When you hear the words “Dark Sky,” you might be forgiven for thinking there’s a new alien-invasion show coming to the Space channel. But, no, you don’t need to set your PVR; instead, just head west on the Yellowhead. At Jasper National Park, the marketing message is that darkness is, well, beautiful.
For the second year in a row, Jasper injects life into what has traditionally been a slow tourist month, celebrating the fact that it hosts the largest Dark Sky preserve on the planet, one that covers over 11,000 square kilometres. That means it’s the perfect place to look up at the night sky and see it like you’ve never seen it before; to pinpoint the constellations and the planets.
While Dark Sky breathes life into the shoulder season, the Oct. 12 to 14 festival makes for comfortable stargazing. This month, Jasper experiences “total darkness” by 8:30 p.m., when it’s not bitterly cold, but comfortable enough to spend hours looking up at the cosmos. (However, for those who would brave the cold, Jasper hosted a Dark Sky viewing event on New Year’s Eve last year, when total darkness spread over the park by 7 p.m. And the event will be held again this year.)
My family and I sampled a preview of the festival in the spring, before the summer sunshine eradicated any chance of total darkness during June and July.
After the sun went down, it was a 10-minute drive from the townsite to Pyramid Lake. At the parking area, a series of lanterns lit a pathway through trees and to a bridge that crosses over into Pyramid Island. There, benches offered an unfettered view of the night sky over the lake. I gazed up into the sky and imagined, just for a second, that I was floating in space. It was like the shadowy mountain peaks and dark silhouettes of the evergreens acted to frame my view of the stellar skyscape. And, as we sat and looked up, the mountains acted as reference points, which allowed us to detect the slight motion of the stars in the sky. As stars slowly moved from our view to behind the peaks, they were replaced with new points of light.
We received some advice from our guides: Bring your own pair of binoculars and, remember, no flashlights.
“We have moderate night vision, if our eyes are given time to adjust,” said park interpreter Brian Cotto. “But a flash of white light, or even blue light, can hamper that.” (Yellow light is not as bad for your stargazing prospects as blue or white light, so warming your hands by a campfire is OK.)
In fact, there are shuttle buses available in the evenings to take novice astronomers from the town to viewing areas at the Jasper Park Stables and Pyramid Lake. It’s not just about making sure parking areas aren’t congested; using a few shuttle buses rather than having visitors drive at night — with headlights on — cuts down on light pollution.
Cotto had set up a large telescope for us to use. Through the lens, we looked at Venus, carved into a crescent shape by the angle of the sunlight hitting the planet. As the sky darkened, more lights twinkled in the heavens above. Cotto produced an iPad, and clicked on the Star Walk app (there’s also a version of the app for iPhones) and pointed the device to the heavens. Using GPS, the app pinpoints where you are on the planet, then shows you a map of the night sky above, so a novice can find out which stars and constellations they are actually seeing.
As night fell, we saw so many points of light — the last time I remember seeing anything close to this was while I was in Maui, looking over the dark Pacific Ocean.
While there are astronomy presentations at the town’s Chaba Theatre and elementary school, and solar viewing opportunities at the park information centre during the day, it’s not all about science.
Local restaurants hold special “dine under the stars meals.” Jasper Park Lodge has a “Star Gazer” package, which includes accommodation and a telescope. The Stables hosts a “Star Grazing Dinner,” a buffet under the dark skies. Because what’s more romantic than a starry night?
Amidst city lights, traffic and electronic monitors, urban dwellers rarely get that kind of “total darkness” that Jasper visitors will encounter. But, studies show that darkness is needed for health.
Total darkness is essential to producing melatonin, a natural cancer fighter produced by the body. In 2009, the University of Connecticut Health Center conducted a joint study with Israeli researchers and “found a significant positive association between population exposure to light at night and incidence rates of prostate cancer.”
This followed the famous findings of Eva S. Schernhammer at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, which found that women who worked night shifts had a far greater chance of getting breast cancer than those who didn’t. But it wasn’t the sleeping pattern that was the issue; it was the lack of true darkness.