Local lifestyle columnists

Jasper festival lights up the night sky

By From page B5 | December 07, 2013

JASPER, ALBERTA , CANADA — Famed astronomer David Levy hits a personal high note when he reflected upon the “spiritual” side of his heavenly work.

“For me, it’s everything,” said the 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 third-annual Jasper Dark Sky Festival recently 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 it had to be Levy, who earned a doctorate in Jerusalem 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 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.

My first night of star-gazing up here was at Palisades Centre, outside the small town of Jasper.

The moonless sky was like a painter’s canvas, all lit up as I have never seen it lit up with heavenly life. A Parks Canada astronomer, laser pointer in hand, showed us things such as structural images of the Milky Way, in addition to colorful clouds called nebula, where new stars are forming, and star clusters resembling grains of sand.

The astronomer also called 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.

Canadian columnist Peter McMahon of Sky News magazine, later told me: “Once you’re under skies like that, where it’s clear and dark and moonless, 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 festival, played a role in getting the festival going three years ago after walking around town and seeing how dark it really was.

McMahon also thrilled listeners with predictions about ordinary people eventually going off on vacations into outer space one day.

“One of neatest things about Jasper 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 water falls . . . ,”  said McMahon.

At next year’s Dark Sky Festival, Chris Hadfield, Canada’s first astronaut to walk in space, will be the headline speaker. For 146 days, Hadfield steered the largest space ship 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.

As early as 1915, visitors recognized the special qualities of this place 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.

In the lodge, Levy turned to William Shakespeare, one of his “favorite amateur astronomers,” and said: “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 (in the audience).

“And I go over to him, and I 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 . . .’ ”

George Medovoy writes on travel at www.postcardsforyou.com.

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George Medovoy


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