Playing ‘connect the dots’ in the night sky

Toronto Star, October 23, 2015: When the sun eventually sets over Lake Astotin — after the very last pinks and reds vanish into the horizon, leaving only the orange in the campfire coals — the show really starts.

We look up.

As we watch, stars began to emerge. First one, then a few more and finally, more than you could count in a couple of lifetimes. Within an hour, the sky was alive with stars.

We are in the Beaver Hills Dark Sky Preserve, east of Edmonton, a 300 square-kilometre parcel of land that includes Elk Island National Park and the Cooking Lake-Blackfoot Provincial Recreation Area. It’s one of four dark sky preserves in Alberta. The province has long been known for its big, blue skies during the day but increasingly, its drawing crowds for its dark skies at night.

Creating vast areas that protect the night sky from light pollution is becoming more prevalent as light increasingly invades our every hour, says Tristan Drozdiak, an interpreter at Elk Island and our guide to playing a “big game of connect the dots” in the sky.

“One-hundred years ago everyone had complete access to the stars,” he says. “If you looked at our planet at night it would have been dark, but nowadays it’s lit up like a Christmas tree.”

And all that 24-7 light has a detrimental effect on living things such as insects drawn to light, the birds and small mammals that eat them and, well, humans. Light pollution has been linked to everything from insomnia to issues with our immune systems. And there are other ramifications too—the light blocking out the stars is also blocking out a lot of our stories.

“It’s something that’s always captivated people,” says Drozdiak. “Virtually every culture throughout history has stories about the night sky.”

We throw our heads back and our eyes follow the green laser Drozdiak’s pointing up through the smoke of the bonfire. We start with the basics: the North Star, or what some First Nations call the “Standing Still” or others call the “Going Home” star.

We move on to the other easy one, the Big Dipper.

“Learning about it is very helpful because the Big Dipper is the best thing for a map to the other stars,” says a delighted Drozdiak. “Once you learn the constellations, they’re basically a map to seeing cooler things.”

With Canadian geese honking somewhere in the night, he points out Vega, the brightest star in the constellation Lyra and Deneb, the tail of the hen, that flies perpetually south through the Milky Way. As he tells us about the stars, coyotes start yip-yipping on one side of the lake, answered a minute or two later by pack on the other side. Someone points out a satellite zipping across the sky. And another one.

“I grew up in the city,” Drozdiak tells us. “I’d maybe seen one or two stars and the moon but you come out here and you can see the entire Milky Way. You can see shooting stars. It’s just gorgeous and for some people it’s a revelation because they’ve never experienced this before.”

The Beaver Hills Dark Sky Preserve is the oldest of Canada’s 17 dark sky preserves. But you can’t just put in dimmer light bulbs and hang out a glow in the dark shingle. An area has to be declared a dark sky preserve by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. And to get that status, it has to meet strict guidelines including (minimal) exterior lights pointed downward and being open 24 hours a day, and night.

“It’s hard to find a place to park at Elk Island during a meteor shower,” Drozdiak says. “The coolest thing is just being able to look up at the stars and learn about the constellations and be able to pick my way through because it was completely unknown to me.”

We are lost gazing upwards to the sky, asking questions and listening to stories. I ask about one very bright light, very low in the western sky.

“That’s a WestJet flight coming in from Victoria,” says a fellow stargazer after checking an airport app on his phone. I laugh, he puts his phone back in his pocket and we all turn our heads back up to the sky.

 Alberta by night

The province has four dark sky preserves. As well as the Beaver Hills Dark Sky Preserve, 45 kilometres east of Edmonton, there are three more:

Wood Buffalo National Park Dark Sky Preserve, the largest dark sky preserve in the world, straddles the Alberta/Northwest Territories border. It’s the largest national park in the country and, with 44,807 square kilometres, it is bigger than all the other dark sky sites in the world put together. The annual Dark Sky Festival at the end of August encourages stargazing as well as talking about science with fun and interactive activities.

With more than 11,000 sq. kilometres, Jasper Dark Sky Preserve is the second largest dark sky preserve in the world. After receiving the designation in 2011, the town site in Jasper National Park didn’t waste any time celebrating and started the Jasper Dark Sky Festival. This year’s event includes plenty of dark sky adventures including planetarium shows and a visit by famed astronaut, Col. Chris Hadfield.

Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park Dark-Sky Preserve straddles both Alberta and Saskatchewan with almost 400 square kilometres of dark skies that support nocturnal wildlife and offers a great place for humans to gaze up at the stars.

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