As night falls on Jasper, we start a steep climb from a townsite parking lot up through the forest to a lake-dotted terrace called Pyramid Bench, boots crunching in the unseasonably early snow, trying not to slip on random patches of ice. We should be quietly looking for nocturnal creatures, but everybody’s chatty and yearning for connection tonight, and on top of that I can’t get the words of Nicole Stott out of my head.
The American astronaut has just given a virtual lecture about life aboard the International Space Station and said we don’t need to leave the planet to feel the interconnectivity of the universe. “There is so much awe and wonder around us that we can and should take advantage of,” Stott told people gathered here in Alberta for a dark sky event. “I mean, oh my gosh — walk outside and when you’re looking at the stars feel your connection to the earth. Think about the fact that your feet are standing on a planet as you look out into space.”
So that’s exactly what I do on this four-kilometre (2.5-mile) hike, grateful to be out of my house and exploring Jasper National Park, seven months into the pandemic, surrounded by a dozen strangers but also safely distanced from them.
The funny thing about this particular “Animals of the Night Hike” is that several elk stroll by as we gather in the parking lot, trying on ice cleats and adjusting headlamps. This “wildlife sighting” takes the pressure off interpretive hiking guide Sean Prockter, who then relays stories about owls — usually the star of the evening — and warns that “to be honest it’s quite possible the moon won’t be out tonight.”
He’s right, but we do stop to admire one fleeting constellation with its distinctive “W” shape formed by five bright stars. “The clouds have rolled in a bit, eh?” says Prockter, who runs Jasper Hikes & Tours with his wife, Joy. “I’m glad I was able to point out Cassiopeia before it disappeared.”
And I am grateful for the chance to remember what it’s like for my urban eyes to slowly adjust to the dark, and to have unobstructed views of vast (albeit cloudy) skies and then the glittering townsite below as we make our way back down to the start of the Jasper Discovery Trail.
The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada designated Jasper National Park a Dark Sky Preserve in 2011 because its limited light pollution creates ideal conditions for dark sky viewing. Simply put, local rules and bylaws protect and preserve the night sky and defend the night against light pollution. “Sky glow from beyond the borders of the preserve will be of comparable intensity, or less, to that of natural sky glow,” explains the society.
At 11,000 square kilometres, Jasper is the second largest Dark Sky Preserve in the world. It’s one of 22 in Canada and the largest accessible preserve because there’s a town within the preserve’s boundaries.
Stargazing happens year-round, but the Jasper Dark Sky Festival happens every October just as daylight hours start to dwindle and before winter arrives. This year’s 10th anniversary event is scaled back due to COVID-19. Events are spread out over 10 days and are smaller and physically distanced. Masks are required not just indoors but on designated downtown streets.
“Find your space safely,” reads a sign at the festival’s lecture room inside the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. “We are on this Covid-19 mission together so let’s keep each other safe.” Stott Zooms in from Florida and her Canadian counterpart, astronaut Robert Thirsk, from Ottawa.
The lodge grounds are also home to the Jasper Planetarium with a domed theatre and what’s billed as the largest telescope in the Rockies. Alas, it’s cloudy (again) the night I go, but I do get to gawk at an 8.6-gram Mars rock, an asteroid fragment from Russia and a solar system display before collecting a raincheck to rebook for another date.
While the entire national park is a dark sky preserve, you don’t have to drive far from town to stargaze, catch a sunset or sunrise, or possibly luck into a glimpse of the northern lights. It’s six minutes from downtown to a local hangout on Old Fort Point Road, and 10 minutes to a secluded viewing spot beside Pyramid Lake. The Jasper SkyTram whisks me up Whistlers Mountain, which puts me at 2,263 metres (7,425 feet) or “one kilometre closer to the stars.”
One cannot feast repeatedly on the stars without having actual feasts in between outings. I pop into Maligne Canyon Wilderness Kitchen twice — once for dinner when they have Warrior Women’s Matricia Brown from Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation drumming, singing and sharing an Indigenous perspective on the skies, and once for lunch when I’m craving smoked brisket chili and s’mores in a glass (a heady mix of chocolate mousse, graham crumbs, and torched marshmallows).
It’s just before this final lunch that I think again of Stott, the astronaut/artist who had to host her virtual talk from Florida this year instead of coming to experience Jasper’s magnificent skies. As she counsels us to plant our feet firmly on the ground when we observe the skies, I miss the part where she says, “I heard a rumour it’s chilly so you probably don’t want to take your shoes off.”
Hiking Maligne Canyon’s Upper Canyon Loop, on a bench in between two historic bridges, I’m inspired to slip off my boots and socks, plant my bare feet firmly in the snow and look up through the trees to space, stung by the cold but grateful for a new awareness of our shared responsibility to this planet we all call home.
MORE ABOUT VISITING JASPER
Where to Stay: The Crimson — named after Jasper National Park’s sunsets, fall foliage, and the Canadian flag — offers modern mountain lodging with standard rooms, studios with galley kitchens, and suites with full kitchens. The 99-room, three-storey hotel is one block from the core stretch of downtown shops and restaurants.
Address: 200 Connaught Drive, Jasper, AB (see map below)
Room Rates: A recent search of the Crimson’s website showed prices starting at $128 per night for winter and $339 for summer.