Under cover of darkness

This is the event where the real stars all are. At one of the darkest sky preserves in the world, explore our galaxy and what lays beyond.

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. He has been a journalist for more than 20 years and has travelled the world full time since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.

Updated:

Dark Sky Preserve, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

To see better, it needs to be darker.

Sounds strange, but that’s just the way it is when you’re looking up into the heavens.

And one of the darkest places you’ll find is right here at Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada.

Jasper is about four hours’ drive from Edmonton – a long way from big city lights. And the mountains all throughout the park create a natural barrier that keeps out light pollution from the nearer smaller cities. Dark… but still not dark enough for those who really want to appreciate the stars in all their glory.

Jasper Dark Sky Festival, Alberta, Canada

That’s why, in 2011, the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada declared Jasper National Park as a Dark Sky Preserve. It’s a bit like being designated as a national park or a World Heritage Site. It means that area needs to be protected – in this case, from light.

So since 2011, Jasper National Park and the people who live within it have taken a whole lot of steps to reduce the light in the preserve at night. For instance, they’ve changed the streetlights so they only shine down – not up or around. Interestingly, this actually also makes things better for pedestrians and drivers, while saving energy and money.

Jasper Dark Sky Festival, Alberta, Canada

Jasper is now the second-largest Dark Sky Preserve in the world (after Wood Buffalo National Park, also in Alberta) and there’s a special event each year to celebrate it.

Forget the Academy Awards or the Grammys, this is where the real stars all are. Over two weekends in October, the town of Jasper is home to the annual Dark Sky Festival.

Jasper Dark Sky Festival

I arrive in town for the first weekend of the festival, where the focus is on entertainment. (The following weekend will be more about science.) I’ve never been before, so I have no comparison, but I am pretty confident I can see immediately how Jasper is embracing the festival. Stars hanging from the ceiling in the Visitors Centre; coffees at a cafe with special names; flags in the streets.

Jasper Dark Sky Festival, Alberta, Canada
Jasper Dark Sky Festival, Alberta, Canada

One of the first things I see as I drive into town is a white inflatable dome. It’s in here later in the day that I’ll meet Peter McMahon, one of the people behind the push for the Dark Sky Preserve. He’s also the manager of the Jasper Planetarium, enclosed within the dome.

I settle into a chair along the edge of the planetarium and look up at the concave ceiling. Onto it, Peter is projecting images of the night sky. What we can see from Earth, what we would be able to see from beyond Earth, and further. We go through the solar system, through the galaxy, to connected galaxies, and out in the incomprehensible vastness of space.

Jasper Dark Sky Festival, Alberta, Canada

The festival events

Jasper National Park is also vast. Not in the same way the Universe is. But, having said that, I’m just as likely to see all of the park as I am all of the universe. That’s the kind of scale we’re talking about here. So it’s lucky that most of the events I am going to this weekend for the Jasper Dark Sky Festival are within an easy driving distance.

As the sun starts to go down on my first day in Jasper, I am ready for an evening event. It is, after all, when the dark sky gets to shine.

Jasper Dark Sky Festival, Alberta, Canada

To make the most of it, I’m heading to a special event at the top of the Jasper Skytram. This aerial tramway is an attraction in itself – the highest and longest of its kind in Canada. In the small carriage suspended from the wires, I travel up to a height of 2277 metres above sea level to the observation decks at the top.

It’s here, away from the already-dimmed lights of the town, that we can get one of the best views of the sky. After dinner and a presentation from Peter McMahon, there’s time to explore the stars above with telescopes and expert guides.

Jasper Dark Sky Festival, Alberta, Canada

One of the star experts up here specialises in photography and I spend some time listening to his tips and trying different things with my camera. I’m not very good. There is a skill to getting good night photography and this probably isn’t the right time to learn about the settings on my DSLR.

Jasper Dark Sky Festival, Alberta, Canada

Still, as the most exciting part of the evening arrives, and a faint green glow on the horizon strengthens and the Northern Lights suddenly fill the horizon, I manage to get a couple of shots off. But then I stop and just watch the colours with my own eye. It’s the first time I’ve seen them and it’s quite incredible.

Jasper Dark Sky Festival, Alberta, Canada

The next day, with the sun up, it’s obviously not a time for stargazing. It’s a time for exploring Jasper National Park. I’m going to write another couple of stories over the next few weeks where I run you through some of the things you can do here and why I fell in love with the place.

Jasper Dark Sky Festival, Alberta, Canada

For now, I just want to make the point that this is what is so great about the Dark Sky Festival. There are quite a few special events going on in the town – but there’s also plenty of spare time to see the park itself. So I almost feel like I am getting two different experiences from the one trip.

When night falls later on, it’s time for another special event. This evening, I’m heading to Symphony Under the Stars. As the name suggests, it’s an open air concert where the music and the sky coexist to produce the perfect harmony.

Jasper Dark Sky Festival, Alberta, Canada

At one edge of a large lawn, the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra Strings sits on stage and holds court for the first half of the concert. During the second half, a jazz band is incorporated and the tempo lifts. A canteen serves coffee, tea and hot chocolate – a warm welcome treat with the temperature dropping – and the crowd of hundreds of people melt into the moment.

Jasper Dark Sky Festival, Alberta, Canada

I love the music – but it’s the environment which makes the evening such a hit. The fresh air of the national park, the sky above, and feeling as though the stars are almost within reach.

Star photography

Before I leave Jasper, I have one more evening where there are no events planned. The idea of star photography has been playing on my mind and I decide this is the moment to do some practice. Just me on my own, with plenty of time, to see what I can capture.

I head to Pyramid Lake – not too far from Jasper town – and take a bunch of shots. When I review them, I realise they are not perfect but they are an improvement. Here are a couple of my favourite ones:

Jasper Dark Sky Festival, Alberta, Canada
Jasper Dark Sky Festival, Alberta, Canada

Taking photos at night is difficult and, because of the lack of light, you never really capture what the naked eye sees. There’s always a bit of manipulation with the camera settings to try to replicate it, but that then creates some artificial elements.

I think that’s why an event like the Jasper Dark Sky Festival is so special and grows in popularity each year. It’s not something that you can see in a photo or in a video. It’s not something you can just hear stories about. It’s an event that you need to be there for, to look up into the sky and stare at the stars, to think about what is out there and what it all means.

And doing that in the darkness… that’s how you can really see it all for yourself.

Time Travel Turtle was supported by Travel Alberta but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.

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