In the pandemic era, when humans’ desire for escape has rocketed and three billionaires have launched private space tourism enterprises, stargazing feels more enticing than ever.
In Jasper, looking up and pondering what glimmers in the darkness beyond is a nightly joy. Home to the second-largest dark sky preserve in the world (and the largest within vicinity of a nearby community), Jasper National Park has built a festival devoted to the heavens. The 2021 Dark Sky Festival runs until October 24 with nocturnal activities focused on astronomical education, Indigenous culture, and inspired collaborations meant to connect earth and sky.
The opening weekend featured a dinner and telescopic tour at the Jasper Planetarium. Located 2,300 metres (7,545 feet) above sea level, the planetarium is at the top of Whistlers Mountain, one of those epic peaks that attract people like magnets to the Canadian Rockies. The Jasper SkyTram hauled passengers up to the top in a gondola. Stations with telescopes, astral photography tutorials, and meteorite displays surrounded a short boardwalk. Guests could peer through the lenses of the telescopes while planetarium guides pointed out the planets and the constellations.
The 11th annual Dark Sky Festival began during the same week that 90-year-old William Shatner became the oldest person to breach the earth’s atmosphere, causing ripples of enthusiasm for all things space.
Such big news only benefits Jasper and its stargazing initiatives, said Peter McMahon, the planetarium’s general manager who is also an acclaimed science journalist and author.
“Anything that creates interest in aerospace is going to bring attention to experiences like this one and that helps people want to learn,” McMahon said between astral photography sessions and with the moon at his back.
He enthusiastically reports that 2021 has been the biggest year of the planetarium’s decade of catering to star lovers. Despite the pandemic, provincial visitors came out in large numbers to support their tourism industry.
“We had a record July and August, which is pretty hard to do but we found people from Alberta wanted to check us out either for the first time or to see what was new after five years or so since their last visit,” McMahon said.
Classical Music Beneath Dark Skies
At the heart of stargazing has always been satisfying our sense of awe and wonder. Being mesmerized can spark inspiration, too. And artistry was the focus of the second night of the festival as the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra took the stage on the shore of Lac Beauvert and in front of the venerable Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. A crowd of about 200 attendees were spread out on Muskoka chairs amid near-freezing temperatures as the orchestra enchanted the national park for two hours.
The magical night of classical music underscored why the Dark Sky Festival is unique, whimsical, and fitting for an age when public health concerns have made us zealous for any activity that feels normal. In that sense, it’s not only your eyes that will turn skyward during Jasper’s festival — your whole body may just leap for the stars when you experience the event.
MORE ABOUT THE 2021 JASPER DARK SKY FESTIVAL
Indigenous Experience: Matricia Brown-Asani, founder of Warrior Women, provides knowledge of the skies from the perspective of the First Nations communities in Alberta. A member of the Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation, Brown-Asani can explain the meaning of the constellations to the original inhabitants of the region and connect non-Indigenous travellers to millennia-old cultures. “To any Indigenous community, the stars, the sky, and the moon are integral part of their culture and their heritage,” she said while nursing a flame in a fire pit made for her by the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge.
Website: Visit jasperdarksky.travel for information on programming and tickets.
COVID-19 Precautions: Vaccination passport checks are in place at festival events. Check the festival website for details pertaining to the specific event you want to attend.
Getting There: Jasper National Park is typically a four-hour drive west from Edmonton International Airport, the closest international airport in Alberta. The drive along the Trans-Canada Highway is mostly flat but as winter nears be aware that weather conditions can cause inconvenience or danger. Build in extra time on your itinerary.
Where to Stay: The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge offers a 20% discount on room rates during the Dark Sky Festival (starting at $344 per night). The hotel also has a Dark Sky booth to help facilitate your visit. The hotel is as delightful as ever with staff on top of their hospitality game as tourism builds back. Notably, the lodge is conducive to travel during the pandemic because of its self-contained cabins and its location within the national park, which is ideally suited for social distancing.