Above me, a black-velvet canopy extends to the horizon. As my eyes adjust, I gasp: stars, constellations like Ursa Major, planets, and the Milky Way swirl above. Silhouettes of fir trees and snow-capped Rocky Mountain peaks and ridges emerge, and once again, I am humbled by nature.
For two weekends in October, it welcomes visitors wanting to learn about space and astronomy – and about Jasper being the world’s largest accessible Dark Sky Preserve.
What’s a Dark Sky Preserve (DSP)?
The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC) established guidelines for creating two types of light-restricted, protected areas: dark sky preserves and urban star parks.
In Canada, there are 17 DSPs and two USPs, which join an international network of such preserves.
On March 26, 2011, RASC designated Jasper a DSP. At more than 11,000 square kilometres, it’s not only a vast area, it’s the only DSP containing a town, giving Jasper DSP its unique “most accessible” status.
Additionally, Jasper is easy reach because it’s about a four-hour drive (350 km) west of Alberta’scapital city, Edmonton (or, go by VIA train), and a six-hour drive northwest of Calgary (and Banff) via the world-renowned Icefields Parkway.
Jasper Dark Sky Festival
I’m fascinated by the mystery – and science – of the night sky, which connects me to ancient peoples who would similarly have gazed and pondered at celestial phenomena.
This festival allows us to mix and mingle with RASC and amateur astronomers, as well as Parks Canada staff, who explain the importance of dark skies to nocturnal animals (and human health) through to space travel.
What happens during the festival?
Activities and events explain the night sky, where astronomers bring telescopes to reveal Aurora Borealis and shooting stars, if we’re lucky.
Clear nights display the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies, planets and their moons, constellations, stars, and more.
Special nighttime events are at Annette and Pyramid lakes: both are easy to reach thanks to frequent shuttle buses from Jasper.
Once at the lakes, Parks Canada staff explained nocturnal animal adaptations and use of darkness for protection from predators; two First Nations’ women drummed and sang; and astronomers invited us to peer through their telescopes and learn about the night sky.
Because astrophotography (photography of the night sky) is trendy, award-winning photographers such as Paul Zizka offer dark-sky photography clinics, and astrophotographers are on-hand to share tips and techniques.
In Jasper, the TELUS World of Science Edmonton “mobile planetarium” letsus stargaze in mid-day via digital imagery projected inside its black dome.
During the show, an astronomer explained what we could hope to see at night.
This year’s special guest was Colonel Chris Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut who commanded the International Space Station.
A genuine hero, he’s a particular favourite with children, who he always encourages to be curious. “At nine,” he enthused, “I knew I wanted to be an astronaut. Kids? Follow your dreams: you can do it!”
I was inspired by watching him engage with children. For instance, in front of a crowd of eager kids and parents, he first launched a two-part demonstration rocket, then stayed to watch the first kids launch their own pop-bottle water rockets they’d made during festival workshops.
I spoke with nine-year-old Jacob Bartziokas, who couldn’t wait to launch his rocket. Did he want to be an astronaut like Chris Hadfield, I asked him? “I’m not sure yet,” he replied, seriously. “But I do read non-fiction. Science, you know!” Watching him launch his rocket, I shared his enthusiasm.
Next year? Who knows what events will happen? What I do know is this: whatever planners conjure, it will be a fantastic introduction to the importance and fascination of dark skies.
What else to do in Jasper?
Head to the hills… Rocky Mountains, that is. Wherever you go, watch for wildlife such as moose, wapiti (elk), grizzly or black bear, mule and white-tailed deer, and other critters.
Tip: Drive to Maligne Lake via Medicine Lake. The latter was considered magical by First Nations because it mysteriously drains, come autumn. In fact, today’s geological science tells us the lake’s water drains into an underground karst network of caverns – while the name still recalls the lakes’ mystery and magic.
How did “maligne” ( ‘maligned’ or ‘wicked’) get attached to a river, lake and valley? SunDog Tours guide Bruce McAlpine recounted, “In the mid-1800s, Jesuit Father Pierre-Jean De Smet’s horse stumbled in the river. Well, priests don’t swear you know… so he christened the river ‘Maligne’. This lake and valley took the name.”
McAlpine introduced me to Galal Helmy’s Maligne Canyon Restaurant, where you’ll not only get a good meal, but also discover one of Canada’s most renowned First Nation’s artists’ works.
Norval Morisseau, the “Picasso of North America”, painted many of his Ojibway peoples’ legends. Here, find an outstanding collection of his colourful, original works. Said Helmy, “Morrisseau actually lived here for almost ten years, so I knew him well.”
Always worth a visit any time of year, Jasper is especially intriguing because of its friendly, independent, creative, and environmentally aware residents who particularly wish to preserve their park home.
To catch a special taste of the village, dine at Evil Dave’s Grill or Bear’s Paw Bakery, stay at Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge or Château Jasper.
Interested in gardening? Find the community garden immediately beside the VIA train station, and discover the challenges of gardening where bears and elk are “garden pests”!