In the Darkest of Skies

Pete stumbled several times on the way from the car to the open field. We guided ourselves with dim lights along a narrow trodden path through the snow. He couldn’t help his faltering, and I could barely either. We were both too busy gazing upwards, at a sight barely seen before.

Especially by Pete, the city boy that he was. Having grown up in Edmonton, he spent little time in the great nothing of the open wilderness. He had rarely seen a sky so dark and speckled with such bright pinpoints of light.

And even though I grew up in the middle of nowhere (almost quite literally), I had never really acknowledged the darkness afforded by it. But on that night our goal was to gaze, interpret, and appreciate. Because we were in one of the most optimum places to do so – Jasper National Park is the second largest dark sky preserve in the world.

This means that nearly the entire 11,000 square kms of the park are focused on keeping their sky dark. In nearby Jasper, lights are pointed down and emissions are constantly measured. And we stood in an open field just 20kms from town, with our meager flashlights covered in a red film such as to dim them further, and our eyes began to adjust to the pure blackness around us.

The sky appeared more brilliant with each passing moment (rhodopsin, a biological pigment that allows eyes to absorb photons and receive light, takes up to 20 minutes to work its magic).

 

Jasper Star Trail

Pete left the shutter open for 15 minutes to capture this image.

Soon, the city boy asked: “What’s that white-ish cloud streaking across the sky?”

Our guide Kevin responded with a story about a massive power outage that struck Los Angeles in the 1990s. Forever under a veil of heavy light pollution, LA residents could see the Milky Way for the first time, and some were terrified. Calls to 911 followed, people were alarmed at the strange cloud seen overhead, wondering if it had caused the power outage. (Pete laughed at his own inability to recognize our galaxy on sight. He was also probably blushing, but at -20C, his cheeks were already red anyways.)

 

Jasper Dark Sky Milky Way

 

With the telescope up, the interpretation began, and some of the shapes and patterns started to make sense. The dippers, the north star, and Sirius, the star closest to the earth which emits flashes of blue and red. Orion, the Seven Sisters, and several other constellations we had never heard of.

That which impressed us the most: seeing Jupiter and two of her sixty-three moons lined up beside her.

 

Jupiter and its moons

Photo taken through the telescope.

And with our naked eyes, Kevin pointed out the Andromeda Galaxy – at 2.5 million light years away, it is the farthest mass that can be seen from our earthly sky without the aid of a telescope.

The more the evening progressed, the smaller I felt. How insignificant are we – mere specks on our own Earth, let alone in the face of billions of stars, planets and other masses surrounding? That with which we can’t even see an end?

Two hours flew by unnoticed in our wonderment of the darkest of skies, our numbing toes finally dictated the end of the excursion. But not of our new-found fascination.

 
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How to do it

Contact SunDog Tours for information on Dark Sky Interpretation.

And for a truly amazing experience, book ahead for Jasper’s Dark Sky Festival in October, 2014, which will be hosted by famous Canadian Astronaut, Chris Hadfield!

 

Many thanks to Tourism Jasper for their assistance during our stay. As always, all opinions are our own.

21 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • March 3 2014

    Oh wow these photos is amazing, I would love to see that.
    Ayngelina recently posted..How would you spend $20,000 on holiday?

    • Pete
      March 13 2014

      It was pretty incredible Ayngelina. I’ve never seen anything like it.

  • March 3 2014

    Very cool! I would love to check out their festival in October with Hadfield!
    I’ve always had an appreciation for star gazing. As a kid my sleep overs would be sneaking wine with a few friends and watching for meteors in our sleeping backs upon the trampoline.
    Murissa recently posted..Giveaway: Celebrate St Patrick’s in Dublin with Jameson Whiskey

    • Pete
      March 13 2014

      I’m hoping we make it back as well. I’ve always been fascinated with space, just had never truly seen it… Maybe see you in October? 😉

  • March 3 2014

    I love the night sky. Especially star trails and where you have good visibility of them. Love your photos!

    • Pete
      March 13 2014

      Thanks Angela, the star trail photos are my faves as well 🙂

  • A Montrealer Abroad (@marievallieres)
    March 3 2014

    Good job as always, Pete, the photos are amazing! I had the same feeling when I was Tenerife earlier last year and spent a good hour star gazing. The urban girl in me just couldn’t fully grasp the extent of the universe above, and indeed felt quite tiny.

    • Pete
      March 13 2014

      Thanks Marie, I’ll have to go and check them out in Tenerife :).

  • March 4 2014

    Well- even though Pete didn’t recognize the milky way – he sure can photograph it well!

    • Pete
      March 13 2014

      haha, thanks Sherry 🙂 I’m sure I won’t hear the end of this one for a while…

  • March 4 2014

    Awesome! I had never heard of dark sky preserves before – what a great idea. And I am definitely guilty of being confused upon spotting the Milky Way! Love the star trails!

    • Pete
      March 13 2014

      Thanks Katie! I can’t believe that there are two of the biggest dark sky reserves in the world both in Alberta. I’m already planning to go and see the biggest, but it’s a bit of a challenge to get up to…

  • March 6 2014

    Having made it a point to head to the dark sky preserve in my own backyard, this post and pictures only reinforce my desire to go.

    Thanks!

    • Pete
      March 13 2014

      Most definitely Rob, if you’re into stars you won’t be disappointed. Cheers!

  • March 8 2014

    I had no idea about the dark sky preserve. Wow! That’s an interesting concept. We need to check that out.
    Lance recently posted..Our Top 10 Travel Mishaps – Or, nearly dying in Peru

    • Pete
      March 13 2014

      You won’t be disappointed if you make it here Lance. If you get a clear night, it’s truly an incredible experience. I went out one night on my own as well. The silence that surrounds you is incredible.

  • March 10 2014

    More great photos. Sounds like Jasper is the place to be. The lights being turned down in the village sounds like a very good idea.
    Ross recently posted..A Photo Essay – Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics

    • Pete
      March 13 2014

      I definitely appreciate the commitment that the city has to keeping the status. It’s such a beautiful place to see the night sky (well the daytime sky is pretty damn beautiful too.) Cheers Ross!

  • This is amazing! I’ve been posting about night photography on my website, and star trails is something I haven’t really tried yet because I live in a city with too much light pollution. I have learned how to do it (in theory), and I can’t wait to give it a try somewhere like this.

  • Isn’t the universe breathtaking? Some could look at a clear sky of stars forever. It’s so magical. I love all of the pictures, especially the one of Jupiter. All of them are so beautiful. Thank you for sharing!

  • Pratibha
    March 18 2014

    Thanks for the pictures. I felt the same way up in Alchi, a small village in Ladakh. Watching the sky come alive every evening was amazing and unforgettable. And oh yes, the insignificance of my own existence in this universe!

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