Travel

Under a sea of stars

A guide to the annual Jasper Dark Sky Festival — and what you can learn when you gaze skywards.

  • Jun 13, 2023
  • 1,490 words
  • 6 minutes
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Imagine yourself under a sea of stars, as moonlight glistens off snow-dusted mountain peaks around you. Now imagine this wonder being just steps away from your hotel room. One place in the Canadian Rockies makes this starry dream a reality.

Jasper National Park spans over 11,000 square kilometres, making it the world’s largest accessible Dark Sky preserve. The park is one of 17 designated dark sky preserves in Canada, aiming to reduce or eradicate light pollution, to protect and preserve the night sky. More than 99 per cent of people living in the U.S. and Europe live under light-polluted skies, with roughly 80 per cent of North Americans unable to see the Milky Way from their own backyards. Since the park earned its designation by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada in 2011, it has hosted the annual Jasper Dark Sky Festival. Held in the autumn, the festival welcomes stargazers of all ages to look up at the night sky and participate in celestial events and activities. Increase your awareness of light pollution while learning more about our universe. Here’s what the festival has to offer.

Science for breakfast

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Launch your morning with science for breakfast — a series of out-of-this world lectures by fascinating speakers while you enjoy a delicious breakfast buffet. In one lecture last October, author Jonathan Ward tells the story of the Space Shuttle Columbia and the recovery mission following its crash on the morning of February 1st, 2003. Through interviews and firsthand experiences, he recounts the events leading up to the incident and the massive efforts made to retrieve over 80,000 fragments of the shuttle which came crashing down to earth at supersonic speeds — piecing together the mystery of what caused this devastating incident.

A ride toward the stars

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When night falls, soar above the town of Jasper and drift through space as you ride the SkyTram towards the stars for a rare dining and stargazing adventure atop The Whistlers mountain. At the SkyTram’s upper station, guests can enjoy drinks and peruse the night sky with high-powered telescopes. Towering over a kilometre above the town below, you’ll feel closer to the stars as the landscape slips away from view beneath you.

Into the cosmos

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Delve into the cosmos at the Jasper Planetarium, where an insightful and educational guided tour will take you to the edge of the universe and back. Learn the stories and history of the constellations from local Cree knowledge holders, such as the big bear Mistahimaskwa seen in the “big dipper” — Mistahimaskwa is a grizzly bear, rather than the Eurasian Black Bear depicted in the commonly-know Greek constellation. After floating through space in the planetarium dome, guests will learn the science behind the magic of the aurora borealis and even have an opportunity to hold a real meteorite.

Seeing beyond

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Following the Planetarium’s presentations, visitors can glimpse into space with their own eyes. Whether the skies are clear or cloudy, the Jasper Planetarium offers stargazers the perfect opportunity to take a closer look at celestial objects. Where clouds obscure the night sky for traditional telescopes, the planetarium’s radio telescope makes it possible to see beyond our atmosphere, even with completely overcast skies. These modern telescopes collect information from weak radio light waves coming from space, amplifying and focusing them to allow stargazers to take a closer look at galaxies, stars, planets and other galactic curiosities.

Down to Earth

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Take a break from exploring the cosmos and touch your feet back down to Earth to take a drive down the Icefields Parkway. Coasting down this scenic highway, experience the majesty of the mountains on one of the most awe-inspiring drives in the country, especially during the time of the festival, where autumn and winter blend into one. Along the way, stop off at one of the many magnificent sights like the emerald waters of Athabasca Falls. If you’re craving more of an adventure, stretch your legs and take a hike along the meandering Maligne Canyon or explore one of the many other trails throughout the park.

The power of the sun

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Even in broad daylight there’s an opportunity for stargazing. Just one star in particular is in the spotlight this time: our own sun. Join representatives from the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada Edmonton Centre on the lawn of the Visitor Information Centre as they make this possible. With a variety of specialized telescopes and solar filters, they give us a closer look into what’s really happening on the surface of our gassy giant. In the chromosphere, the second layer of the sun’s atmosphere, hydrogen alpha emissions give off a red hue which can usually only be glimpsed during an eclipse, but with the right technology, it can be seen in vivid detail.

5….4….3…3…1…

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While you may not be able to take off into space yourself just yet, you’ll still be able to blast off with the Edmonton Rocketry Club in the heart of the town of Jasper for an up-close and hands-on experience with small scale rockets. The club hosts demonstrations of large model rocket launches, while kids can try their own hand at rocket science, learning how to build and safely launch rockets of their own.

Conversations under the stars

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Learn from the stars during thought-provoking panel discussions with acclaimed speakers, from astronauts to astrophysicists. Dialogues between these experts explore questions about the future of space exploration, what it means for humans on Earth, and why space is for all of us. If you want to delve a little more into this compelling conversation, become a part of the conversation by asking questions of your own to some of the brightest minds in the field of space exploration.

ᐸᐦᑭᓯᒧᐣ Pahkisimon

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Say goodnight to the sun and celebrate ᐸᐦᑭᓯᒧᐣ Pahkisimon — the Cree word for sunset — on the charming shores of Lake Annette. This celebration involves music and dance, combining hand-drumming, tap and jingle dress dance by Jenna Werhum, songs by mother-daughter duo Warrior Women, drag queen Cedar T and a community powwow. The town of Jasper is situated on Treaty 6 and 8 Territories, and this event includes performers from Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation, Goodfish Lake, Edmonton and Saddle Lake Cree Nation.

Stories of the stars

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With ᐸᐦᑭᓯᒧᐣ Pahkisimon, the Cree peoples say good night to the sun to welcome the stars and the stories that come with them. The dark sky plays a very important role in Indigenous storytelling: according to stories that have been passed down from Cree ancestors, it is said that the Star Woman came down from the sky and created the world as we know it. Other Indigenous cultures tell similar versions of the same story, as their creation stories came from the stars, and the sky world is where their cultures and life began.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No: it’s a drone show

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Back in town after the sun disappears behind the mountains and darkness falls, hundreds of drones light up the sky in a dazzling display like you’ve never seen before. This choreographed light show brings the sky to life with a mesmerizing modern spectacle accompanied by live music in the park.

Fuel up

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Satisfy your food cravings at the famous Jasper Pizza Place, where wood fired pizzas are sure to satiate your appetite. If you’re looking for something a bit more unique and innovative, Terra restaurant serves up delectable dishes incorporating natural, local ingredients that are sure to have your mouth watering. After your meal, grab a pint and assemble a crew at The STAND EASY, Jasper Royal Canadian Legion for an After Dark trivia night — hosted annually by      Canadian television personality Alan Nursall of Daily Planet.

Life on this planet

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Instead of searching the stars for extraterrestrials, be on the lookout for local wildlife in Jasper. Elk are often seen wandering around the town and on the side of the road, while bears, caribou, moose, wolves, mountain goats and numerous other mammal and bird species call the vast wilderness of Jasper home. If you’re lucky, you might experience a magical moment with one of Earth’s many beautiful lifeforms.

Park life

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While the Jasper Dark Sky Festival has many engaging events to participate in, don’t forget to venture out into the darkness on your own and explore what the National Park has to offer. If you don’t want to stray too far from the town, Pyramid Lake and Pyramid Island are an iconic spot that have earned their reputation as a beautiful place to stop and wonder. With thousands of square kilometers of wilderness, stretching over mountains, valleys, lakes and rivers, the opportunities to find breathtaking stargazing locations are endless. Once you find your spot, tilt your head back and look beyond our atmosphere at the millions of glimmering lights twinkling in the night sky.

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