you do when your instincts sense something unfamiliar in your midst. A shimmering, raspberry-coloured light was creeping through the narrow windows of our apartment.

Everything the light touched exploded with life: the turquoise-green walls became lush and organic. A quilt, with its deep-red, fuscia and indigo triangles, glittered in a cotton kaleidoscope. Even the battered, hardwood floors erupted into a gleaming gold.

When I climbed out of bed to look outside, the entire neighbourhood was as if it had been given a fresh coat of paint in the middle of the night. My new city was literally shining.

Writer Diane Ackerman, author of A History of the Senses, once described being paralyzed by something she calls “visual opium” – colours combined with natural light that become so intense they assault our senses “like a blow from a stun gun.”

I was stunned by what I saw that morning.

 

Wonderland sculpture / Photo by Lori Andrews @theoriginal10cent on instagram

Wonderland sculpture / Photo by Lori Andrews @theoriginal10cent on instagram

 

There’s no way I’ll ever be able to tear my husband away from his prairie light.

To be honest, I genuinely wonder how I would fare in a rainforest climate after having had a few decades of Alberta light at my disposal. (Calgary is the sunniest big city in Canada, with an average of 2,396 hours of blue sky each year, over half of our total number of daylight hours.)

This week, I touched base with my good friend, photographer George Webber. George, whose work highlights the Canadian West, has been photographing Calgary for nearly 40 years.

Convinced that Calgarians are buoyed by their hometown’s abundant natural light, George says it best: “The light here breathes energy and optimism into the citizens of this city. It’s a happy light, dazzling and yet consoling. It splatters and then fades—making you thankful for today but longing for tomorrow.”

Well said, my friend. Well said.

 

Bow River / Photo by Lori Andrews @theoriginal10cent on instagram

Bow River / Photo by Lori Andrews @theoriginal10cent on instagram

 

***Many thanks to photographer Lori Andrews for chasing “Calgary light” for us on this assignment. She’s worth a follow on Instagram if you’re into cool Canadiana with a design twist. A warm thanks, also, to Tourism Calgary (who did not review or edit this post before publication) for helping support this story.

***Hey readers! Where do you live, and how would you describe the natural light in your town or city? Comment below by midnight May 21, 2015 for a chance to win a Toque & Canoe-inspired swag bag. (We’ll put your names in a hat and do a random draw.) T&C

***Contest update.  Lee Gilbert! We drew your name. We’ll be in touch. 🙂

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  1. Lee Gilbert commented:

    Our light (in Greens Harbour, Newfoundland) would be one shrouded by grey most days; under fog and drizzle. Yet so beautifully orange once she breaks through the oceans fog. The grey of days bring out the colour of things close at hand.

    Reply

  2. Lindsey h commented:

    the light here in cochrane,ab is as beautiful as George webber described calgarys. It’s just missing all the nooks and crannys of high rise buildings to sneak through.

    Reply

  3. richard white commented:

    Kim…wish I had thought about doing a blog on this…nice quotes…I too love the light…one thing that puzzles me though is why Calgary’s window reflections don’t produce the amazing collages that other cities do…I think one of the great things about Calgary is that for many, it is our adopted home, which means we have deliberately chosen the city vs just growing up and being too lazy to move. It is an attitude that helps create a shared sense of community. Everyday Tourist

    Reply

  4. Don Enright commented:

    Calgary’s light is a challenge to the photographer. While the West Coast is one giant, gentle portrait studio, Calgary is harsh and brazen. Every photo you take there becomes about the light more than the subject. You need to surrender to it. October is the exception- it’s as if the sun, getting a bit tired from all the hard work of summer, is sitting back and taking a breather, and you end up with the most sumptuous gentle, angled light and the bluest skies in the world.
    Thank you for this beautifully crafted, evocative piece.

    Reply

  5. Sue Bruce commented:

    I really enjoyed this… Your writing style is very visual. Canada is so diverse with its weather and light. I know for me in Montreal, I hate daylight savings because I have to drive home in the dark in the fall and winter. It measures the months to come until the brightness returns. On the other hand, I love the early morning sun rising over the fields of MacDonald college farm in St Anne de Bellevue as I approach the TransCanada on my way to work. It offers a boost of joy to start the day. It’s almost magical, especially in the spring when the sun highlights the gentle mist that hangs over the fields.

    Reply

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