The scientific-grade telescope is trained on the constellation Draco, and, peering into the eyepiece, I see a slash of light near the bottom of the frame. It’s NGC 5866, the Spindle Galaxy, which, the volunteer manning the telescope explains, at nearly 50 million light years is likely the farthest object I will see tonight.
The eight or so telescopes set up along the shore of the lake, each focused on a different corner of space, are part of the Jasper Dark Sky Festival. Taking place in Jasper National Park each October, the festival celebrates astronomy and space. Canada is home to 13 places, including Jasper, that have been designated Dark-Sky Preserves by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC) or Dark Sky Parks by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA).
In these parks and preserves, steps have been taken, such as limiting light sources and using special light bulbs that minimize glare, to ensure light pollution doesn’t have a negative impact on animals that may be active during the night.
It’s the ability to come to the park and enjoy the night sky in all its glory that Jasper is celebrating. During the festival, there are panel discussions and guest talks about space, seminars on how to photograph the night sky, musical performances and art exhibits. This year’s festival, which takes place Oct. 18 to 27, will feature astronaut Robert Thirsk, who will share some of his experiences from his two space missions; Nick Pope, who used to run the British Government’s UFO project; and former Daily Planet host Jay Ingram.
But it’s at night when the purpose of the festival comes into focus. After the sun sets behind the mountains, leaving just a dusty purple outline against a star-filled sky, people begin to arrive at Lake Annette.
Groups follow Parks Canada interpreters around the lake to learn about the importance of dark-sky conservation, while others gather around a fire listening to a musician and storyteller share Indigenous legends about the night sky. Lines quickly form around the telescopes set up by the Edmonton chapter of the RASC, as people wait for their turn to look at planets, stars and far-off galaxies, including the Spindle.
As I peer through the eyepiece of the telescope, a volunteer explains that what I am seeing actually happened 50 million years ago; it has taken that much time for the Spindle’s light to reach the Earth. The stars as we see them in the night sky now, existed in the past. So those twinkling stars I was admiring moments earlier may no longer be there. It’s an intriguing thought.
Two More Places to Stargaze in Canada
Watch the northern lights dance across the night sky from the comfort of heated seats at this village on the Ingraham Trail.
During your stay, you can spend the day exploring the Athabasca Glacier and the night marvelling at the stars.
6 More National Parks with Dark Skies
A sense of wonder comes from standing under a night sky clear of light pollution. “It’s like you are seeing something for the first time, even though you have always known it is there,” says Ed Jager, director of Visitor Experience with Parks Canada. “It’s a world filled with ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs.’” Here are six of the 13 parks across Canada where you can experience millions of stars glittering back at you.
This preserve is a union of two parks: Waterton Lakes National Park—Canada’s only park recognized by the IDA—and the Glacier National Park in the United States. Cameron Bay, at the southern end of the town of Waterton, is easily accessible for dark-sky seekers.
This is the darkest dark-sky preserve in Canada thanks to its remote location; it’s so dark, Parks Canada recommends stargazers stay near their vehicles so they don’t get lost. Two Trees Trail, Frenchman Valley Campground and Rock Creek Campground are great viewing sites.
The most southern point in mainland Canada, this park on Lake Erie is a great place to stargaze. Artificial lighting is kept to a minimum and dark-sky viewings, hosted by members of the RASC from nearby Windsor, are held throughout the year.
Roughly a two-hour drive from Halifax, this park and historic site is in the centre of mainland Nova Scotia. It features dark-sky programs throughout peak visitor season. You can rent Dark Sky Kits ($5 per day) that come with binoculars, a reference guide and games for kids.
The province is home to three preserves, Kouchibouguac National Park, a one-hour drive north of Moncton; Mount Carleton Provincial Park; and Fundy. The latter is one of the best places in the Maritimes to view the night sky—simply lie on the ground and cast your gaze up.
Designated in 2018, this preserve is an hour’s drive east of Gander. Sandy Pond has the darkest skies in the park, while the viewing platform at Ochre Hill offers 360-degree views of the night sky. At the Visitor Centre, you can see the stars reflected in the waters of Newman Sound.