In 2021, the Jasper Dark Sky Festival is planned for October 15-24, pending COVID-19 health restrictions. In the meantime, enjoy this story of past experiences.
We peer up at the sky, blinking hard against the snowflakes that land and melt on our faces and occasionally in our eyes. “It’s all part of the Parks experience!” chuckles the Parks Canada interpreter tasked with leading a stargazing program in a snowstorm under a cloudy sky.
“I hope they have good imaginations!” I hear his partner laugh, indicating our international group. We have gathered in the hopeless impossibility of catching a glimpse of the heavens, as the sky gives zero indication of cooperating. Nonetheless, the park interpreters gamely launch into Orion the Hunter’s story, and everyone settles in for the star gazing sans stars.
It’s 2016, and we are in Jasper National Park for the Jasper Dark Sky Festival presented by Rocky Mountaineer, an annual bash celebrating the night sky and Jasper’s status as a Dark Sky Preserve. It’s pretty cool that Alberta is home to two of the largest Dark Sky Preserves in the world (Jasper National Park and Wood Buffalo National Park), so in true Canadian fashion, we celebrate with a festival!
While the speakers and some festivities change from year to year, there is a ton of fun to be had during the festival that spans over two weekends in the winter…here’s what you won’t want to miss!
1) Special guests: Okay, yes, it’s a bit obvious that you will want to hear the keynote speaker at the Dark Sky Festival. In 2016 both Bill Nye and George Takei shared speaker duties, with Nye headlining the first weekend and Takei the second. On the Nye weekend, he hit the stage twice: an evening presentation geared for adults and an afternoon talk for all ages. We also got the chance to hear Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen talk about his Canadian Space Program experience. The question and answer period could have gone on all day as far as I was concerned; it was completely fascinating. The talks are a chance to hear experts in their field. Even as someone with limited interest and aptitude in science, I felt inspired! In 2017, special guests will include Brian Cox and Phil Plait, two of today’s most popular science educators.
2) Star Gazing with Parks Canada So, the thing about a dark sky preserve is that it’s dark. You slightly notice that it isn’t as glaringly bright as you might be used to in the townsite, but once you are out of town, it’s DARK. Finding where we were supposed to go for the program was a bit of an adventure in itself (see the snowstorm I referenced above!), but even with no stars to be found, the program was entertaining and informative. The Parks people do a great job of keeping it accessible for a range of ages and interest levels, and it’s a free activity that is really worth your time…even if the stars themselves are absent! Visit the visitors’ centre in the Jasper townsite for more programming information, or see the website.
3) Jasper Planetarium For a guaranteed look at the stars, make some time for an experience at the Jasper Planetarium! Set up in the Hotel’s courtyard, the inflatable dome planetarium is a 360-degree astronomical immersive experience. Seated comfortably in the folding chairs under the dome, we watched stars and Northern Lights flash above us. My young son was helpless to stay silent in the face of such wonders, breathlessly saying “Whoa” at several junctures. He was voicing what we were all thinking. Whoa for sure! You can also take part in a daytime viewing experience to view the heavenly sights through special telescopes. During the Dark Sky Festival, the Planetarium offers additional times and programs, including a star session that includes supper at the top of the Jasper Sky Tram and a late-night stargazing tour in Maligne Canyon. See the Jasper Planetarium website for more info and ticket prices.
4) Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC) In 2017, the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada set up in the Park to give visitors a chance to gaze at the heavens for free. Several telescopes, each set up for viewing a different part of the sky, offered the opportunity for an “up close” look at what lies beyond. Volunteer astronomers will also be on hand offering assistance and answering questions.
5) Symphony under the Stars Snow pants are not usually de rigueur for a night at the symphony, but at the Symphony Under the Stars, you are going to want them. Trust me. Even with the hand warmers, blankets, and hot chocolate bar thoughtfully provided for the experience, you are going to want to bundle up. It is October in the Rockies! If you can afford the splurge, the Symphony under the Stars event at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge is an incredible experience. A stay at the venerable resort includes a welcome reception and an amazing 3-course supper followed by a performance by the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra outside beside Lake Annette. In 2017, jazz greats Tommy Banks and PJ Perry will be joining the ESO. Note, while children are allowed at the event, I found a night at the symphony better with them safely ensconced in the hotel room. The concierge desk can help arrange a nanny service for you if needed.
The proliferation of light pollution has interfered with our ability to see the night sky’s beauty and magic, and the Jasper Dark Sky Festival brings people who are best acquainted with the night sky. Previous speakers have included guests from the TELUS World of Science in Edmonton, the Royal Canadian Astronomical Society, Jay Ingram (former host of Daily Planet) and internationally beloved astronaut and Twitter-star Col. Chris Hadfield. The coming festival promised to reach the high standard that past festivals have set.
These and more activities will keep you and your family fascinated by what lies above. Visit Jasper Dark Sky Festival for more details.
Many thanks to Jasper Tourism for hosting me at the Jasper Dark Sky Festival. The opinions, as ever, are my own.