Planning a Trip
By Car -- From Edmonton (435km; 270 miles) take Hwy. 28A north past Egremont; then turn north on Hwy. 63, which will take you directly to Fort McMurray. Note: Don't plan to do this in an easy four hours; there's constant construction and the road is plagued with heavy equipment haulers taking huge loads up to the oil sands. It's also extremely busy since the boom -- and therefore quite dangerous. Don't drive it at night.
By Bus -- Greyhound Canada (tel. 800/661-8747 or 780-420-2424; www.greyhound.ca) runs buses from Edmonton to Fort McMurray three times daily. The trip takes about five hours, and the cost is C$120.40.
By Plane -- Air Canada (tel. 800/247-2262; www.aircanada.ca) runs six direct flights daily from Edmonton to Fort McMurray; fares range from C$95 to C$184 each way. WestJet (tel. 800/937-8538; www.westjet.com) runs two direct flights daily from Edmonton, with fares between C$95 and C$159 each way.
The Fort McMurray Tourism Bureau (400 Sakitawaw Trail; tel. 800/565-3947 or 780/791-4336; www.fortmcmurraytourism.com) is located south of town along Hwy. 63. Here, you'll find information about anything you can possibly do here. Staff are friendly, helpful, and perhaps a little shocked to encounter actual tourists; there's a ton of travel here, but the vast majority is oil business-related. Staff can help find you a room, a restaurant, or hook you up with tour operators plying the northern wilderness regions. They might be able to point you in the direction of an official oil sands tour, but be advised: These take place only at the companies' behest; as of summer 2008, Suncor, one of the oldest oil sands operators and the only one giving tours of its massive facility, was offering tours from May to August on Fridays and Saturdays only, at C$35 per person. The tours are not a given: In the past, such tours have been suspended on short notice -- likely, most think, due to the increasing negative publicity surrounding the environmental impact of oil sands development. If the tours are available, the bureau will be able to let you know.
To the Inuit, the aurora borealis were spirits on their way to heaven. In Siberia, they were children playing football in the sky with the skull of a walrus. Then there's the popular western notion that God lights the path to heaven at night so that lost souls have an easier time finding it.
Believe what you will (there is no complete scientific explanation, believe it or not!), but the aurora borealis, or Northern Lights, are among the most eerie, spectacular sights you can imagine. They can be simple flickers or steady light -- if you're really lucky, they'll flash and dance across the sky. They're completely unpredictable but, true to the name, the farther north you go the more stunning they become, and Northern Alberta is one of the best places to see them.
From Fort McMurray, there are three tour operators that specialize in Northern Lights viewing: Alta-Can Aurora Tours Inc. (tel. 780/452-5187; www.altacan.ab.ca); Aurora Adventures (tel. 780/799-3329; www.aurorabedandbreakfast.com); and Aurora Tours (tel. 780/334-2292; www.picturetrail.com/stuross).
Tours tend to run from early fall through the winter to early spring -- the Northern Lights are rarely visible in warmer temperatures -- and tend to stretch over a few days. Most are based in Fort McMurray, usually at one of the hotels, with out-tripping in the evenings for viewing. Contact operators directly for packages, tours, and rates.
One of the drawbacks of exploring the north in summer is the incredible, almost fog-like density of insects you'll encounter in all but the semi-urban areas of Fort McMurray and Grande Prairie, which, likely due in no small part to heavy industry, keep the population to near-tolerable levels. Not so in the backcountry, where horseflies, deerflies, blackflies -- every one of them a voracious flesh-eater -- along with swarms of mosquitoes that move as large clouds and do everything they can to drain the blood from your body. There's not enough insect repellent on earth to save your skin from all of them; better to plan your visit in September, after a few early frosts have killed the bugs and their larvae, allowing you to observe the wild in peace.