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The remote park in Alberta offers an elusiveand starryview that's unseen in the city.
First published in May 2012.Last fall I travelled more than a thousand kilometres to see the night sky. Not the faint speckling that hovers above downtown Vancouver, but the real, Van Gogh-scale night sky that our ancestors wondered at. Jasper National Park had just been designated the world’s largest “Dark Sky Preserve,” making it one of the few places in the world where stargazing has been safeguarded against encroaching light pollution. Everyone living before electricity looked up at the sky and saw something so grand they had to invent gods to explain it. I wanted to know what that felt like.I’m not alone. A fifth of the world’s population can no longer see the Milky Way, and, each year, the sky is lost to more and more of us. (Did you know it’s supposed to look like diamond dust? Or that the Milky Way should cast a shadow?)
Canada already has 14 dark sky preserves, more than all other countries combined. Now, in Jasper National Park, the 15th, there are more than 11,000 square kilometres of parkland where most lighting is prohibited, making it both a Class 1 and 2 site on the Bortle Dark-Sky Scale. Rural skies are Bortle three zones, city skies are Bortle 8 or 9. I arrived at Jasper before sunset and, casting my gaze heavenward, frowned uneasily at an overcast sky. Oh yeah, I thought. Clouds.I wasn’t the only one annoyed by Mother Nature’s uncooperative stance. The next night a small crowd gathered at a postcard-perfect log cabin by emerald Maligne Lake to mark Jasper’s ascension into proper preserve status. Several dignitaries, including the mayor of Jasper and the president of the Royal Astronomical Society, good-naturedly blamed each other for the lousy weather while the rest of us squinted up at a darkening, opaque sky.
Peter McMahon, author of Space Tourism, had brought his iPad along and showed me a great app—hold the tablet up to the night sky and the iPad’s GPS allows it to identify the very planets and constellations you’re gazing at. Or not gazing at. We passed his iPad around to a few other hopeful stargazers. Holding the thing aloft, we could each peep through a single (virtual) starlit square. McMahon told us about “star parties” that he’d been to, and the star party he expected Jasper to host—a little like art openings: happy conglomerations of geeks who spend more time looking at each other than the work on display.
In fact, the first annual Dark Sky Festival in Jasper included just such a party at Pyramid Lake, plus astronomical lectures, a star-oriented film festival and starlit dining experiences. As for our own little star party on now-chilly Maligne Lake, we were growing sleepy as children waiting for Santa. The heavens sulked behind their clouds—we thought them very ungrateful, considering the efforts we had made. Driving back to the lodge I kept scanning the darkness overhead, but Jasper remained untouched by anything but the headlights.
I decided to take the train home to Vancouver—a 20-hour trip through the Rocky Mountains. It rained the afternoon of my departure. The rocking train, combined with the soporific effect of a Dickens novel, soon had me dozing in the “Panorama” car. When I woke, night had fallen and, thoughtlessly, I looked up, imagining I’d at last glimpse the Milky Way, here in the darkness of the mountain range. Of course, train windows, thanks to interior lighting, become mirrors at night; I saw nothing but glare and trundled off to my cabin.
And then: I switched off the lights in the tiny room, giving myself a pitch black space; somewhere along an unknowable inky stretch of country, and far-removed from the pollution of city-lights, I glimpsed a real diamond-dust night sky through my cabin window. “At last!” I said to nobody.Hours later we rolled into Vancouver’s great, electrified suburban sprawl and the miracle overhead was lost.