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OUTSIDER DIARIES: The dark skies of Kejimkujik

Hundreds of night sky fans will gather this weekend at the national park and dark sky preserve.
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A long exposure shows trails of red-filtered flashlights used by amateur astronomers to preserve night vision. I took this shot at the 2014 Dark Sky Weekend event at Kejimkujik National Park and National Historic Site. (JOHN McPHEE)

Check out any astronomical event and you’ll find two kinds of observers.

There are the extroverted types for whom the social aspects of the gathering are just as important as the celestial.

During an interview in the spring, fellow observer Art Cole told me he often sets up his camera/telescope rig to automatically take photos or video of a particular celestial object for hours. Then he makes the rounds to chat with fellow astronomers.

On the other end of the extrovert/introvert spectrum, there are people like, well, me. My routine at an astronomical gathering is exchanging a few pleasantries after arrival and finding a good spot to plant my scope. For the rest of the evening, my eye is stuck to the eyepiece and you might hear an appreciative mumble once in a while when I get a good view of an object.

No, I’ll never be the life of the astronomical (or any other) party. But I try to come out of my shell each summer for Dark Sky Weekend at Kejimkujik National Park and National Historic Site in western Nova Scotia. I have offered my telescope and limited astronomical know-how several times at the event's public observing sessions.

It’s a great time. Hundreds of people converge in the evening at the “Sky Circle” in Jeremy’s Bay Campground for astronomical and native cultural presentations by RASC members and Parks Canada interpreters. Afterward people line up to peek through the telescopes set up around a large field surrounding the Sky Circle.

I particularly enjoy providing celestial views to enthusiastic younger observers, many of whom have never looked through a telescope. 

Keji’s dark sky program is the result of a collaboration between Parks Canada and the Halifax Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. The society, represented by members Quinn Smith and Dave Chapman, approached Parks Canada in 2009 about getting Keji designated as a dark sky preserve

Parks Canada would have to implement light pollution controls at the park, offer astronomical programming and public outreach activities, and promote Keji as a stargazing destination.

A former civil servant, Chapman braced for a long haul of bureaucratic stonewalling.

“What happened to our surprise was ... we got invited down and it turned out the people at Keji were all for it,” Chapman said in an interview.

RASC members helped train park interpreters on such things as features of the night sky and astronomical equipment (the park bought a large Go-To telescope for use at the Sky Circle). And society members remain heavily involved, particularly on Dark Sky Weekend every August.  

dave and quinnRASC members Dave Chapman and Quinn Smith spearheaded the creation of the Dark Sky Preserve at Kejimkujik National Park and National Historic Site.

Six years later, Chapman says he’s very pleased with how the program has evolved.

“I’m very impressed at how they’ve handled it. It wasn’t like, ‘OK thanks, we’ll take that and we’ll put it on a webpage.’ They’ve really embraced the whole idea of the preserve and how it adds to the park and they’ve incorporated it into their programming.”

RASC members have tailored their own contributions to Dark Sky Weekend over the years. For example, they’ve reduced the number of daytime activities, which weren’t drawing a lot of people, in favour of “drop-in” events, Chapman said.

“We set up a station, a little tent (near the Tuck Shoppe at Jeremy’s Bay Campground) where we could sit under the shade and we basically have a drop-in where people could just come to us,” he said. “We’ll show them free handouts, talk to them about telescopes and do solar observing. That was really quite successful last year so we’re going to do that again this year.”

Chapman’s involvement with the dark sky project is but one of his many irons in the astronomical fire. He’s edited the internationally renowned Observer’s Handbook published by the RASC, he curates the website and, along with Mi’kmaq cultural interpreter Cathy Leblanc, he created the Mi’kmaw Moons project.

Public outreach in astronomy hadn’t been a big interest for him until relatively recently. But Chapman has come to enjoy the one-to-one contact with people at events such as Dark Sky Weekend.

“It’s amazing how many people you meet who just have never — well, they may have looked at the sky but they don’t know what they’re looking at. So ...  you point out the Milky Way, this is our galaxy, these are the stars, that one’s a double star, that one’s a planet — people love that stuff, they want to appreciate it.

“What I tell people all the time is, you don’t have to be a scientist or an astronomer to appreciate the sky. You can appreciate it for what it is, from wherever you’re coming from. You don’t have to understand the physics of it all. If you want to understand the physics, we can tell you that too, but if you just want to enjoy it, we can tell you what you’re looking at.”

Dark Sky Weekend will be held this year from Aug. 5 to Aug. 7. 



Aug. 2 - New moon

Aug. 5 - PHOTO OPP: Jupiter one degree east of waning crescent moon in evening west

Aug. 5 to Aug. 7 - Dark Sky Weekend at Kejimkujik National Park

Aug. 6 - Midsummer bird walk, Taylor Head (Nova Scotia Bird Society)

Aug. 10 - First-quarter moon

Aug. 11 - Saturn right of waxing gibbous moon in evening south with Mars below

Aug. 11/12 - Perseid meteor shower predicted to be most active since 2008. Best observed after midnight when moon has set

Aug. 11 and Sept. 1 - Halifax Planetarium show Downtown Milky Way

Aug. 18 - Full moon known as Sturgeon Moon or Green Corn Moon

Aug. 19 - Neptune just east of waning gibbous moon all evening (binocular or telescope needed). Pairing closes to within one degree by dawn in southwest

Aug. 25 - Last-quarter moon

Sept. 1 - New moon

Every Friday - Open house at Burke-Gaffney Observatory at Saint Mary’s University


John McPhee is a nature nerd, astronomy fan and web editor for Local Xpress.


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