I'm standing on the shoreline of a forested island in Jasper's Pyramid Lake. An inky blackness surrounds me. About a dozen other people are here, but I can't really tell. I can only make out dark shapes and feel the soft bumps of layered outerwear. (Hushed apologies are exchanged.) Countless shimmering stars and the fading peaks of the Rockies' Colin Range are reflected in the glassy water.
It's the perfect setting for what I've come here to see: a dark sky.
Brian Catto, an interpreter with Parks Canada, is our guide for the evening. "Can you see those four stars? That's the constellation Pegasus," he says, using a green laser pointer that extends to the heavens like a giant lightsabre. He moves it, Jedi-like, to a faint, fuzzy object. "That's the Andromeda Galaxy, two million light years away."
In 2011, Jasper National Park was declared a Dark Sky Preserve – an area with low light pollution and exceptional stargazing – by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. (Canada is a leader in Dark Sky Preserves, with 15 of the 27 worldwide.) At 11,228 square kilometres, Jasper is the world's largest, and the only one to contain a mountain town.
The sky here is seldom static. Meteor showers, the Northern Lights and planets peak on different nights, and even comets pass by occasionally. The biggest challenge is staying warm, since celestial viewing involves a lot of standing around. Layers, tuques and mitts help. "It's also important to bring your curiosity," Catto adds. The community has embraced the preserve, with an annual Dark Sky Festival in October that features telescope workshops, children's rocket launches, daytime solar viewing and aboriginal storytelling. Area operators offer astronomy tours and hotel packages, and Parks Canada regularly runs free night-viewing sessions (except in the summer, when the night is too short).
"Being a Dark Sky Preserve is about protecting the places and processes that drive these ecosystems. It's important to protect, but not relevant unless people can experience it," says Catto, a stocky 43-year-old with a boyish smile who heads up the park's astronomy program.
What really sets Jasper apart, he explains, is that most preserves tend to be in remote areas, with little in the way of facilities. "Here, you've got all the amenities of the town, and in the winter months, skiing, snowboarding and cross-country skiing."
The preserve is a great fit for Parks Canada, with its mandate for both conservation and visitor interaction, explains Catto, since dark skies are natural and what the other residents of the park – the animals that live there – prefer.
But it's a hit with humans, too: The program draws about 75 people each session in peak months, including couples, families, ardent astronomy buffs and astral photographers, who love the mountain backdrop.
Stumbling around in the dark on Pyramid Island, the group follows along with Catto, using iPads loaded with the Star Walk app (which overlays constellations with their Greek symbols) and binoculars – all supplied by Parks Canada.
"Can you see that really bright star rising over the mountains right now?" he asks. "It's not a star, it's Jupiter. Look through the binocs and you'll see its four moons. One of those moons, Io, is the most volcanically active body in our solar system."
Later that night, I view the Andromeda Galaxy again in a 16-inch reflector telescope so big I have to use a ladder to reach the eyepiece. Instead of a smudge, I see a bright swirling disc. Nearby is another scope set on the star Vega, in the constellation Lyra. It's an intensely blue orb.
A few minutes later, gauzy clouds roll in, obscuring the faint stars of the Milky Way. Without the aid of a scope, I can see only a few of the brightest stars through the haze. It dawns on me that, as a city dweller, this is all I ever see of the night sky. Visiting a Dark Sky Preserve is like lifting away that haze – and discovering a whole universe exists.
Darryl Leniuk is a writer and photographer specializing in adventure travel. He visited as a guest of Tourism Jasper. The tourism agency did not review or approve this story.