March 2010. The road to Pyramid Lake winds through a cathedral of trembling aspen, spruce and lodgepole pine that thickens steadily as I cruise toward my own private stargazing island. Thousands of distant rhinestones twinkle in the winter blackness above my sunroof, and the branches whizzing past overhead create the illusion that my car is gliding through space itself.
Recommended stargazing sites at Jasper National Park (Map: Steven Fick/Canadian Geographic)
The parking lot beside the bridge to Pyramid Island, a popular picnic spot in Alberta’s Jasper National Park, is deserted. The skaters who cleared a patch of ice on the frozen lake have long since headed indoors. Not knowing how much farther the snow has been cleared, with nearby resorts closed for the season, I leave my telescope in the car and walk down the path with a pair of image-stabilized binoculars.
Reaching the island’s lone clearing, I stop and close my eyes for five minutes. When I look up, it feels as if I’ve just had laser eye surgery. The Milky Way sparkles like a snowcapped mountain range lit by the sun, stretching from the south to terrestrial Pyramid Mountain to the north. The bright stars of the constellations Gemini and Orion fade into the infinite fields of distant suns. Astronomical objects I thought to be invisible without binoculars stand out clearly to the naked eye: the wispy North America Nebula rises above Indian Ridge, and seven additional sister stars join the Seven Sisters (a.k.a the Pleiades) over The Whistlers, an iconic mountain near the Jasper townsite. The view is even more rewarding with my binoculars, but forgetting them would have made this night no less magical.
Standing on the edge of the lakeshore, I think back to a conversation I had earlier in the day with Gloria Keyes-Brady, Jasper National Park’s interpretation coordinator. We met for a pint at the Whistle Stop Pub, across the street from the cobblestone-and-timber information centre, less than seven kilometres down the road from Pyramid Lake. I was talking about my passion for dark-sky preserves — essentially, stargazing parks where lighting ordinances defend the night from artificial sky glow — when she travelled through time to her childhood.
“Dark skies still give me goosebumps,” said Keyes-Brady, comparing the sky above Jasper to her first experiences under the stars at her family farm near Edson, Alta. “It feels as if the stars are single-handedly lighting up the Earth.” Keyes-Brady was so captivated by the stars of her youth, she wanted to hoard them all for herself. “But something like this is meant to be given away,” she said. “Sharing our night sky is one of the untapped wonders the Rockies can offer.”
Jasper is celebrated for its daytime views of ancient glaciers, glassy lakes and majestic mountains, but the unspoiled sky over these landforms also makes the park an eat-over-the-sink-good feast for your eyes at night. One can see dreamy nightscapes of planets and constellations drifting overhead year-round, but the brightest stars are visible in winter. I visited Jasper twice last year to help Parks Canada staff build a public astronomy program and assist with the area’s bid for official dark-sky preserve status. Over the past few years, a confluence of new ideas (such as interactive amphitheatre presentations and space-themed wilderness outings) and new technology (GPS star finders for your campsite, apps for your iPhone and iPad) has fuelled an explosion of these designated stargazing parks and, with it, a new kind of ecotourism you could call “wilderness astronomy.”
While there’s some confusion between the terms dark-sky preserve, reserve and park and some overlap between domestic and international designating bodies, Canada has, by any measure, more protected stargazing sites than every other country in the world combined. In 2009, four new parks joined eight existing locations, and efforts were underway to add Jasper and several more sites to the list. Driving back to town from Pyramid Lake on this crisp, moonless night, I can’t help fantasizing about eco-vigilantes taking out the last of the town’s offending street lamps with a few well-placed BBs.
Torrance Barrens, a two-hour drive north of Toronto in Ontario’s Muskoka cottage country, became Canada’s first designated dark-sky reserve in 1999, joining a movement that started at Michigan’s Lake Hudson Recreation Area in 1993. Other Canadian locations followed, including more than 550,000 hectares of parkland surrounding Quebec’s Mont-Mégantic Observatory and Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park on the Alberta-Saskatchewan border. In the United States, the iconic arches of southern Utah’s Natural Bridges National Monument have dark-sky status, as do sites in Hungary, Scotland and elsewhere, and Chile is quickly gaining attention for its dark skies.
Dark-sky preserves across Canada (Map: Steven Fick/Canadian Geographic)
The original intent of these preserves was to protect wild spaces from the encroaching light pollution of urban centres. Remove the outdated “cobra-head” sodium vapour lights that are still the standard on most North American city streets, dark-sky advocates urged, and install “full-cut-off ” fixtures with bulbs and shields that direct light downward, not up and sideways, thus preventing stray light from being squandered into the sky.
This transition will keep the skies as dark as possible, allowing astronomy clubs and a much broader “polarfleece” audience to enjoy faint galaxies and clouds of nebular gas. Such initiatives also help the bottom line — adopting new lighting is often cheaper than continuing to use older technology — and nocturnal animals. According to an emerging area of science known as scotobiology (the study of biology as affected by darkness), artificial light is often the enemy of indigenous wildlife, distracting insects from pollinating and making small foraging animals more visible to predators at night.
“People mistakenly think of all light as benign,” says Robert Dick, a former University of Ottawa and Carleton University astronomy professor who manages the Light Pollution Abatement Program for The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC), “but research over the past quarter-century has shown that it changes the natural environment and, in doing so, affects the ecological balance. Birds that are drawn to the lights of cities and get trapped in the catacombs of glass towers can collide with the walls, falling stunned or dead to the base of the buildings. The unshielded light outside your window isn’t just illuminating the street — it’s also affecting the health of every animal on the block.”
A noted light-pollution expert, Dick literally wrote the book on dark-sky preserves in 2008, drafting a detailed set of lighting protocol guidelines for the RASC, the group of record for amateur astronomy in Canada. (To receive RASC approval, a location must demonstrate “control of local lighting,” establish “outreach programs aimed at the general public and neighbouring municipalities” and adopt “good nighttime lighting practices.”) Since these guidelines were made available to Parks Canada, more dark-sky preserve applications were reviewed and approved by the RASC in two years than had been in the previous eight. “Just having a unified policy removed the biggest roadblock,” says Dick. The RASC started with established parks, he explains, because they offer a centralized system to work with at the federal or provincial level. Ideally, he adds, every inch of soil and water in Canada will someday adhere to some level of light-pollution policy.
More than a decade after its designation, Torrance Barrens is still excellent stargazing turf, even though amenities for visitors are limited to an outhouse and a parking lot. It’s too far from Toronto to draw many amateur astronomers. The area is so out of the way, in fact, it was perfect stand-in for the Middle East during the filming of David Cronenberg’s bizarre 1991 movie Naked Lunch. But parks with dark-sky status that are developing and promoting stargazing experiences to the public have started to reap the benefits.
Cypress Hills, whose main dark-sky site lies in southeastern Saskatchewan, attracts hundreds of stargazers every summer. The park, at which one Canadian amateur astronomer discovered a comet in 2001, is a sort of Vatican to stargazers, with skies as dark and clear as astronomy meccas such as Arizona but at a high enough latitude to offer frequent displays of northern lights.
On Northern Ontario’s Manitoulin Island, Gordon’s Park Eco Resort welcomes guests to a 1.6-hectare observing field that features cabins, campsites and an overnight tipi experience. “We’ve had people come from Australia and Germany specifically to see the stars,” says Rita Gordon, who founded the world’s first privately owned dark-sky preserve in 2008. “As we developed our eco-park from scratch, astronomy was a natural fit to add to our list of land-based adventures. At night, the first thing we do is take people outdoors, because we know it’s getting harder to see the night sky from so many places.”
Wilderness astronomy’s magnum opus — to date, at least — has to be the extravaganza held for the past three winters at Elk Island National Park, a 45-minute drive east of Edmonton. The entire park is part of the larger Beaver Hills Dark Sky Preserve, which was established in 2006. Because it’s so close to Edmonton and its million or so residents but far enough from city lights, Elk Island is a dark-sky enthusiast’s dream.
At 7 p.m. on a Saturday night in March 2010, 3,600 people were inside the park for the Winter Light Star Party — “and it wasn’t even dark yet,” recalls Pamela Anthony, director of Edmonton’s Winter Light festival and the person who thought up the idea of bringing city folks to the country as a finale for the popular annual event. “These are not space geeks,” she says. “These are ordinary people being blown away by the stars.”
While many such star parties take place over several days, with camping and astronomy workshops on subjects ranging from deep-sky imaging to sessions on how to build your own telescope, the Elk Island event is a populist celebration that’s high on gorgeous skies and low on intimidating terminology. Members of Edmonton’s arts, recreation and science communities help run what is likely the world’s largest winter stargazing event, which has a production staff of several hundred, rivalling the total number of participants at other star parties.
Talks about upcoming space missions and constellation lore are supplemented with a beautiful night-visionpreserving red lantern parade and a kiteboarding display on frozen Astotin Lake, with dim red LEDs on both the sails and the riders. Heated facilities and a children’s craft and science-experiment area round out the celestial appetizers before the main attraction. The lines to get to the eyepiece of one of the 30 telescopes can be 100 people deep, but narrated naked-eye tours of planets and neighbouring galaxies are enough to take the sting off the Disney World-esque wait.
“This speaks to people’s hunger for an experience that’s in their subconscious that they’ve never really tapped,” says Anthony. “They’ve never really experienced that part of our shared humanity — to look up and see the stars blaze unimpeded across the sky.” By the time the park gates closed at the 2010 star party, 5,000 people had stood in the cold to view planets and galaxies. As if rewarding their endurance, the northern lights flared up just before 10 p.m. in curtains of brilliant unforgettable green.
July 2010. Four hundred and thirty kilometres west of Elk Island, I’m back in Jasper to help Gloria Keyes-Brady and her colleagues catalogue the area’s most promising spots for wilderness stargazing. Outside my tent at backcountry Big Bend Campground on the Fortress Lake hiking trail, a fantasy map of an imaginary park traces its way through the sky in my mind’s eye, complete with herds of galactic animals. I take a minute to imagine these constellation creatures roaming around a virtual nature reserve — let’s call it “Night Sky National Park.”
Four stars form the diamond-shaped body of a loon, with a fifth tracing a line out to its neck, diving into the lake of the setting sun. The ancient Greeks called this constellation Delphinus, the dolphin; to the Cree, it’s Mokwachak, the loon. The cross shape of a Canada goose flies over the “mountain range” of the Milky Way. It’s part of the Northern Cross, or Niska, the goose, to the Cree. The stars that trace the legs of a lumbering buffalo, Perseus, appear to graze on tufts of foliage that are actually clouds of nebulous star-birth gas and distant galaxies beyond.
Devoid of the relentless whoosh of cars or even contrails from airplanes, the sky out here lets you travel not only to distant places but also to a distant time — before suburban street lamps, stadium floodlights and snazzy condos with vanity illumination. Here in Night Sky National Park, exiled stars are restored to their former glory. Two hundred years ago, David Thompson became the first European to cross the Rockies through Athabasca Pass, making maps of these mountains. “After a weary day’s march we sat by a log fire … with thousands of sparkling stars passing before us,” he later wrote. “We could not help enquiring [as to] who lived in those bright mansions.” I get the sense that Thompson would share my pride in knowing that the treasures above this region are being preserved for the Wii generation to discover.
My musing is interrupted by a shooting star. The tiny pebble from space pushes the air around it at thousands of kilometres per hour, superheating the stone and sending it flickering gloriously to its death high in the atmosphere. The Ojibway call such cosmic gatecrashers “wolverines of the sky.”
Back in town the following afternoon, I do a little more stargazing — this time safely observing our sunburninducing local star by projecting it from a telescope eyepiece onto a piece of white paper at the info centre, where thousands of visitors congregate each day in the summer. Park interpreter Brian Catto is regaling passersby with fun facts about sunspots. They’re cooler areas of magnetic disturbance on the solar surface, he explains, only 4,000°C. “Think of them as planetsized holes where the sun farts out explosive gas,” I add to a pair of grinning eight-year-olds and their parents.
Catto knows that for Jasper to develop a marketable braintrust of astronomy guides, he has to start with himself, taking his general knowledge to the next level. He has pored through books and websites and begun using a GPS-based star finder and a large telescope to get to know the stars for curious audiences. “Once we got a basic astronomy talk started at the Whistlers campground amphitheatre, I saw more people enjoying the programs during the shoulder season than I’d seen in quite a while,” he says. “It really struck a chord.”
Jasper’s marketing, product development, visitor experience and interpretive teams have begun to work with the local tourism authority and the municipality to create one of the most detailed proposals yet for dark-sky preserve status. Product development officer Rogier Gruys spent weeks surveying stargazing sites, such as the Marmot Meadows clearing that’s within walking distance of the Whistlers campground, using light-gathering meters to take darkness measurements over multiple dates. In an audit of the entire 11,000-square-kilometre park, staff marked the type and locations of current lighting, noting where fixtures need to be changed or put on timers and motion sensors. They met with Canadian National Railway officials to discuss the lights at the townsite’s rail yard and are working with resorts and other commercial partners to reduce their lighting footprint.
“My gosh, all I do is look at people’s lights now,” says Keyes-Brady. “We want to become a place where visitors see the dark in a whole new light. Part of the park experience for people out here is the anticipation that you might see an elk or hear a wolf or spot a meteor shooting through the sky. At any given moment, something amazing could happen.”
March 2011. I’m back in Alberta to give a talk at Elk Island’s star party but the mountains are still in my thoughts. By the time this magazine is published, the RASC will have officially approved Jasper National Park’s proposal to become the world’s largest dark-sky preserve, with Grasslands National Park becoming the second biggest. Jasper will also be one of the world’s darkest astronomy parks.
Driving west to Edmonton after the star party, my car cruises through a forest of industrial parks. In the wee hours of the morning, I steer leisurely through the cathedral of office towers presiding over the downtown core. Not a single star shines overhead. The trembling aspen beckon, tempting me to keep driving, past the city, to Jasper.
As the highway through suburbia makes its way back to nature, the banished stars return. The mountains of the Milky Way appear, and the gates of Night Sky National Park swing open for new visitors.
Science writer Peter McMahon (www.wildernessastronomy.com), of Port Hope, Ont., has written and produced for CTV, the Discovery Channel and the Toronto Star. His second book, a children’s guide to space tourism, will be published in the fall by Kids Can Press. Astronomy photographer Yuichi Takasaka lives in Lumby, B.C.
To see updated stargazing conditions in the Jasper dark sky preserve, visit: www.jasperdarksky.org
Canadian Geographic Photo Club: an exclusive interview with Yuichi Takasaka: Join night sky photographer Yuichi Takasaka in Jasper National Park and view a photo gallery of some his favourite shots.
Everything you’ll need for a night under the stars
By Peter McMahon
While the internet has turbo-charged amateur astronomy with eye-popping images from the latest space probes and backyard DSLR artists, it’s also put the pastime a sporting chance in competition with Xbox Connect and Vampire Diaries, especially amongst youth. A couple of years ago, many of the following apps didn’t exist or were prohibitively expensive. Today, they are rapidly bringing astronomy and wilderness stargazing to people beyond the conventional amateur astronomy market.
Celestron SkyScout personal GPS planetarium
Quite honestly the most important invention in amateur astronomy since the telescope, this GPS-based device allows you to point at any object in the sky, press a button and learn what that object is via text or, in many cases, audio description. Already know what you want to see? Select the space object from a menu (i.e. Sky tonight > Planets > Jupiter) and a series of LED arrows in the viewfinder will “point” you in the right direction until you reach your destination and all the arrows flash in a circle. The device single-handedly solves the astro-newbie quandary “we saw the most amazing things in the sky but we wish we knew what we were looking at.” Semi-shock-proof and worth a hundred guidebooks on the trails, the device fits in most backpack and cargo pant pockets.
Image stabilizer binoculars
Computer-controlled image stabilizers alter the angle of refraction into the lens so that annoying binocular giggle is little more than a graceful drift. The advantage for remote wilderness outings is that the device effectively becomes a small telescope without the need for a bulky tripod. Though early versions of these binocs ranged up to $1,900, new 10x30 models are selling for less than $350 on eBay.
From the tiny no-assembly-required First Scope (it literally just pops out of the box) to Sky Watcher's Black Diamond refractors and their huge collapsible truss-tube reflector scope (which can fit in a Smart Car) featuring jumbo foot-wide prime optics, good quality telescopes today are cheaper, better-made, and easier-to-find than ever.
With new technology comes a new need for power, even in the bush. Voltaic's four-watt backpack helps carry the rest of the gear for your trip and uses two solar cells with a bevy of universal adapters to recharge most small consumer electronics anywhere the sun shines.
The SkyOrb app brings planets and other celestial bodies to life with a 3D Google Earth feel and comes with sun clock, 3D star map and planetarium. It uses iPhone’s GPS to calculate a virtual night sky from your position.
This planetarium in your hand gives you the freedom to customize displays of star maps and celestial bodies. It has a logbook for notes, a catalogues of stars and their physical characteristics, a red night vision filter and offers a selection of astronomical bodies and events invisible to the naked eye.
Pocket Universe pulls information about planetary bodies and orients the stars and constellations to your position on Earth. And a handy “time travel mode” updates you on upcoming meteor showers, lunar phases and similar celestial events.
Google Sky Map
Google Sky Map for Android can identify stars, planets, and constellations all with one point of the device. Users can browse and search the skies for various celestial objects and follow the arrows to locate them nearby.
Distant Suns for iPad and iPhone provides a database of over 300,000 stars and all 88 constellations and their mythologies. The compass allows users to simply point and identify any star in the sky. Also includes photos from the Hubble Space Telescope and a GPS function.
First Nations star stories
Wilfred Buck and Rockford McKay are no strangers to sacrifice in the name of wilderness astronomy. Over the last five years, the pair of science specialists with the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre (MFNERC) have carted an inflatable planetarium dome around in vans, sleds, helicopters and hovercraft across the remote (and often roadless) terrain leading to the reserves they serve, sometimes hundreds of kilometres north of Winnipeg. Their trips into the unforgiving backcountry have ranged from challenging to life-threatening. One outing landed Buck in the hospital with a mild heart attack after pulling gear along a frozen lake. “I got off easy that trip,” he jokes. “Rocky stepped in a pile of slush and got a wicked soaker.”
Such banter — from jokes about wild animals to sports-team-like rivalries between nations (Buck is Cree, McKay is Ojibway) — permeates their talks, whether for school groups on remote reserves or star parties with hundreds of amateur astronomers. It’s part of a program unique in Canada, where the pair present the constellations of the ancient Cree, Ojibway and Sioux via a customized computer program and a series of artist renderings commissioned by the MFNERC. Armed with these tools, the two immerse youth in their long-lost culture, where the Greek stories of queens, harps and dragons give way to a cast of characters from this land: a celestial migration of wolves, turtles, chickadees and grizzlies and a story about a cosmic canoe that paddles along the Milky Way. To complete the experience, the two educators have uncovered traditional songs related to some of these star patterns from ages past, songs that feature drumming and singing over fantastical imagery of space beings that predate the Canadarm by thousands of years.
“We’ve probably lost about 95 per cent of First Nations’ star knowledge,” says McKay. “Stories that Wilfred tells now over a few minutes used to take hours or even days to relate. But we’re getting a little bit of that back. Talking to elders and even school children, we’ll hear someone in a classroom tell us a story their father or grandfather used to tell them. That alone is interesting, but once we start to hear different kids in different areas tell us of the same characters, the story starts to corroborate itself.”
— Peter McMahon