Story by Julia Pelish
Vacay.ca Visuals Editor
JASPER, ALBERTA — When Chris Hadfield first visited Jasper, there was a twinkle in his eye but it had nothing to do with the stars. Hadfield was focused on raising a family — thoughts of heaven secondary to his terrestrial responsibilities. “My wife and I first came to Jasper 29 years ago,” recalls Hadfield, Canada’s most famous astronaut. “We were here when our son was one-year-old and she was pregnant with our second child.”
In October, he returned to the national park in Alberta to lead astronomy aficionados on a celebration of celestial viewing of our galaxy. Hadfield, of course, is a star himself, making this year’s Dark Sky Festival a newsworthy event across the country. Since his first visit three decades ago, he has orbited the earth almost 2,600 times, travelled to more than 60 countries and that second child, Evan, is now a tech-savvy adult who has helped tweet his dad to social-media fame. Although Hadfield is one of eight Canadian astronauts who has flown into space, he is the first from this country to command the International Space Station.
Jasper too has gained lofty recognition. It was designated in 2011 as the second-largest dark sky preserve in the world by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. Formal guidelines must be satisfied in order for a property to achieve this status, including: restricted light pollution, programs developed to promote astronomy, and accessible areas made available for public stargazing. Thus, travellers can be assured when visiting parks bearing this classification that dark sky viewing will be optimal. The Dark Sky Festival is a key reason why Jasper was this week listed among Vacay.ca’s 20 Best Places to Visit in Canada for 2015.
As one of the largest parks within the Canadian Rocky Mountains, Jasper National Park recognized it was sitting under an astral diamond mine: more than 11,000 square kilometres of vast unspoiled night sky wilderness. City dwellers who seldom see a clear night sky and the stars that appear on its canvas may be surprised that “astro tourism” has found a niche market and is being promoted worldwide from New Zealand to Namimbia.
Chuckling, Hadfield points out, “Everybody who writes about overcrowding lives in a city. It is a little bit comical actually, most of the world is empty and so much of the world is dark. There are clusters where we all choose to live. But truly if you want to see the sky you have to get out to where the sky is visible and to have places in the world that are accessible, are inherently beautiful but also give access to the dark skies.”
Jasper fits that description perfectly and its Dark Sky Festival held annually in October connects people to the magic of the night. The 2014 festival was the fourth edition and it doubled attendance from 2013. Having Hadfield on board made it a sold-out event. It wasn’t just a photo-op and book-signing appearance, however. Hadfield connected with old and young alike, infusing visitors with the awe he still feels for space exploration. For instance, during the free Telus World of Science Edmonton Family Event at Centennial Field, where over 650 people showed up, Hadfield enthusiastically joined in counting down with rocket junkies to launch a model rocket over the heads of the delighted crowd. In the evening he entertained an audience of 892 people with inspirational “thinking like an astronaut” stories and song. Passionately, he described how his career experiences have impacted him.
“Your perspective changes and you get a real understanding of the entire nature of the whole planet, you go around it in 92 minutes. And then you go around it again,” he says, discussing the similarities he sees from societies on the planet. “I remember we came across the prairies, I used to live in Moose Jaw. So you look at Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, pretty standard town. … then you wait 20 minutes and you are over Africa and look down into a city in Africa and go, ‘Hey, look there’s the river, there’s the railroad, it is exactly the same.’ That sense of our shared nature of existence, that seeps into you. … I think the global perspective of our shared commonality of being human seeps into you more powerfully than you can even imagine.”
Hadfield is a voracious photographer and clearly he has found his muse — planet Earth. Even though Hadfield dreamt of going into space ever since he was nine years old, actually being there surpassed anything he could have imagined.
“Initially, even though you have prepared for it, just the wonder of seeing the world, you almost feel like you are getting something you didn’t deserve,” says Hadfield, who is now a professor of aviation at the University of Waterloo in Ontario and a member of the newly created Space Advisory Board of Canada.
He shot more than 45,000 images through the glass observation area located in the bottom of the ISS, which looks straight down at earth.
We photographers in the audience were incredulous when he described the fluid dexterity zero gravity lent to getting sharp images from a camera bogged down with a heavy 400-millimetre lens.
“Imagine if this camera were floating weightless in front of you and when I let go of the camera it just stayed here in front of me and I could gently track it like this. We get so good at it in orbit that we can take freehand photos at night with long shutter times. Typically when it is time to take photos, you float down and your feet are sticking up into the rim. We wrapped our toes around something to stabilize our body and then you just track the world going by,” he remembers.
Hadfield’s favourite photos have been organized in orbit order and published with his insights in the book “You Are Here: Around the World in 92 Minutes.”
Festival attendees were treated to a big-screen viewing of these luminous images while listening to personal stories and reflections from his extraordinary journey. “Weightlessness, it is like a toy that never winds down,” he tells us with an incredulous grin, “like this talk would be so much more fun if we were weightless now.”
It was a statement that coaxed laughter and nods of agreement from the audience. Hadfield, for one evening in Jasper, had sent our imaginations floating to the heavens. I am pretty sure everyone in attendance now looks at the stars differently — and much more often — after that night.
MORE ABOUT THE JASPER DARK SKY FESTIVAL
2015 FESTIVAL: This year’s Jasper Dark Sky Festival is scheduled to take place from October 16-24, 2015. The event packs in a range of diverse activities from celebrity speakers, astro-photography workshops, stargazing tours, music underneath the stars, culinary experiences, mountain explorations, and more. Check the Tourism Jasper website for upcoming information.
COST OF ACTIVITIES: Many activities are free, including the stargazing tour at Lake Annette and shuttle rides to get to that spot. There are a series of workshops and culinary events that do have a charge. Check with the Dark Sky Festival for more details as the 2015 program is announced.
LOCATION: The festival is in the municipality of Jasper, which is located within Jasper National Park. The park is open year round. From the town of Jasper, visitors have easy access to the park’s many trails, lakes and outdoor adventures, including spectacular wildlife viewing. Connaught Drive is the main street — you can’t miss the train station that is located on this road.
WHERE TO STAY: I stayed at the very pleasant Chateau Jasper Hotel (96 Geikie Street; telephone: 1-780-852-5644 or toll-free at 1-888-8JASPER); a recent search for weekend room rates for October during the 2015 Dark Sky Festival returned a price of $191 per night. The same night would start at $329 per room at the Fairmont Jasper Lodge (1 Lodge Road, telephone: 1-866-540-4454), the most iconic hotel in the area and host to some Dark Sky Festival events.
WHERE TO DINE: Be sure to visit the Jasper Brewing Company (624 Connaught Drive). It servers excellent pub food (including satisfying burgers and salads). I could not stop drinking the Dark Sky Brown Ale. It is only brewed in limited edition to celebrate the Dark Sky Festival and I found it went very well with stargazing. Also, you can enjoy a dinner with local ingredients and at reasonable prices at Evil Dave’s Grill (622 Patricia Street).
OTHER ACTIVITIES: Sun Dog Tours has a range of wonderful guided tours throughout the park. I took the 3.5-hour Wildlife Viewing Tour ($65 for adults) and it was fantastic.
GETTING THERE: You can get directly into Japser by train, automobile or bus. Rail: Via Rail and Rocky Mountaineer provide direct trains into Jasper from select departure points. Air/Drive: Visitors would have to fly into Calgary and continue on by car or bus for about six hours, or fly into Edmonton and drive four hours. Sun Dog Tours provides shuttles into Jasper from both airports ($89 per adult from Edmonton; $115 from Calgary) or you can rent a car and take the scenic route yourself.