Look up: Atlantic Canada is becoming one of the best places in the world to gaze at the cosmos
Mariners in these parts used to call it the ‘trawling moon,’ astronomy guru Garry Dymond once told me while talking shop under the dome of the Memorial University Marine Institute’s planetarium. A member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC), Dymond explained: “That’s when the ‘boat’ of the crescent moon looks like it’s pulling the ‘fishing tackle’ of Venus behind it.”
As our view of the night sky has degraded over the past 15 years, astronomy clubs, parks services and governments around the world have been creating dark-sky preserves and astronomy parks where local ordinances defend the night against city light pollution.
The first dark-sky preserve in Canada was at Torrance Barrens in Ontario’s Muskoka area in 1999. Today, there are 19 dark-sky preserves and urban star parks across the county, making Canada a world leader in dark-sky conservation. What’s more, the Atlantic region is home to four of those preserves and one urban sky park. It’s no wonder Canada’s East Coast is fast becoming a destination for stargazers looking for the ultimate view of the universe.
Kejimkujik National Park, just two hours southwest of Halifax, features some of the darkest accessible skies in Nova Scotia. From here, visitors can enter the park’s Aboriginal Sky Circle—a wooden observing platform at Jeremy’s Bay Campground that some local astronomers jokingly call the park’s “outdoor planetarium”—and gaze up at the Mi’kmaq stars of old. Among them lies the constellation, Muin (a black bear, made up of the four stars of the “pot” of the Big Dipper) pursued by seven hunters (a group of birds made up of the stars in and beyond the Dipper’s handle.)
Not only can you sit back in this magical place and gaze at the Milky Way, you can even see Andromeda, which is, at two million light-years away, the nearest galaxy beyond our own. It’s home to roughly a trillion stars and visible opposite the big dipper from the North Star as a hazy grey oval about as wide as your thumb held at arm’s length.
Merrymakedge Beach also offers panoramic views of the park’s iconic Kejimkujik Lake and the skies above. Each August, the park and the Halifax RASC host astronomy presentations and cosmic observing here during the park’s annual Dark Sky Weekend.
Across the Bay of Fundy, Saint John’s Irving Nature Park—an RASC-designated urban star park—offers a uniquely different experience.
It’s just far enough from the glow of Saint John to afford a glimpse of the Milky Way to city dwellers who don’t get to see this river of stars on a nightly basis. The nature park’s sandy beaches, and the wooden lookout offering views of the nearby salt marshes, are excellent places to take in a planet or two, or even a meteor shower.
About an hour’s drive to the east, Fundy National Park is a great place to go moon-gazing. Consider the effect our only natural satellite has on our planet as you watch the highest tides in the world come in and go back out. Drive another half-hour up Highway 114, to glimpse dark skies through the arches of the Hopewell Rocks. This provincial park offers one of the most amazing astronomy experiences in Canada.
Up the Acadian Coast past Moncton, just south of Miramichi, NB, lies Kouchibouguac National Park, which was designated a dark-sky preserve in 2009 during UNESCO’s International Year of Astronomy. By far the most amazing views in this park are from the sandy shores of Kelly’s Beach, which is also part of a vast piping plover-inhabited barrier island, accessible via a boardwalk from the nearby campground.
The crème-de-la-crème of stargazing in Atlantic Canada, though, is in the heart of New Brunswick at Mount Carleton Provincial Park, arguably the darkest accessible place in the Maritimes. You can access the park via Highway 180. At 820 metres, the park’s namesake is the highest peak in the Maritimes, making the area an ideal place to catch a galaxy.
Gazing up at the heavens here, you’re not even seeing our entire galaxy when you look at the Milky Way, but just a small fraction of the 300 billion stars beyond our sun.