The Living Skies of Saskatchewan


Gazing at the Milky Way in Grasslands National Park

I spent a wonderful week touring the star-filled nightscapes of southwest Saskatchewan.

On their license plates Saskatchewan is billed as the Land of Living Skies. I like the moniker that Saskatchewan singer-songwriter Connie Kaldor gives it – the sky with nothing to get in the way.

Grasslands National Park should be a mecca for all stargazers. It is a Dark Sky Preserve. You can be at sites in the Park and not see a light anywhere, even in the far distance on the horizon, and barely any sky glows from manmade sources.

The lead image shows the potential for camping in the Park under an amazing sky, an attraction that is drawing more and more tourists to sites like Grasslands.

Milky Way Panorama at 76 Ranch Corral

This is a multi- panel panorama of the Milky Way over the historic 76 Ranch Corral in the Frenchman River Valley, once part of the largest cattle ranch in Canada. Mars shines brightly to the east of the galactic core.

At the Two Trees site visitors can stay in the tipis and enjoy the night sky. No one was there the night I was shooting. The night was warm, windless, and bug-less. It was a perfect summer evening.

Twilight Panorama at SSSP 2018

From Grasslands I headed west to the Cypress Hills along scenic backroads. The main Meadows Campground in Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, another Dark Sky Preserve, is home every year to the Saskatchewan Summer Star Party. About 350 stargazers and lovers of the night gather to revel in starlight.

This year coincided with the annual Perseid meteor shower and we saw lots!

Most nights were clear, and warmer than usual, allowing shirt-sleeve observing. It was a little bit of Arizona in Canada. Everyone enjoyed the experience. I know I did!

SSSP and Cypress Hills are stargazing heaven in Canada.

Panorama of the Milky Way over the Great Sandhills

From Cypress Hills I drove due north to finally, after years of thinking about it, visit the Great Sandhills near Leader, Saskatchewan. Above is a panorama from the “Boot Hill” ridge at the main viewing area.

The Sandhills is not a provincial park but is a protected eco zone, though used by local ranchers for grazing. However, much of the land remains uniquely prairie but with exposed sand dunes among the rolling hills.

There are farm lights in the distance but the sky above is dark and, in the panorama above, colored by twilight and bands of red and green airglow visible to the camera. It’s dark!

Four Planets Along the Ecliptic at Great Sandhills

In the twilight, from the top of one of the accessible sand dunes, I shot a panorama of the array of four planets currently across the sky, from Venus in the southwest to Mars in the southeast.

This is the kind of celestial scene you can see only where the sky has nothing to get in the way.

Sunset at Great Sandhills

If you are looking for a stellar experience under their “living skies,” I recommend Saskatchewan.

— Alan, August 26, 2018 / © 2018 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com 

 

A Stunning Gathering of Worlds


The conjunction of Venus (brightest), Jupiter (above Venus) and Mars (dimmer below Venus & Jupiter) looking east in the morning twilight on October 25, 2015, as seen from the west shore of Lake Annette, in Jasper National Park, Alberta. The mountain is the Watchtower. Morning mist covers the lake waters. Haze in the sky adds the natural glows around the planets — no filters were empolyed here. This is a layered stack of 4 images: 10, 5, 2.5 and 1.3-second exposures, with the longer exposure for the ground and the shorter exposures adding the sky to maintain tonal balance between the dark ground and bright sky. All with the 24mm lens and Canon 6D at ISO 400. It was not possible to capture the reflection of the planets in the water as they were too high in the sky.

Skies were clear at dawn this morning for a fabulous view of the rare conjunction of three planets. And I could not have been at a more photogenic site.

This was the view before dawn on October 25, as brilliant Venus and dimmer Jupiter shone just a degree apart in the dawn sky. Mars, much fainter, shines just below the close duo. The three planets could easily be contained in a high power binocular field.

Not until November 2111 will these three planets be this close together again in a darkened sky.

Indeed, Venus could not have been higher, as it is just now reaching its maximum elongation from the Sun, placing it high in the eastern morning sky.

A panorama of roughly 120° showing a star- and planet-filled sky in the dawn twilight over Lake Annette in Jasper National Park, Alberta, on the morning of October 25, 2015.  At left, to the east, are the two bright planets, Venus (brightest) and Jupiter in a close conjunction 1° apart (and here almost merging into one glow), plus reddish Mars below them, all in Leo, with the bright star Regulus above them. Right of centre, to the south, is Orion and Canis Major, with the bright star Sirius low in the south. At upper right are the stars of Taurus, including Aldebaran and the Hyades star cluster. Venus was near greatest elongation on this morning.  No special filter was employed here — the hazy planets and stars and colourful star images comes naturally from a high haze over the sky this morning. It bloats the images of Venus and Jupiter so they almost merge.  The stars are partly reflected in the waters, with rising mist in the distance on the lake. Distant Whistler peak below Orion is lit by lights from the Jasper Townsite. The site is the shore of Lake Annette near the Jasper Park Lodge and site of the annual star party held as part of the Jasper Dark Sky Festival. I shot this scene the morning after the 2015 Festival. This is a panorama of 8 segments, shot with the 24mm lens mounted vertically (portrait), each for 25 seconds at f/2.8 with the Canon 6D at ISO 3200. Stitched with Photoshop, with some vertical scaling to reduce the distortion introduced by the pan mapping process.

I shot from the shores of Lake Annette, site of one of the major events, the Friday star party, at the annual Jasper Dark Sky Festival which just concluded, in Jasper National Park, Alberta. The Festival celebrates the Park’s status as one of the world’s largest Dark Sky Preserves.

The hotels and restaurants were full with stargazers from around the world, making the Festival a huge success, both educationally and financially. I was honoured to be able to present some of the public and school talks.

But this dawn sky was a fine way to end a fabulous weekend of astronomy.

The image above is a panorama in the twilight, sweeping from the planets in the east, to the winter stars and constellations, including iconic Orion, in the south and southwest.

A panorama of roughly 180° showing a star- and planet-filled sky in the pre-dawn hours over Lake Annette in Jasper National Park, Alberta, on the morning of October 25, 2015.  At left, to the east, are the two bright planets, Venus (brightest) and Jupiter in a close conjunction 1° apart (and here almost merging into one glow), plus reddish Mars below them, all in Leo, with the bright star Regulus above them. At centre, to the south, is Orion and Canis Major, with the bright star Sirius low in the south. At upper right are the stars of Taurus, including Aldebaran and the Pleiades star cluster. Venus was near greatest elongation on this morning.  The Milky Way runs vertically at centre, between Sirius and Procyon, the bright star above centre. The faint glow of morning Zodiacal Light rises in a diagonal band at left in the east through the planets and stars of Leo and into Cancer and the Beehive Cluster at top left.  No special filter was employed here — the hazy planets and stars and colourful star images comes naturally from a high haze over the sky this morning. It bloats the images of Venus and Jupiter so they almost merge.  The stars are partly reflected in the waters with wind distorting some of the reflections. Some green airglow appears in the south as well. Distant Whistler peak below Orion is lit by lights from the Jasper Townsite. The site is the shore of Lake Annette near the Jasper Park Lodge and site to the annual star party held as part of the Jasper Dark Sky Festival. I shot this scene the morning after the 2015 Festival. This is a panorama of 12 segments, shot with the 24mm lens mounted vertically (portrait), each for 30 seconds at f/2.8 with the Canon 6D at ISO 3200. Stitched with Photoshop, with some vertical scaling to reduce the distortion introduced by the pan mapping process.

Earlier in the morning, before twilight began to brighten the sky, I shot another even wider panorama from the south shore of the lake.

In this and other photos, high haze adds the glows around the stars and planets naturally. No special effects filters here!

But Venus and Jupiter are so close and bright their images almost merge into one glow.

Brilliant Venus, in conjunction with dimmer Jupiter above, and with even dimmer Mars below, at left here, on the morning of October 25, 2015 when Venus and Jupiter were only 1° apart.  I shot this from Lake Annette in Jasper National Park before the sky started to brighten with dawn twilight. High haze in the sky adds the glows around the stars and planets, in particular the colored halo around Venus. The mountain is the Watchtower. The site is used as the main star party location for the annual Jasper Dark Sky Festival. This is a 30-second exposure at f/2.8 with the 35mm lens and as ISO 1600 with the Canon 6D.

Here they are, with Mars below, shining in the dark sky over the Watchtower peak and over the misty waters of Lake Annette.

Keep an eye on the sky at dawn, as these three worlds will be close to each other for the next few mornings. See my earlier blog for details.

— Alan, October 25, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Under an Endless Open Sky


Circumpolar star trails at dawn over the historic Butala homestead at the Old Man on His Back Prairie and Heritage Conservation Area in southwest Saskatchewan, taken May 2015. This is a stack of 70 frames from a larger time-lapse sequence, from the end of the sequence in the dawn twilight. Each exposure is 40 seconds with the 14mm lens at f/2.8 and Canon 60Da at ISO 1600. Stacked with Advanced Stacker Actions. The foreground comes from a stack of 8 of the final exposures, mean combined, to smooth noise.

The skies were spectacular at a pioneer homestead on the Saskatchewan prairie.

Canada’a province of Saskatchewan bills itself as the “Land of Living Skies,” and that was certainly true last week when I spent three perfect nights under some of the darkest skies in the country.

The location was the Old Man on His Back Prairie & Heritage Conservation Area, deep in dry southwest Saskatchewan, between Grasslands National Park and Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, two favourite places of mine for nightscape photography and astronomy.

The Conservation Area reclaims and preserves original short grass prairie habitat. It is named for the formation to the west that is said to resemble the profile of Napi, the creator being of Siksika legends, who after creating the world, lay back here to rest.

The land was once a working ranch first settled by the Butala family. The white pioneer house in my photos dates from that time. It was built in Montana and moved here in the 1920s.

The waxing crescent Moon and Venus (above) over the old farm house at the Visitor Centre at the Old Man on His Back Natural and Historical Conservation Area in southwest Saskatchewan, May 20, 2015, on a very clear night. The old house was the original house lived in by the Butala family who settled the area in the 1920s. This is a single exposure taken as part of an 850-frame time-lapse sequence with the 14mm Rokinon lens and Canon 60Da camera.

In the mid-1990s Peter and Sharon Butala transferred their land to the Nature Conservancy of Canada, to create an island of original prairie amid the heavily grazed land around it.

A 360° panorama of the night sky and prairie landscape from the Visitor Centre and farmyard at the Old Man on His Back Prairie & Heritage Conservation Area in southwest Saskatchewan. The Milky Way arches across the eastern sky from north to south, while an aurora display (faint to the naked eye) glows in an arch of green and magenta across the northern horizon. The pioneer house was built in the 1920s and this was a working ranch until the 1990s when the land was turned over to the Nature Conservancy of Canada to turn into a natural area to preserve the short grass prairie habitat.  This a stitch of 8 segments, each a 1 minute untracked exposure at f/3.5 with the 15mm lens and ISO 4000 with the Canon 6D. Stitched with PTGui software. I shot these May 18, 2015.

For astronomers, the Area serves also as an island of darkness amid intruding light pollution. The region is very dark, with few lights and manmade sky-glows on the horizon.

My 360° panorama above shows that the greatest glows come from the arc of the aurora to the north and the arch of the Milky Way stretching across the sky. This is a stargazer’s paradise.

My 2-minute compilation of time-lapse videos and still images taken over three crystal clear nights attempts to capture the wonder of the night sky from such a dark site. Be sure to enlarge the video to full screen to view it.

It was in the little white house that Sharon Butala wrote some of her best-selling books retelling stories of her life on the prairie, notably The Perfection of the Morning, and Wild Stone Heart.

In the latter book, Sharon writes:

“At night the Milky Way glittered and gleamed above us, fathomlessly deep and numberless, the constellations wheeled slowly across the sky with the seasons, and the moon came and went, sometimes white as a maiden’s face, sometimes a looming orange sphere … under such an endless, open sky.”

– Sharon Butala, Wild Stone Heart (Harper Collins, 2000)

– Alan, May 25, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Ancient Solar Observatory at Fajada Butte


Sun over Fajada Butte at Chaco Canyon

Sunlight and shadows at Fajada Butte served to mark the seasons a thousand years ago.

In the distance is Fajada Butte at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. It is one of the most famous sites in archaeoastronomy. A thousand years ago, people of the Chaco Culture used it to observe the Sun.

Fajada Butte at Chaco Canyon

At a site now off limits to preserve its integrity, a set of three rocks cast shadows and daggers of sunlight onto a carved spiral petroglyph.

Fajada Butte Sign At Chaco Canyon

People used the position of the projected beams of light as a calendar to mark time through the year. In truth, simply watching the changing position of the rising and setting Sun along the horizon, which was also done here at Chaco Canyon, would have worked just as well.

Fajada Butte Viewpoint at Chaco Canyon

I visited the site today, as part of a trek north through New Mexico, Arizona and into Utah. Chaco Canyon is one of the preeminent sites for archaeoastronomy, demonstrating how well people a thousand years ago (the site was occupied from the mid 800s to the mid 1100s) observed the sky.

For example, a half-day hike takes you to a famous pictograph on a rock face showing a bright star near the crescent Moon, a drawing some have interpreted as being an observation of the supernova of 1054 AD.

Grand Kiva at Chetro Ketl, Chaco Canyon

In its height, thousands of people lived in the pueblos at Chaco Canyon and surrounding area. This is the Great Kiva at the Chetro Ketl pueblo. Wood columns used to hold a wood roof over this structure to make a space for ceremony and ritual.

Iridescent Clouds at Chaco Canyon

I did a little solar observing myself while there. While walking through the maze of rooms at Pueblo Bonito I looked up to see iridescent clouds near the Sun, created by diffraction of sunlight from fine ice crystals.

Public Observatory at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico

In keeping with the site’s astronomical heritage, the Visitor Centre at the Chaco Culture Historical Park has a well-equipped observatory with several top-class telescopes (a 25-inch Obsession Dobsonian among them) and an outdoor theatre for regular stargazing sessions each weekend. This is a world-class Dark Sky Preserve and a World Heritage Site.

– Alan, April 2, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer  / www.amazingsky.com

Celebrating Dark Skies in Jasper, Alberta


Milky Way over Lake Annette

This weekend Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada celebrates the night sky at its annual Dark Sky Festival.

Last night was wonderful. Skies cleared at Lake Annette for a star party with 1000 people in attendance. The event was a core program of a week-long Festival celebrating Jasper National Park’s status as a Dark Sky Preserve.

The top photo shows what we’re celebrating – the stars and Milky Way reflected in the still waters of Lake Annette. What you don’t see in that image are the hundreds of people behind me enjoying the star party.

Lake Annette Star Party #1

I’m one of the featured guest speakers, though last night my role at the star party was to assist at informal tutorials to help people take their own night sky images. And lots of people showed up with cameras and tripods and got great shots.

While I was not able to make the rounds of all the activities, elsewhere at Lake Annette (just follow the coloured rope lights!) there were talks, First Nations performances and storytelling, laser tours of the sky, activities for kids, and lots of telescopes to look through. Everyone got to see amazing sights in the sky.

Shuttle buses from town came and went through the night, to avoid a parking lot jam. The Festival is a huge hit, with hotels in town filled – there isn’t a room available.

The event went very well, at what was perhaps Canada’s largest public star party ever held under dark skies.

– Alan, October 25, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

The Partial Solar Eclipse from Jasper, Alberta


Partial Solar Eclipse in Cloud #1 (Oct 23, 2014)

A successful solar eclipse! Always a great thing to celebrate!

Today, several hundred people, including students from the nearby elementary and high schools, enjoyed views of the Moon eclipsing the Sun from Jasper, Alberta. The eclipse event in Centennial Park was part of the Park’s annual Dark Sky Festival, held to celebrate the National Park’s status as a Dark Sky Preserve.

The photo above is a long 1/25 second exposure, though still taken through a solar filter, of the eclipsed Sun dimmed by clouds. The longer exposure enabled me to pick up the clouds and iridescent colours around the Sun.

The photo below is a single exposure capturing the viewing through the many telescopes supplied by volunteers from the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (Edmonton and Regina Centres), as well as capturing the crescent Sun, seen here though a handheld solar filter.

Partial Solar Eclipse Wide-Angle (Oct 23, 2014)

Clouds came and went over the afternoon, but when they needed to be gone, clouds cleared off around the Sun for great views of the Moon hiding then revealing the giant sunspot that was the highlight of this eclipse.

The image below, which I shot through a small telescope at 1/8000th second through a filter, shows the big spot group about to be hidden by the advancing limb of the Moon.

Partial Solar Eclipse & Sunspot #1 (Oct 23, 2014)

This event was our last solar eclipse visible from most of Canada until the long-awaited “Great American Eclipse” of August 21, 2017, when the lunar umbral shadow will sweep across the United States, bringing a total eclipse to the U.S. and a substantial partial eclipse to Canada.

– Alan, October 23, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

Pre-Eclipse Day in Jasper


Sunbeams over Athabasca Pass

It’s the day before the eclipse, and the skies are not clear!

On Thursday, October 23 the Moon covers the Sun in a substantial partial eclipse. I’m in Jasper National Park, participating in the Park’s annual Dark Sky Festival.

One of the events is a public viewing session of the solar eclipse. Let’s hope for some clearing skies and breaks in the clouds, so we can see 66% of the Sun eaten by the Moon!

I shot this image at eclipse time the day before – today! – from a viewpoint looking west toward the Sun on the Icefields Parkway south of Jasper townsite.

David Thompson Sign at Athabasca Pass Overlook

The Sun is trying to break through and is casting its beams down onto the famed Athabasca Pass, the route over the mountains pioneered by David Thompson in the early 1800s when his preferred route over Howse Pass to the south was blocked by the Pikanii who objected to Thompson trading with their enemies over the Rockies.

I show the area of Howse Pass in this previous big post from earlier this summer

Thompson was one of the first astronomers in western Canada, using the Sun, Moon, Jupiter and stars to navigate his way and map the country. The lower sign explains. Click on the image for a larger view.

The Dark Sky Festival continues the tradition of stargazing in Jasper, a science Thompson depended upon in his travels.

– Alan, October 22, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer