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Get starstruck under Jasper’s dark skies

Get out and see the stars in a way you never have before in the Rockies. (Yuichi Takasaka photo)

Story by Rod Charles
Vacay.ca Deputy Editor

JASPER, ALBERTA — It was Friday at the Dark Sky Festival in Jasper and sadly things weren’t looking “up.”

A light, thin sticky rain had been falling all day. It was chilly, which isn’t unexpected but of greater concern was the persistent layer of cloud cover that hung above the region like a grey, wet blanket. In such conditions you can’t even see the top of the surrounding Rocky Mountains, let alone the stars.

Which, of course, was the point of this festival.

Due to light pollution, the stars are one thing you’re not going to see clearly if you live in a large city. Light pollution occurs because the lights in an urban area are so bright, it obstructs the view of the stars for most people living in cities. This means most people living in populated areas only see the very brightest stars and little else.

Canada’s newest dark sky preserve

That’s not an issue in a place like Jasper, though, and that’s the reason why on March 11, 2011 this town 287 kilometres northwest of the tourist hot spot of Banff was officially designated Canada’s newest — and the world’s largest (11,228km2) — dark sky preserve by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. To recognize this achievement the locals have been promoting the Dark Sky Festival, an event that’s as much a celebration of the universe as it is an appreciation of nature and an attempt to understand the impact humans are having on the planet.

Helping people comprehend the universe is one thing that Bob McDonald, host of CBC’s “Quirks and Quarks” and festival guest speaker, does best. McDonald said that when you look up at a dark sky like you see in Jasper you really get a sense of how vast the universe is and what a small part in it we actually play.

“I think that’s an important lesson when you look at the dark skies, like we are in Jasper,” said McDonald. “You see that the earth is only one planet of a family of planets going around one star, that’s part of a huge galaxy that’s rotating through space, and that galaxy is only one of billions of other galaxies out there in an expanding universe, and even though we’re tiny, we know that. And that’s profound that we know our place.”

Be an astronomer in Jasper

It’s fair to say that I’m not even an amateur astronomist. But that doesn’t matter — you don’t have to be one to appreciate just how black dark this corner of Alberta gets. There was no light pollution where I grew up, so getting a good look at the stars was never really an issue. That changed when I moved into the big city of Toronto, where light pollution is real and intense.

But with great leaps in our understanding of the universe with technological advances such as the Hubble Telescope, humanity has been treated to knowledge about stars, planets, black holes, galaxies and nebulas that we have never had before. So to say I was keen to get to Jasper and sit under the stars with seasoned astronomers is an understatement.

The festival featured several very informative, educational, as well as kid-friendly events like the rocket launch and portable planetarium. And renowned astral photographer Yuichi Takasaka, who has seen his incredible work published all over the world,  gave amateur and professional shutterbugs pointers on how to get great pictures of the night sky.

Peter McMahon is a space journalist who originally suggested that Jasper become a dark sky preserve. He explained what makes a dark sky preserve successful are facilities and infrastructure, but equally important is community support: Are there educational workshops related to dark skies and the study of the stars? And are there experts and amateurs who can point out galaxies, constellations and deep space objects?

“What makes Jasper a great place to come for stargazing specifically is the fact that it really is a happy medium between those wilderness areas that are out in the middle of nowhere and the big city with the amenities that you might have at different resorts and restaurants,” said McMahon. “Travel just a few kilometres outside of town and you have those really, really world-class levels of darkness as well. So Jasper is not only the largest dark sky preserve in the world by a factor of 10 (the second largest in the world is Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan) but it’s also tied with several others for being one of the darkest in the world.”

The stars come to life in Jasper

Besides the spectacular view of the night sky, what truly makes this preserve remarkable and unique to most other dark sky preserves is the fact it is the only preserve in Canada with a whole town of 4,051 people — including the 600-acre Jasper Fairmont Lodge — completely within the borders of the preserve. That means there’s lots to do even for those who don’t want to spend their entire vacation with their heads in the clouds, and plenty of other activities to enjoy when the weather doesn’t cooperate for star gazing.

Good news! It’s sunset at Pyramid Lake and the sun is breaking through the clouds. And that means lots of stars to see. (Rod Charles/Vacay.ca)

Thankfully, by the third and final day of the festival, there was a break in the weather and little by little, the sun began to poke through the clouds. As it got darker the stars showed themselves, and soon all the cloud cover was gone.

By nightfall, we arrived at one of the best observation points to see the stars in Jasper — Pyramid Island, about a 15-minute drive outside of Jasper and a quick 15-minute walk from Pyramid Lake Resort. Within minutes, the stars were out in full force, thousands of shimmering white dots on a jet black canvas.  Soon I was standing on a small island surrounded by mountains looking up at a crisp and spectacular sky. And there it was — the Pleiades star cluster, also known as the Seven Sisters. And there was Jupiter — the brightest object in the sky this night, hanging just above the mountainous horizon. Both the Pleiades and Jupiter were so bright you didn’t even need a telescope.

Space … the final frontier

One of the visitors to Jasper took out his telescope out and was showing a cluster of stars in deep space — stars so far away and faint that even in this preserve they’re impossible to see with the naked eye. For the first time in my life, I looked into a telescope and gazed at a part of the sky that I’d never seen before. All I could think was, “This is one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.”

Another amateur astronomer showed off Vega, a”relatively” close star only “25 light-years from Earth, and, together with Arcturus and Sirius, one of the most luminous stars in our Sun’s neighbourhood.”

Another amateur astronomer aimed his telescope directly at Neptune, “More than 30 times as far from the sun as Earth, the planet takes almost 165 Earth years to orbit our sun.”

After carefully placing my eye as close to the eyepiece without touching the telescope, I peered through and it appeared like a faint dot in the sky. While Neptune has a mass that is 17.148 that of earth, the planet was too far away, and the microscope too small, to actually see the details of this giant blue gas planet.

The last thing I looked at was Andromeda, the closest galaxy to our own Milky Way and, unfortunately, a galaxy we are destined to have a major collision with. No need to worry, though — it will be some 4 billion years before you have to worry about that. In the telescope you can see the faint centre of the galaxy, with a smudge of stars surrounding it. It definitely isn’t a Hubble pic, but there’s no question you’re looking at another galaxy from beneath the mountains of Jasper, Alberta.

The festival only comes around once a year, but if you’re interested in star gazing there’s no bad time to visit Jasper.  The best way to get a guided tour of Jasper’s dark skies throughout the year is with Sundog Transportation and Tours. SunDog offers airport shuttles and tours with guides who are knowledgeable with stars, astral photography and stargazing apps.

More About Jasper, Alberta

Jasper Dark Sky Preserve

Tourism Jasper:
They can be contacted at 780-852-6236.
Click on the Tourism Jasper “what’s happening” page to keep track of upcoming events.

The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge
Call Toll Free: 1-888-499-9899

Pyramid Lake Resort
Call Toll Free: 1-888-852-7737

Sundog Transportation and Tours Ltd:  
Call Toll Free: 1-888-786-3641  
Email: tours@sundogtours.com

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Rod has previously worked for Canoe.ca and is currently freelancing for Huffington Post Travel. He’s also written travel articles for the Toronto Star and Up! Magazine. Living in Toronto but raised in the small central Ontario village of Holstein, Rod is a country boy at heart who has never met a farmer’s market he didn’t like.

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