At the Fundy Dark Sky Preserve, in New Brunswick’s Fundy National Park, a night sky free from light pollution means you can enjoy a stellar view of the Milky Way. (Photo by: Kevin Snair/Creative Imagery)
“If you look to the left of the bus, you might see some antlers,” our tour guide, Alicia Waller, says with perky confidence. As dusk descends, 30 heads rubberneck to scan the base of Pyramid Mountain. “The ancient First Peoples saw these stars as a great caribou in the sky,” Waller explains, redirecting our gaze upward as she outlines the Inuit constellation Tukturjuit, a.k.a. the Big Dipper, with a laser pointer bright enough for Jedi combat training.
I’m in Alberta’s Jasper National Park, but instead of signing up for day hikes to see its icy glaciers, glassy lakes and heaven-scraping peaks, I’ve come to explore the park’s dark-sky preserve; it’s one of the best stargazing destinations in the country. With 97 percent of the park classified as wilderness, Jasper boasts some of the blackest firmaments in Canada and forms part of a new countrywide network of dark-sky preserves – areas designated by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada to protect nocturnal wildlife habitat and the night sky from light pollution. From the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, these 16 astronomy parks outnumber those found in any other country. And Jasper, at 11,000 square kilometres, turns out to be the planet’s largest playground for skywatchers like me. So after booking the Jasper Stargazer Package at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, I’ve hopped on a Sun Dog Tours bus to take in as much as possible of this vast nocturnal paradise.
Following our celestial caribou encounter, the bus – the world’s only astronomy tour on wheels – shuttles our group and a huge expandable travel telescope along Maligne Canyon before we cross a footbridge hanging 50 metres above thundering water. In a clearing near the canyon, Kevin Hasson, Sun Dog’s resident telescope guru, unpacks the garbage-can-size set of optics and points it at the brightest star in view. “That’s Jupiter,” he says. “You’ll see a row of dim stars lined up on either side of a marble-streaked orb of gas; those are some of the planet’s 67 known moons,” he explains to a chorus of oohs and aahs.
When we arrive at the base of Old Fort Point, I take a deep breath and start climbing a set of wooden stairs and gently sloping rock to the summit. Waller has promised that in return for the effort, we’ll be rewarded with a spectacular view of a nursery filled with newborn stars. “See? I wasn’t lying!” she says playfully, pointing out the Orion Nebula. In the telescope, the cloud of stellar gas reveals itself as a rose-shaped trace of smoke.