Last fall I travelled more than a thousand kilometres to see the night sky. Not the faint speckling that hovers above downtown Vancouver, but the real, Van Gogh-scale night sky that our ancestors wondered at. Jasper National Park had just been designated the world's largest "Dark Sky Preserve," making it one of the few places in the world where stargazing has been safeguarded against encroaching light pollution. Everyone living before electricity looked up at the sky and saw something so grand they had to invent gods to explain it. I wanted to know what that felt like.
I'm not alone. A fifth of the world's population can no longer see the Milky Way, and, each year, the sky is lost to more and more of us. (Did you know it's supposed to look like diamond dust? Or that the Milky Way should cast a shadow?)
Canadian Dark Sky Preserves
Canada already has 14 dark sky preserves, more than all other countries combined. Now, in Jasper National Park, the fifteenth, there are more than 11,000 square kilometres of parkland where most lighting is prohibited, making it a both a class one and two site on the Bortle Dark-Sky Scale. (Rural skies are Bortle three zones, city skies are Bortle eight or nine.) I arrived at Jasper before sunset and, casting my gaze heavenward, frowned uneasily at an overcast sky. Oh yeah, I thought. Clouds.
I wasn't the only person annoyed by Mother Nature's uncooperative stance. The next night a small crowd gathered at a postcard-perfect log cabin by emerald Maligne Lake to mark Jasper's ascension into proper preserve status. Several dignitaries, including the mayor of Jasper and the president of the Royal Astronomical Society, good-naturedly blamed each other for the lousy weather while the rest of us squinted up at a darkening, opaque sky.
Stargazing Using Apps
Peter McMahon, author of Space Tourism, had brought his iPad along and showed me an app he'd installed—hold the tablet up to the night sky and the iPad's GPS allows it to identify the planets and constellations you're gazing at. Or not gazing at. We passed his iPad around to a few other hopeful stargazers. Holding the thing aloft, we could each peep through a single (virtual) starlit square. McMahon told us about "star parties" that he'd been to, and the star party he expected Jasper to host—a little like art openings: happy conglomerations of geeks who spend more time looking at each other than the work on display.
In fact, the first annual Dark Sky Festival in Jasper included just such a party at Pyramid Lake, plus astronomical lectures, a star-oriented film festival and starlit dining experiences. As for our own little star party on now-chilly Maligne Lake, we were growing sleepy as children waiting for Santa. The heavens sulked behind their clouds—we thought them very ungrateful, considering the efforts we had made. Driving back to the lodge, I kept scanning the darkness overhead; but Jasper remained untouched by moon-glow or anything but the headlights.
Stargazing in the Rocky Mountains
I decided to take the train home to Vancouver—a 20-hour trip through the Rocky Mountains. It rained the afternoon of my departure. The rocking train, combined with the soporific effect of a Dickens novel, soon had me dozing in the "panorama" car. When I woke, night had fallen and, thoughtlessly, I looked up, imagining I'd at last glimpse the Milky Way, here in the darkness of the mountain range. Of course, train windows, thanks to interior lighting, become mirrors at night; I saw nothing but glare and trundled off to my cabin.
And then: I switched off the lights in the tiny room, giving myself a pitch black space; somewhere along an unknowable inky stretch of country, and far-removed from the pollution of city-lights, I glimpsed a real diamond-dust night sky through my cabin window. "At last!" I said to nobody.
Hours later we rolled into Vancouver's great, electrified suburban sprawl and the miracle overhead was lost.
Planning a Stargazing Trip
Go to Jasperdarksky.org for everything you need to know—from best sites to up-to-date forecasts to downloadable apps—about seeing stars in Jasper. Of course, you don't need a star party to see the night sky—and spring and summer are certainly a warmer time of year to stargaze—but the second annual Dark Sky Festival runs October 12-14. jasperdarkskyfest.com
Stay The Jasper Park Lodge is away from the lights of town and provides guests with a portable telescope and an iPad with stargazing apps pre-loaded. fairmont.com/jasper
Getting there If you have the time, nothing beats taking the train from either Edmonton or Vancouver (or Toronto for that matter—see viarail.ca for more information). wl