Word by Dalene Heck / Photo by Pete Heck
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).
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.)
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.
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.
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.