The following is the record from my journal of the night in 2001 when we chucked off the gathering post-9/11 gloom and visited a Canadian mountain top in subzero temperatures. It was November 18, I was thirty years old.
What an amazing night. En route to Osoyoos from Vancouver, Ken got nailed for speeding and from the cop's attitude Ken must have been pushing the speed of sound. But we got in shortly after night-fall, and met with Charlie.
Who'd had a much worse drive. Somewhere between Calgary and Osoyoos, Chuck lost control of the car in a sudden snowstorm on icy roads; one of those weird patches you hit in the mountains even in the Autumn. He quickly regained control, but gave a harrowing account of the car spinning on a mountain-side trail with a precipitous drop-off.
We had dinner at the Smitty's and prepared to go on a scouting mission for locations. Our intention was to head to the top of Mt. Kobau, where we'd been in the summer upon my return from Australia. It's a 1900-metre-high peak with a road running to the very top because the gov't was set to build an observatory up there. The observatory project got cancelled but the road is still there (I think it serves a microwave relay center and a defunct forestry station, and that's about it).
The evening scouting venture was just to determine whether we had access to the mountain's 20km road. Ken was pretty sure he'd noticed a gate across the entrance to the road on the way in, so we boys headed out with minimal warm clothing and found the gate open. And the sky was already fairly active with meteorites. As I'd read the day before, the late evening was a great time to be watching for meteors; while the source of the meteors was still below the horizon, the meteors that did hit the atmosphere above us at that time were doing so at a low angle, burning through a long portion of the upper atmosphere. This resulted in very long, relatively dim and seemingly slow-moving meteors. They were beautiful.
We hastened back to the town and collected Heidi, our cameras, and all the warm clothing we'd brought. Then it was back to the mountain, and up. It was 23:00 when we set out, and midnight when we arrived in the lower parking lot atop the mountain. Charlie and Heidi had guessed there would be about 10 cars full of people up there. Ken and I had guessed 30. There were actually only 3!
We set up Charlie's lawn chairs in gravel and ice, and wrapped ourselves in our sleeping bags and waited. I set my camera for some long exposures, to burn off a roll of ISO 100 film that was in the camera. It turned out to be a mistake, but I'll get to that in a minute.
I had two sets of gloves; one was my normal winter wear, the other a set of nylon shells I'd bought the day before to allow me to use my camera in the cold and the wind. The new purchase really paid off; they were thin enough that I could operate the cable release, the film advance, and even the dial for the film speed. And they kept my hands from turning into numb chunks of frozen meat. I was very pleased.
The meteors were just stunning. The long, fainter ones progressively gave way to shorter and brighter meteors, with some really amazing effects at about 1:15 or so. There were some that were so bright they lit up the terrain around us; and so persistent that I was able to spot on in the car's windshield, turn around, and still watch it for several seconds. With all of the countless smaller ones zipping from the constellation Leo (sometimes as many as four or five in one part of the sky at once), it was really something. "They say" that we won't see the like for another 98 years. Since I'll be long, long dead by then, I suppose this was my experience of a lifetime as far as meteor showers go. As Heidi pointed out, now we can sit back and start to say, "Well, it's nice, but it's not as good as the '01 Leonids!"
Now; for my miscalculations regarding the film; I suspected that ISO 100 film wouldn't do the trick for meteors, but I reckoned I had all night. The peak of the meteor shower was still two hours off, so I could take a bunch of 10-minute exposures of constellations, and maybe get lucky with a really bright meteor. Instead, the camera stopped working after about an hour and fifteen minutes. The shutter control was behaving very strangely, refusing to work and sometimes opening twice between film advances. All in all, very discouraging behaviour from a camera that had never failed before (and which had fresh batteries).
When Charlie's $3000 Canon (a camera he was renting for $40) packed it in some twenty minutes later, I began to suspect that it was good deal colder than we realized, atop that mountain. Certainly we were all complaining of numb toes by that point, even with the occasionally trek in circles to keep the blood flowing. By 2:20, we were so cold that we decided to call it a night despite the 1 to 5 meteors a second that were falling at that point. It was just too damned cold, and I had some seven layers of clothing on my torso, three on my legs, a toque underneath a thick balaclava, a scarf, and two layers of socks (containing those gunpowdery warm-up things) under my boots (and after my camera packed it in, both sets of gloves on).
By the way; if you're ever in Osoyoos, the "Avalon Inn" has comfortable, new beds in decent rooms. One of the more comfortable sleeps I've had in a hotel in a long time.