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DARK SKY ADVENTURES IN JASPER NATIONAL PARK

Author: Debbie Olsen

Debbie is a writer, researcher, traveller, mom, wife, foodie, gardener, housekeeper, photographer, and occasional hormone-crazed maniac. She has contributed to eight Fodor’s guide books about Alberta and writes regular columns for the Calgary Herald and the Red Deer Advocate.

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Have you ever felt small as you gazed at a night sky so filled with stars it was impossible to count them all? Moments like these are so beautiful and rare they take your breath away. As I lay on my back gazing at the blazing night sky, I couldn’t help pondering my place in the vast expanse of the universe that seemed to unfold before me.

There was a time when anyone could see the stars simply by looking up, but light pollution has made it difficult if not impossible to see the stars in many parts of our modern world. These days, a dark sky is something worth celebrating and Jasper National Park, one of the world’s largest dark sky preserves, does a great job of it every October.

A Royal Designation

The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC) officially designated Jasper a dark sky preserve in March 2011 and the community has been celebrating with a special festival ever since. My husband and I attended the very first one and have come back almost every October, so we’ve had the chance to watch the event expand and mature.

Some of the world’s top scientists, astronomers, night photographers, story tellers and educators have made presentations at the festival and each year, I learn something new. One of my favourite presentations was from Colonel Chris Hadfield, a retired astronaut, commander of the international space station and the first Canadian to walk in space. He likes to relate space travel to life on earth and the result is often very profound. His inspiring message about focussing on maintaining a positive attitude on life’s journey was one I needed to hear.

Activities for All Ages

Besides interesting speakers and presentations, the festival has activities for all ages. There are live planetarium shows, Parks Canada programs and displays, science demos, pop bottle water rockets and Indigenous storytelling. Every year there’s something new to do.

Jasper has a remarkable culinary scene. One year, we took part in a special Dark Sky Dinner created by a team of Alberta’s top culinary stars who each created a dish on a multi-course menu, complemented by creative cocktail pairings. Each chef was determined to out-perform the others and as a result, the food was incredibly presented and amazingly delicious.

As much as I like fine food, the highlight of the festival for me is almost always the evening dark sky programs with astronomers from the RASC Edmonton Centre. Deep sky telescopes are set up at Lake Annette and Pyramid Lake and you can see planets and other phenomena up close. I typically spend a good deal of time with the photographers who are very helpful when it comes to setting up a camera to capture shots of the stunning night sky.

But the best activity by far is just laying on your back in the darkness and breathing in the light of millions of stars. It’s an elemental experience that takes me back to my childhood every time – and anything that can do that really is worth celebrating.

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