Jasper, Canada’s dark sky lights up the heavens

From images of the Milky Way to the striking beauty of Jasper National Park, being up here provides a priceless opportunity to find your own personal relationship to the night sky.

Jasper, Canada 370 (photo credit: George Medevoy)
Jasper, Canada 370
(photo credit: George Medevoy)
JASPER, ALBERTA , CANADA – Famed astronomer David Levy hits a personal high note when he reflects on the “spiritual” side of his heavenly work.
“For me, it’s everything,” says the modest, Montreal- born Levy. “If I didn’t have a spiritual aspect to my interest in astronomy, I wouldn’t be doing it. It is everything.
“Not to take away from the science, not to take away from the observing experience, but the fact that there is a spiritual center to it is everything.”
Levy was one of the “star” speakers at the annual Jasper Dark Sky Festival here in Jasper National Park, where Canada’s magnificent Rocky Mountain lakes and mountains move from center stage and all eyes turn heavenward for life-altering views of the largest accessible dark sky preserve in the world.
I met Levy as I walked into the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge on the shores of beautiful Beauvert Lake. I passed someone wearing a Hebrew University of Jerusalem sweatshirt and knew right away that it had to be Levy, who earned a doctorate in Israel’s capital for his thesis on allusions to celestial events in Elizabethan and Jacobean Writing.
Levy’s well-known astronomy persona is tied to the famous Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet, which he discovered with Carolyn and Eugene Shoemaker in 1994 at the Palomar Observatory in California. The comet collided with Jupiter that same year.
Levy has actually discovered a total of 22 comets, nine of them with his own backyard telescopes, and is involved with the Jarnac Comet Survey based at the Jarnac Observatory in Vail, Arizona.
For a novice like me, it was all a bit overwhelming, familiarizing myself with this heavenly stuff – at once so distant, and yet so intimate – in the chill and deep darkness of this Canadian national park, a World Heritage Site.
So meeting Levy, Montreal-born like me, afforded a kind of comfortable familiarity, which grew even stronger as the astronomer turned to his “very Jewish connection” to astronomy through Montreal’s Sha’ar Hashomayim Synagogue, which his grandfather helped to design.
Levy, who won an Emmy as part of the writing team for the Discovery Channel’s Three Minutes to Impact, recalled walking home from the synagogue one Yom Kippur evening and, looking up at the sky, noticing the10-day-old moon – only to realize that Jewish people all over the world were also walking home from synagogues, observing the same 10-day old moon.
“And then it hit me,” he exclaimed, “that moon has been in that same phase every Yom Kippur… and it is very incredible that people have been watching the same phase of the same moon all these years… It is part of what drove home the spiritual center to my interest in the sky.”
My first night of stargazing here was at Palisades Center, outside the small town of Jasper. The moonless sky was like a painter’s canvas, all lit up as I have never seen it with heavenly life.
A Parks Canada astronomer, laser pointer in hand, showed us things like structural images of the Milky Way, besides colorful clouds called nebula, where new stars were forming, and star clusters resembling grains of sand.
The astronomer eventually turned our attention to what he called “a smudge in the sky,” which turned out to be the Andromeda Galaxy – “It’s 2.5 million light years away, so it’s not just a hop, skip and a jump.”
And then there was another object, looking as bright as a star, which turned out to be the international space station with six astronauts inside it! “Once you’re under skies like that where it’s clear and dark and moonless,” SkyNews Magazine columnist Peter McMahon of Canada later told me, “you start to see not only the Milky Way... but you see structure in the Milky Way… like a stretched-out octopus.”
McMahon, known as the “sky-guy in residence” during the entire month of October – designated as Dark Sky Month here – played a role in getting the festival going three years ago after walking around town and seeing how dark it really was.
“One of the neatest things about Jasper,” said McMahon,“ is it’s the only place in the world where you can see the night sky over some of the terrain... not just over the mountains, but over canyons and glaciers, and hot springs and waterfalls.”
McMahon also thrilled listeners with predictions about ordinary people eventually going off on vacations to outer space! Among other talks at the festival was a fascinating one about stardust by Jacob Berkowitz, a Canadian science writer, whose book, The Stardust Revolution, examines ties between our own human origins and the composition of the stars themselves.
“There is actually stardust, and we are it,” said the Jerusalem-born Berkowitz.
The discovery of the origin of the elements, he said, “turned out to be also the discovery of our own origins, because scientists in the 1950’s realized that all of these elements – carbon, oxygen, nickel, gold, phosphorous – they all formed inside stars.”
At next year’s Dark Sky Festival, Chris Hadfield, Canada’s first astronaut to walk in space, will be the headlining speaker. For 146 days, Hadfield steered the largest spaceship ever built through outer space.
While the best time to see the heavens here is in the deep darkness, Jasper also affords prized opportunities to see the moon in the daytime and the planets at dusk and dawn.
It’s one of the perks of the outdoor experience in Jasper, located about 194 miles west of Edmonton – whether it’s hiking, boating, skiing, world-class golf or fishing.
As early as 1915, visitors recognized the special qualities of Jasper, when they organized the beginnings of today’s Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge with luxury tents.
The Canadian National Railway took over the fledgling resort in 1921 and turned it into eight log cabins, launching the Jasper Park Lodge in 1922 with its popular golf course.
Today’s lodge also includes the large main building, an outdoor swimming pool, a spa, shops and restaurants, and, of course, rustic guest cabins.
We often saw elk grazing outside our own cabin. Of course, one has to be careful to keep a safe distance from them, we noted on posted warnings, because they can be dangerous.
Meanwhile, in the lodge, Levy considered the connection between literature and the night sky, as in his doctoral dissertation taken in Israel – “this country that I love so dearly.”
About William Shakespeare, one of his “favorite amateur astronomers,” he mused: “In a lot of my talks, I… picture William Shakespeare coming back to life… and we all look… fascinated at this ghost of a man sitting there.
“And I go over to him, and ask him, ‘Would you have written Hamlet the same way now?’ And he says, ‘No, forget it. Don’t ask me these questions. I’m not here to talk about Hamlet.
I’m here because there’s a bright comet scheduled to come in a few months, and I want to see it and I want to take a picture of it.’” Levy is “almost convinced” that when the bard was seven years old, his father pointed to the north and said, “Look at that red star over there in the northwest. That’s a new star that wasn’t there last week, and everybody is looking at it, and I want my son to look at it as well.”
“I even put that in the thesis,” Levy concluded.
“I can’t prove it with… footnotes and endnotes, but it would have been almost impossible that Shakespeare would have missed it back then.”
It’s an interesting possibility, of course, but one thing is certain: from images of the Milky Way to the striking beauty of Jasper National Park, being up here provides a priceless opportunity – no matter what your level of astronomy experience – to find your own personal relationship to the night sky.
www.jasper.travel www.fairmont.com/Jasper www.jasperdarksky.org.