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

Red Rock Canyon by Starlight


Red Rock Canyon by Starlight

The Milky Way illuminates the trail at Red Rock Canyon, in Waterton Lakes National Park.

Last Sunday night was incredibly clear. I trekked around Waterton Lakes National Park, taking panoramas at various sites. This is Red Rock Canyon, a popular spot by day.

By night it is one of the darkest accessible places in the Park. Here the landscape is lit only by the light of the stars and Milky Way.

This is a composite of two exposures, both on a tripod with no tracking of the sky motion:

– one exposure was 60 seconds for the sky to minimize star trailing.

– the other exposure, taken immediately following, was 3 minutes for the ground, to bring out detail in the dark, starlit landscape.

I blended the two exposures in Photoshop, creating a single image with the best of both worlds, earth and sky.

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

 

Cameron Lake Lit by Starlight


Milky Way Panorama at Cameron Lake (Equirectangular)

The Milky Way spans the sky and reflects in the calm waters of Cameron Lake, in Waterton Lakes National Park.

This week I’m spending a few nights, at dark-of-the-Moon, back at Waterton Lakes, at a stunning time of year. The aspens are golden, the sky is blue, and the nights are even warm.

Though it is officially autumn, the weather is better now than we had it some weeks in summer. Plus, the Park is now quiet as businesses wind down, preparing to close up for the winter.

I’m shooting night sky panoramas in Waterton, with Cameron Lake one of the wonderful sites I visited last night in a whirlwind tour around the Park to take advantage of a stunningly clear night.

In summer, Cameron Lake is home to docks for canoes and paddle boats. But all are gone now. By winter this lake is home to huge snowfalls, as its location in extreme southwestern Alberta catches the full onslaught of moist Pacific air.

But now, with the early onset of darkness and fine weather, the lake and the Park are superb places for nightscape photography.

I shot this Sunday night, September 21. This is a stitch of 8 segments, each shot with a 15mm lens at f/2.8 for 1 minute at ISO 4000 with the Canon 6D. I used PTGui to stitch the panorama.

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

 

Milky Way Over the Icefields


Milky Way Over the Icefields

The Milky Way towers over the moonlit peaks around the Columbia Icefields

Last Sunday was a productive night, resulting in several 5 Star images in my catalog!

This is another, shot shortly after the Galaxy and Glacier image. In that image the sky was still dark. In this image the sky is beginning to light up with moonlight from the rising waxing Moon.

The peaks are being lit by the Moon, though the valley below is still in moonshadow.

What light there is on the foreground moraines is from starlight, and from the unfortunate wash from unshielded sodium vapour lights on the Icefields Centre. They proudly claim their lights are dark-sky friendly. They aren’t! This is proof.

The top image is a stack of tracked (for the sky) and untracked (for the ground) exposures to create a deep, rich Milky Way over a sharp landscape.

The image is helped by being shot with a filter-modified camera that records the red nebulas along the Milky Way better than stock cameras. That’s why the North America Nebula at top in Cygnus really pops!

Icefields at Moonrise Panorama

This 360° panorama image is a stitch of 8 segments at 45° spacings, each untracked, shot in rapid succession with the same 15mm ultra-wide lens I used for the main image, again oriented portrait, with the frames stitched in PTGui.

I shot it on the road, literally, that leads down to the toe of Athabasca Glacier.

I took the pan just after the image at top, so the peaks are lit more and the sky is bluer with moonlight. The Moon itself is still behind the mountains to the left (east) about to clear the ridge moments after I finished this pan. It was a busy night of getting shots timed right!

But waning Moon nights are superb for nightscape imaging as they provide both dark and moonlit skies but without the immense light of a Full Moon that tends to wash out the sky too much. Waning Moon nights are great for shooting landscape features to the west, as they get lit by the rising Moon after midnight.

P.S.: A tip – hit “Tips and Techniques” under Category at left for more blogs with tips and techniques!

– Alan, September 19, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Galaxy and Glacier


Milky Way over Athabasca Glacier

The centre of the Milky Way Galaxy sets behind the Athabasca Glacier and Columbia Icefields. 

This was one of the clearest nights I have ever seen at the Icefields. Unlike most nights, last night not a whiff of high cirrus was wafting off the great sheets of ice in Jasper National Park, leaving the sky pristine for the Milky Way to shine over the glaciers.

I shot this image Sunday night, September 14, from the approach road down to the tongue of the Athabasca Glacier. At this time of year, the Milky Way sets directly behind the glacier in the early evening. The angles were perfect.

At left is the glacier-clad peak of Mt. Andromeda, indeed named for the constellation and mythological princess. It is lit just by starlight. The waning Moon didn’t rise until 11:30 p.m., leaving me a couple of hours of dark sky to shoot these and other images.

To record the scene I shot and composited two versions of the image:

– one from a stack of four tracked images where the camera followed the stars on a small mount (the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer) in order to build up the image and, admittedly, record far more detail and colour than your eye could ever see in the Milky Way.

– the sharp landscape comes from another stack of four images where I turned the tracking drive off so the ground wouldn’t blur. Stacking them helps reduce noise.

I composited the two sets of images, masking the sky from the untracked images and the ground from the tracked images. Perhaps that’s all a bit of trickery but the scene is real – the Milky Way really was there behind Athabasca Glacier.

Each sky exposure was 3 minutes, each ground exposure 4 minutes, all with the 24mm lens at f/2.5 and the Canon 6D at ISO 1250.

– Alan, September 15, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Pyramid Island Sky Panorama


Panorama from Pyramid Island Boardwalk, Jasper Park

The sky presents a panoramic show from Pyramid Island in Jasper National Park.

What a wonderful place to watch the stars. Last night I walked out to Pyramid Island in Jasper, via the historic boardwalk built in the 1930s. The site provides a panorama view around the lake and sky.

To the left is the “mainland.” Just left of centre the waxing gibbous Moon is setting over Pyramid Lake.

To the right of centre, the boardwalk leads out the small island, with Pyramid Mountain behind it.

To the right of the frame, a faint aurora glows to the northeast over the still waters of the lake.

This is a 360° panorama shot with the 15mm full-frame fish-eye lens in portrait orientation, with the segments stitched with PTGui software.

Big Dipper over Pyramid Mountain from Pyramid Island

After shooting some panoramas I walked to the end of the island and shot this view looking north and northwest to Pyramid Mountain. The Big Dipper is to the right of the peak, and the aurora lights up the northern horizon at right.

As I shot these images, the night was absolutely quiet. Until the wolves began to howl at the north end of the lake, in mournful howls that echoed across the waters.

It was one of the most spine-chilling moments I’ve experienced in many years of shooting landscapes at night.

– Alan, September 5, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

 

Big Dipper over Pyramid Mountain


Big Dipper over Pyramid Mountain

The Big Dipper shines through clouds over Pyramid Mountain in Jasper National Park.

This week I am in Jasper National Park for a shoot of moonlit nightscapes, weather permitting.

It barely permitted last night, as clouds cleared briefly to the north. I visited a favourite spot on the shore of Patricia Lake, with Pyramid Mountain as a backdrop to the north.

The sky was still lit by the setting Moon, and by some faint aurora. The landscape is lit by starlight.

With luck I’ll get more images of Jasper by night this week, in one of Canada’s largest Dark Sky Preserves.

– Alan, September 2, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Mars, Saturn and the Milky Way in Twilight


Mars, Saturn & Milky Way over Ranch Corral

Mars and Saturn meet in conjunction beside the Milky Way.

As it was getting dark two nights ago, I shot this view of Mars and Saturn (the “double star” at right, with Mars below Saturn) paired together now in the evening twilight. The location was Grasslands National Park, on the Park’s main loop tour road.

At the centre of the image is Scorpius and its bright star Antares, just behind the gate of the old corral.

At left are the star clouds of the Milky Way and the galactic core. Just above the horizon are the naked-eye star clusters Messier 6 and Messier 7, the most southerly of the popular Messier objects.

The sky is blue from the last of the twilight glow.

The image is a composite of two exposures, both 1 minute but one tracking the sky and one with the drive turned off to provide the sharper foreground.

– Alan, August 29, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Starlight at the Old Corral


Milky Way over the 76 Ranch Corral

The Milky Way shines behind the rustic corral of the 76 Ranch in Grasslands National Park.

It’s not a gunfight at the OK Corral, but starlight at the 76 Ranch Corral. I shot this Tuesday night in the Frenchman River valley in Saskatchewan’s Grasslands National Park. 

The scene captures the summer Milky Way, some green bands of airglow, and the old corral lit by starlight and some aurora beginning to brighten to the north.

Some occasional flashes of distant spotlights from down the valley also provide foreground illumination. The lights came from ferret spotters out at night checking on the nocturnal black-footed ferret. 

The corral once belonged to the 76 Ranch, one of the largest in Canada in its day and owned by Sir John Lister-Kaye, one of many upper class Brits who came to Canada in the 1880s to make their fortune in the newly opened range lands — until drought and hard winters of the southern Prairies forced them to sell out and break up their once huge land holdings. 

This image is a composite, but of five frames all shot at the same place in quick succession. I did not fake the sky into a foreground shot at some other time and place.

Four shots are tracked, to follow the sky for pinpoint stars. I used the new Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer tracker.

For one shot at the end of the sequence I turned the tracker’s drive off to take a single sharp image of the foreground.

Using masking in Photoshop I removed the blurry foreground from the sky images and the blurry trailed sky from the ground image.

Each was a 3-minute exposure at ISO 1600 with the 24mm lens at f/2.5.

 

Standing Under the Stars at Grasslands Park


Standing Under the Stars at Grasslands Park

Grasslands National Park is one of the finest places in Canada to revel in the dark night sky.

This was the scene last night, in far south Saskatchewan, under clear and super dark night skies, at long last after a week of rain, wind and wintery cold.

I’m at Grasslands National Park south of Val Marie, Saskatchewan, to shoot night sky panoramas in what must rank as Canada’s darkest Dark Sky Preserve.

The park itself is new, created only a decade and half ago. It preserves original prairie grasses and is home to unique and rare species. Bison roam here, allowing you to travel back to pre-European times as you gaze out onto a landscape much as it was for thousands of years.

But look up at night and you can gaze at a sky as it was seen for thousands of years, mostly unblemished by the artificial glows of light pollution. Grasslands National Park is a “dark sky preserve,” allowing visitors to see the stars and Milky Way as they should be seen.

I shot this 360° panorama from the Eagle Butte Loop Trail just inside the boundary of the Park. The main hill is 70 Mile Butte, a landmark to the early NorthWest Mounted Police as it lay 70 miles from their posts at Wood Mountain to the east and Eastend to the west.

This view looks out across the farmland to the west and a handful of yard lights. But little else spoils the view around the rest of the horizon. The last vestiges of evening twilight provide a backdrop for the lone silhouette.

The Milky Way arches overhead, and some bands of green airglow, a natural night sky phenomenon, stretch from east to west. The centre of the Milky Way Galaxy lies to the far right, with its glowing clouds of stars.

– Alan, August 26, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

Milky Way Over Moraine Lake


Milky Way over Moraine Lake (Aug 25, 2013)

The summer Milky Way shines from behind clouds coming over the Continental Divide at Moraine Lake, Banff.

Earlier in the day, thousands of people stood here, admiring the famous view of Moraine Lake set in the Valley of Ten Peaks. This was the view by night, before the waning Moon rose to light the scene. I was the only one there.

A couple of hours after I took this image, the peaks were well lit by moonlight, but clouds had moved in to obscure the stars. This shot from the start of the night shows the sky at its clearest and darkest.

The last time I visited Moraine Lake at night was back in the 1990s shooting with 6×7 film. I’ve wanted to get back with digital cameras for some years. Last Sunday, August 25 was my chance.

Despite the encroaching clouds, I managed to shoot time-lapses with three cameras: a dolly shot with the Dynamic Perception Stage Zero, a pan in azimuth with the new Radian controller, and a tilt-pan with the Sky-Watcher AllView mount. All worked well, but had the night been perfectly clear the movie clips and stills would have been all the nicer. But you go with what the mountains deliver.

This is one of the best of the frames from the night’s shoot, taken with a 14mm Rokinon lens for 60 seconds at f/2.8 and Canon 5D MkII at ISO 4000.

It shows one of the issues with shooting near lodges and resorts – yes, it’s convenient and safe (I’m reluctant to hike far in the dark alone, with Grizzly in Area and Travel in Groups signs about!) but even the most eco-friendly of resorts fail to realize the effects of their lights spilling out over the natural landscape. In this case, they do help light the dark scene, but they are pollution. When, oh when, will parks and resort operators begin to realize that the night is an environment to be protected as well, and not a jurisdiction to be ruled by lawyers and planners who dictate that the worst and usually cheapest types of lighting be installed.

P.S.: This was blog post #350 for me! 

– Alan, August 27, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Milky Way Over Calm Water


This is a scene I’ve been after for some time – the Milky Way and stars reflected in calm water.

In Friday night I was at a small lake, a pond really, at the south end of the Icefields Parkway in Banff. Herbert Lake is small enough it is usually calm and reflective. Friday night was as clear and calm as you could hope for. This image is from the beginning of the night with some blue twilight still illuminating the sky, but no moonlight. The waning Moon did not rise until 11:30 pm. I shot this prior to starting a 3-hour time-lapse from the same position on the lakeshore.

The scene is looking south toward glacier-clad Mount Temple and Mount Fairview near Lake Louise.

This is a single exposure with the Canon 5D MkII and 16-35mm lens.

– Alan, September 9, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

Star Gazing


Happiness is a big telescope under a dark sky.

This is Regina astronomer Vance Petriew, gazing skyward at the Milky Way in Cassiopeia. Vance is the discoverer of Comet 185/P, aka Comet Petriew. This year, his comet returned to the August sky as a faint glow in Gemini, close to where it was when Vance found it exactly 11 years to the day before this image was taken, and at the very same spot in the campsite at Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park in Saskatchewan.

We all revelled in the Saskatchewan comet’s return, staying up till 4 am to see it through Vance’s 20-inch telescope, a reflector made by the small company called Obsession. (When you have an Obsession, you are a serious observer!) Enjoying the view early that morning before dawn were  Vance’s three daughters, only one of whom was around 11 years ago and then as a baby. But this year even the four-year-old was able to see Dad’s comet up close.

At the afternoon talks Vance recounted the story of how the comet’s discovery changed his life, and led to immense changes at the Park. As a result of the media and political attention the comet brought, the Park has become a Dark Sky Preserve, one of the first in Canada, leading a nationwide movement, while astronomy programming is now an integral part of the Park’s interpretive programs, as it is becoming at other provincial and national parks. There is now a permanent public observatory and lecture hall nearby in Cypress Hills, just a short walk away from where the comet was found.

Comets can have quite an impact!

— Alan, August 24, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

Star Party Panorama


This image depicts a 360° panorama of the field and sky at the Saskatchewan Summer Star Party.

This was my first time shooting a nighttime panorama but it was easy. Just 12 exposures taken at 30° intervals panning around on a levelled tripod, in classic planetarium panorama style. Each exposure was 30 seconds at f/2 and ISO 3200 with the Canon 5D MkII and 24mm lens. It helps to have a high-quality fast lens.

North is at centre, south on either end.

The sky contains some interesting and subtle features that show up well in a wide-angle panorama like this:

– The bright summer Milky Way is setting at left in the southwest while the fainter winter half of the Milky Way is rising opposite, at right in the northeast.

– Jupiter and the Pleiades rise at right just off the Milky Way

– A meteor streaks over the trees at centre

– At centre, to the north, glows a faint yellow and magenta aurora

– The larger green glow left of centre is, I suspect, airglow rather than aurora. It has a striated structure, particularly at right of centre above the trees where it appears as subtle green and red bands arching across the northeast.

The sky this night was dark but did have a brighter than usual background, likely due to the presence of this faint airglow that the camera picks up better than the eye.

Even so, I can see another faint glow:

– A whitish band coming up from the northeast passing through Jupiter and below the Pleaides. That’s the Zodiacal Band, an extension of the brighter Zodiacal Light and caused by sunlight reflecting off cometary dust in the ecliptic plane.

The location of the panorama and star party was the Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park in southwest Saskatchewan, one of the darkest places in southern Canada.

— Alan, August 20, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

Party Under the Stars


For astronomers this is party central – under the starclouds of the summer Milky Way.

Over the past weekend, August 16-18, I attended the annual Saskatchewan Summer Star Party, held in the Cypress Hills of southwestern Saskatchewan. Skies could not have been better.

This was the scene Friday night, with telescopes under the Milky Way. About 350 people attended, and nearly as many telescopes it seemed! This is one small section of the observing and camping field.

Cypress Hill Park has been declared a Dark Sky Preserve, in recognition of the Park’s role in preserving and presenting the dark skies that are as much a part of our natural world as are the flora and fauna of the Earth. Every year astronomers converge on the Hills to revel in their pristine skies … and party – quietly! – under the Milky Way. Wandering the field you could overhear “Hey, look at this!”, “Wow!”, “O-o-o-h!”, “I found the __ nebula!” and many more exclamations of joy and wonderment.

My image is a composite of a single untracked exposure for the sharp foreground and a stack of 5 tracked exposures for the sky and Milky Way. All were 2 minute exposures, taken moments apart. Boosting the contrast makes the Milky Way stand out with far more detail and colour than the eye can see. Nevertheless, the Milky Way was a grand sight and the main attraction over the Cypress Hills this past weekend.

– Alan, August 19, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

The Big Dipper Over Pyramid Mountain


 

Pyramid Mountain is Jasper’s iconic peak dominating the skyline of the mountain town in Alberta. The mountain and its foreground lakes are ideally placed for nightscapes of the northern sky.

I took this shot Saturday night, July 28, from the shore of Patricia Lake, one of several that dot the benchlands south of Pyramid Mountain. Small lakes like Patricia have the benefit of often being calm and reflective. Here the stars of the Big Dipper and Ursa Major swing over top of Pyramid Mountain, in the blue moonlit sky. A few well-placed clouds add a welcome perspective. This is one frame of 150 or so in a time-lapse sequence, and that will eventually become a star trail composite as well. But this single frame stands well all on its own.

The last time I was here shooting this same scene I was using Ektachrome and Fujichrome film (each had its unique characteristics, though just what I can’t recall!). That was more than a decade ago. This digital shot with the Canon 7D looks far better than what I got back then.

— Alan, July 30, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

Athabasca Falls by Night


Athabasca Falls is one of the most popular and photographed attractions in Jasper National Park – by day. But by night, the falls on the Athabasca River are deserted.

In the distance, the stars rise behind Mount Kerkeslin. In the foreground, the river plunges into a deep gorge. These waters, with headwaters at the Columbia Glacier in the Icefields to the south, eventually make their way north to the Arctic Ocean.

I was at the Falls last Friday night, to shoot them by moonlight and under the stars. But in this case, I provided added foreground illumination from a flashlight.

As I took this and other shots, flashes of lightning from nearby thunderstorms occasionally lit the night. I had a couple of hours of clear skies before clouds moved in for the night, enough time to get frames for a time-lapse movie and some still frames like this one.

— Alan, July 30, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

Athabasca Moon


I’ve spent the last couple of night in Jasper National Park, home to the world’s largest Dark Sky Preserve, dedicated to maintaining the darkness of the natural night sky.

This is a scene from Friday night, taken well before darkness, as the waxing Moon shone in the twilight above the Athabasca River and the peaks of the continental divide. For many years in the early 19th century fur traders plied these waters. Now rafters do.

Jasper is far enough north of me that I don’t get there very often. I’ve been spending most of my mountain time in Banff. I realize it’s been a decade or more since I’ve driven all the way up the Icefields Parkway to visit Jasper. But I was happy to be back. It has some great sites for nightscape photography.

I got two clear nights this past weekend, so a few more shots will hit the blog in the next few days.

— Alan, July 29, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer