The splendour and magic of our prairie skies – Reflections of Ponoka

A classic prairie mirage taken near Simpson

By MIKE RAINONE and LAURA WIERZBA

No matter what our age might be, all of us can fondly recall those precious occasions when we have paused to gaze at the stars and dreamed a little, marvelled at the magnificent northern lights, or quite possibly even witnessed the natural phenomenon of a mirage in our prairie skies.

For most of us the ultimate mirage has always magically appeared when desperate travellers lost in the barren desert are spurred on by the vision of a miraculous oasis of lush green palm trees and a cool lake shimmering on the horizon. From the beginning of time these amazing mirages have likely been seen in all parts of the world, many as shown in countless books and now Internet features, and all are vivid and quite spectacular. These images are said to be created by hot or cooler air masses near the surface of the Earth that refract or bend light rays from the sky, and result in unique displays of form and colour for only short periods of time.

Tales of mirages in and around Ponoka

Congenial pioneer Laura Wierzba has countless fond memories that span over 90 years, beginning as a youngster on the family homestead northwest of Ponoka, then as a mother and wife raising her large family on the farm, as a teacher, a good neighbour, and now retired and staying quite active here in Ponoka. Laura loves to share her memories in photos, books, and stories with others, but sometimes is a bit leery of the reactions and doubts she may receive when she tells of the exciting mirages that they witnessed from the family farm so many years ago.

However, one of the most vivid recollections of her childhood is of her family and the hired help standing by the old pumphouse and gazing in total awe at an incredible vision appearing on the west by northwest horizon. Usually, the amazing elevated view was of a frozen and snow covered lake slightly above the forested ridge of land about 1½ miles west of the farm yard, but on some occasions they were able to distinguish the far distant Buck or Battle Lakes by the shape of their shorelines. Laura recalls that on one rare sighting they were actually able to identify a sledload of logs being pulled by a team of horses slowly descending down the Battle Lake hill.

In the very early 1900s Laura’s mother, Mrs. Lawrence Doran, would relate of once getting a clear view of a mountain village with smoke coming out of the chimneys. Nobody ever doubted her description, and after checking the early maps, it was decided that it must have been from somewhere in the Williams Lake, B.C. area.

Obviously, these early sightings were infrequent and only for a brief period of time, noting that several factors and conditions have to be in place to produce the mirages. These included being a very cold and clear morning of at least -20 degrees F, the sun would be just rising above the hill east of the farm, and there were quite often light clouds or a haze on the western horizon. Through these countless early experiences, Laura still continues to wonder and puzzle over several things regarding the The splendour and magic of our prairie skies short and magical appearance of those mirages.

“I realize that our home was in a rather unique location, but how many other people also watched those very brief glimpses of scenes so many miles in the distance?”

She would love to hear of other sightings. To this day she is also extremely curious as to why these mirages have not been seen for nearly 80 years, and wonders if it could be because of the ongoing removal of the trees as thousands of acres of land have been cleared for development. Then again the ongoing settlement in the area may have resulted in increased smog, fog, pollution, and ever-changing weather conditions.

Surprisingly, evening mirages were seen more frequently and at a later era than those seen in the morning, all of course depending on the atmospheric conditions and seasons.

Laura Wierzba also remembers standing on a hill near Sylvan Heights’ School, looking to the northeast, and witnessing the lights and some of the buildings of Wetaskiwin, more than 20 miles away. “The most remarkable feature of that occasion was a clear view of the former ‘Peace Hills’ sign, including the famous ‘Indian Head’ representation that was situated near where Denham Motors is now located.”

Don Graham, also a long-time district pioneer, recalls that from their early family farm a mile south of Sylvan Heights, they enjoyed not only an evening mirage of Wetaskiwin, but also of a train moving along the railway tracks between Ponoka and Hobbema.

Truly a delightful pioneer story of the wonders of nature that many will believe, some may have witnessed, and a few may doubt, but here is what well-known early author Howard C. Brown had to say about the Prairie Mirage:

“Strange is it indeed, that to so many persons who have spent their lives upon the prairie, a mirage is something, which is far distant a thing entirely unrelated to their life. Many persons associate the mirage only with the desert. This seems odd enough when one considers the many beautiful mirages which appear in the prairie skies when a reflected grass area seems only a further extension of the vast, real stretch, which, in great, gentle waves of titanic magnitude, roll, or a prairie morning, in undulating green, wind responsiveness, under the lifting sun. Few changes can inspire one with more sincere thoughts of the greatness of the universe than can the wide stretches of prairie of our land.

“And the mirages are interesting to me in that they were often so thoroughly linked in the past, with the life of the pioneer. If he loved beauty, the pioneer never ceased to revel in those wondrous reflections, but each mirage was not alone a thing of beauty. If it mirrored an enemy’s camp in time of hostilities, it served a utilitarian purpose. But to those who did not love it for its beauty, and for whom it served no purpose, still it became an inspiration to all those who witnessed its glory.”

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