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 

 

The Perseids Perform


Radiant of the Perseid Meteor Shower (2016)

It was a great night for shooting meteors as the annual Perseids put on a show.

For the Perseid meteor shower I went to one of the darkest sites in Canada, Grasslands National Park in southern Saskatchewan, a dark sky preserve and home to several rare species requiring dark nights to flourish – similar to astronomers!

This year a boost in activity was predicted and the predictions seemed to hold true. The lead image records 33 meteors in a series of stacked 30-second exposures taken over an hour.

It shows only one area of sky, looking east toward the radiant point in the constellation Perseus – thus the name of the shower.

Extrapolating the count to the whole sky, I think it’s safe to say there would have been 100 or more meteors an hour zipping about, not bad for my latitude of 49° North.

Lone Perseid in the Moonlight
A lone Perseid meteor streaking down below the radiant point in Perseus, with the sky and landscape lit by the waxing gibbous Moon, August 11, 2016. Perseus is rising in the northeast, Andromeda is at right, with the Andromeda Galaxy right of centre. Cassiopeia is at top. Taken from the 70 Mile Butte trailhead in Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan.

The early part of the evening was lit by moonlight, which lent itself to some nice nightscapes scenes but fewer meteors.

Perseid Meteor Shower Looking North (2016)
The 2016 Perseid meteor shower, in a view looking north to the Big Dipper and with the radiant point in Perseus at upper right, the point where the meteors appear to be streaking from. This is a stack of 10 frames, shot over one hour from 1:38 a.m. to 2:37 a.m. CST. The camera was on the Star Adventurer tracker so all the sky frames aligned. The ground is from a stack of four frames, mean combined to smooth noise, and taken with the tracker motor off to minimize ground blurring, and taken at the start of the sequence. All exposures 40 seconds at f/3.2 with the 16-35mm lens and Canon 6D at ISO 6400.

But once the Moon set and the sky darkened the show really began. Competing with the meteors was some dim aurora, but also the brightest display of airglow I have even seen.

It was bright enough to be visible to the eye as grey bands, unusual. Airglow is normally sub-visual.

But the camera revealed the airglow bands as green, red, and yellow, from fluorescing oxygen and sodium atoms. The bands slowly rippled across the sky from south to north.

Airglow is something you can see only from dark sites. It is one of the wonders of the night sky, that can make a dark sky not dark!

TECHNICAL:

Meteor Composite Screen ShotThe lead image is stack of 31 frames containing meteors (two frames had 2 meteors), shot from 1:13 am to 2:08 a.m. CST, so over 55 minutes. The camera was not tracking the sky but was on a fixed tripod. I choose one frame with the best visibility of the airglow as the base layer. For every other meteor layer, I used Free Transform to rotate each frame around a point far off frame at upper left, close to where the celestial pole would be and then nudged each frame to bring the stars into close alignment with the base layer, especially near the meteor being layered in.

This placed each meteor in its correct position in the sky in relation to the stars, essential for showing the effect of the radiant point accurately.

Each layer above the base sky layer is masked to show just the meteor and is blended with Lighten mode. If I had not manually aligned the sky for each frame, the meteors would have ended up positioned where they appeared in relation to the ground but the radiant point would have been smeared — the meteors would have been in the wrong place.

Unfortunately, it’s what I see in a lot of composited meteor shower shots.

It would have been much easier if I had had this camera on a tracker so all frames would have been aligned coming out of the camera. But the other camera was on the tracker! It took the other composite image, the one looking north.

The ground is a mean combined stack of 4 frames to smooth noise in the ground. Each frame is 30 seconds at f/2 with the wonderful Sigma 20mm Art lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 5000. The waxing Moon had set by the time this sequence started, leaving the sky dark and the airglow much more visible.

— Alan, August 13, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / 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

Urban and Rural Moons


The waxing crescent Moon near Venus in the spring evening sky over the skyline of Calgary, Alberta, May 21, 2015. I shot this from Tom Campbell Hill near the Telus Spark science centre. This is a single exposure with the 16-35mm lens and Canon 60Da, shot as part of a 360-frame time-lapse sequence.

The waxing Moon and Venus shine over contrasting landscapes, both urban and rural.

I shot the main image at top last night, May 21, from a site overlooking the urban skyline of Calgary, Alberta. The waxing Moon shines near Venus in the twilight sky.

By contrast I shot the image below the night before, from a location that couldn’t be more different – remote, rural Saskatchewan, on a heritage farmstead first settled in the 1920s by the Butala family. It is now the Old Man on His Back Prairie and Heritage Conservation Area.

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.

Here, the crescent Moon shines a little lower, below Venus, amid the subtle colours of twilight in a crystal clear prairie sky.

However, as the top image demonstrates, you don’t need to travel to remote rural locations to see and photograph beautiful sky sights. Twilight conjunctions of the Moon and bright planets lend themselves to urban nightscapes.

– Alan, May 22, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

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.

 

Milky Way & Aurora Panorama from Grasslands National Park


Grasslands Milky Way Panorama at 76 Corral

The Milky Way and the Northern Lights arch across the sky in the Frenchman River valley of Grasslands National Park.

This 360° panorama takes in two arches of light:

• The Milky Way rising out of the northeast at left and stretching across the sky overhead at top and down into the southwest at right of centre.

• And the Northern Lights, as an arc of green and red across the northern horizon. They got brighter and higher later this night, August 26/27, as my previous post shows.

Bands of green airglow also stretch across the sky from east to west.

I shot this last night from the Frenchman River coulee, a wide valley cut at the end of the Ice Age by glacial run off, and occupied today by the meandering Frenchman River. It winds through the heart of Grasslands National Park and makes its way to the Missouri River to drain into the Gulf of Mexico, one of only a handful of rivers in Canada to do so.

The river and wide pasture land made this a choice place for a ranch. For decades this was home to the 76 Ranch, one of the largest in Canada. At right is its old wood corral, in front of the Milky Way and its “Dark Horse” structure in the dark lanes of the Milky Way. Appropriate I thought.

The only lights visible are from spotlights from researches conducting studies of the nocturnal black-footed ferret. Otherwise, the site was as dark as you’ll find it in southern Canada.

I assembled this panorama using PTGui software, from 8 segments shot with a 14mm lens in portrait orientation, all untracked 80-second exposures at ISO 4000 and f/2.8.

– Alan, August 27, 2o14 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

 

Aurora over Grasslands Park


Aurora over Grasslands National Park #1

The Northern Lights dance over the prairie landscape of Grasslands National Park.

The aurora warnings were out for last night but I hadn’t expected to see much. But about 10:30 pm a faint arc appeared to the northeast. The display brightened about local midnight (Central Standard Time here in Saskatchewan) and became fairly active for a time.

The main arc increased in intensity and moved with fine structure and detail. The eye could see some faint, colourless curtains extending upward but the camera picks them up as red, typical of auroral curtains reaching into the top of the atmosphere.

Aurora over Grasslands National Park #2

I shot these from the Frenchman River valley, a wide coulee formed by glacial rivers and now the heart of the West Block of Grasslands National Park.

It was a beautifully dark site except for flashes of spotlights now and then (not seen in the photos here) from naturalists doing census studies of the nocturnal and endangered black-footed ferret recently re-introduced to the Park. Ironically, their lights spoiled the otherwise pristine and pitch-black night in this dark sky preserve.

– Alan, August 27, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer