Dark sky preserves the best for night-time viewing

Surrounded by snow-clad mountains in Alberta‘s Jasper National Park, I stand beneath the canopy of stars twinkling in a black velvet sky. Orion, the great hunter constellation, strides through the heavens with his faithful dog, Sirius, which is Earth’s brightest star. Suddenly, flickering movement heralds the arrival of Aurora Borealis. Motionless, I observe faint green, magenta and white wisps as the Northern Lights lick across the sky.

In minutes, they’ve vanished. Sighing, I marvel at the celestial phenomena.
Such opportunities exist because Jasper National Park boasts vast tracts of dark night skies free from light pollution. In fact, in March 2011, it won designation as the Jasper Dark Sky Preserve (DSP) and is the largest DSP in the world.

Unfortunately, as artificial light floods Earth’s night skies, wildlife suffers, as does the study of astronomy — not to mention our human appreciation of and need for darkness. In Canada, The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada is protecting all-too-rare areas of dark skies.

Importantly, all DSPs include easy-to-reach areas offering superb night-sky observation. Jasper excels here: Pyramid Island and the Athabasca Glacier are easily accessed spots permitting spectacular views of planets, constellations, stars and galaxies. In addition, night skies interpretation programs intrigue every age group, at all levels of expertise. Events such as Jasper’s Dark Skies Festival (Oct. 12-14) let star-gazers, wildlife watchers and photographers experience and celebrate the heavens.

Talk about iconic moments — learning about the heavens amid Canada’s iconic Rocky Mountains!
Soak up more information by boarding VIA Rail’s Dark Skies Train from Edmonton to Jasper that’s synchronized with Jasper’s Dark Skies Festival. On-board astronomers give workshops employing binoculars, books and iPad apps such as Star Walk, which uses GPS to display night-sky phenomena, even in daytime.

Canada’s 13 other DSPs sprawl across the country and include Saskatchewan’s Grasslands National Park – the darkest, and three in New Brunswick including the most recently designated Fundy National Park (November 2011).

Programming varies. At Kouchibouguac National Park – Dark Sky Preserve in New Brunswick, interpreters spin legends of Mi’kmaq First Nations and offer stargazing activities from June 23 – Sept. 1, featuring Saturday observations using telescopes to spot nebulae, galaxies and more. Cloudy? No worries, at “Kouji” they have Powerpoint presentations if Mother Nature doesn’t co-operate. Kouchibouguac’s Star Fest is May 18-20; Fundy’s is Aug. 24-26.

Article courtesy of the Canadian Tourism Commission.

Photo: Maligne Lake, Jasper National Park; Credit: Travel Alberta