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 

 

Banff by Night


Milky Way Reflections at Bow Lake

Three perfect nights in July provided opportunities to capture the night sky at popular sites in Banff National Park.

When the weather forecast in mid-July looked so promising I made an impromptu trip to Banff to shoot nightscapes and time-lapses under unusually clear skies. Clouds are often the norm in the mountains or, increasingly these days, forest fire smoke in late summer.

But from July 15 to 17 the skies could not have been clearer, except for the clouds that rolled in late on my last night, when I was happy to pack up and get some sleep.

Conjunction over the Continental Divide with Train

My first priority was to shoot the marvellous close conjunction of the Moon and Venus on July 15. I did so from the Storm Mountain viewpoint on the Bow Valley Parkway, with a cooperative train also coming through the scene at the right time.

The Milky Way and Mars over Storm Mountain

This was the view later with the Milky Way and Mars over Bow Valley and Storm Mountain.

Bow Lake by Night Panorama

The next night, July 16, was one of the most perfect I had ever seen in the Rockies. Crystal clear skies, calm winds, and great lake reflections made for a picture-perfect night at Bow Lake on the Icefields Parkway. Above is a 360° panorama shot toward the end of the night when the galactic centre of the Milky Way was over Bow Glacier.

Streaks of green airglow arc across the south, while to the north the sky is purple from a faint display of aurora.

Earlier that night the usual auroral arc known as Steve put in an unexpected appearance. It was just a grey band to the eye, but the camera picked up Steve’s usual pink colours. Another photographer from the U.S. who showed up had no idea there was an aurora happening until I pointed it out.

Mars and the Milky Way at Herbert Lake

My last night was at Herbert Lake, a small pond great for capturing reflections of the mountains around Lake Louise, and the Milky Way. Here, brilliant Mars, so photogenic this summer, also reflects in the still waters.

At each site I shot time-lapses, and used those frames to have some fun with star trail stacking, showing the stars turning from east to west and reflected in the lake waters, and with a single still image taken at the end of the sequence layered in to show the untrailed sky and Milky Way.

But I also turned those frames into time-lapse movies, and incorporated them into a new music video, along with some favourite older clips reprocessed for this new video.

Banff by Night (4K) from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.

Enjoy! And do enlarge to full screen. The video is also in 4K resolution.

Clear skies!

— Alan, August 2, 2018 / © 2018 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com

 

Honoured with a Stamp


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One of my aurora images now appears on a new stamp issued by Canada Post to mark the 150th Anniversary of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. 

It is always a treat to see one of your images in print, but this is a rare privilege indeed. On June 29 Canada Post unveiled a new set of astronomy stamps, one of which features an aurora image from me, shot March 14, 2016 from the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, in Churchill, Manitoba. I shot it from the second floor observing deck, looking east to the rising sky.

The other stamp features a Milky Way image shot by fellow RASC member Matt Quinn taken from the Bruce Peninsula, Ontario.

If you view the stamps under UV “black light” more image information is revealed!

The stamps were issued to mark the 150th Anniversary of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, which began as an exclusive “gentlemen’s club” in Toronto in 1868. It is much more inclusive today, as it should be, with a membership of 5500 people from across Canada.

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The stamps were unveiled at a ceremony at the RASC’s annual General Assembly, this year held in Calgary where I live. Representatives from Canada Post, and of course the RASC executive were in attendance.

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This shows (L to R): me, David Foote (author, eclipse chaser, and member of the Stamp Advisory Committee), Chris Gainor (incoming RASC President), and Colin Haig (outgoing RASC President) at the unveiling. Matt Quinn was not able to attend. All those present (including members of the local Philatelic Society) received first day covers which David and I autographed.

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This was certainly a great honour, a once-a-lifetime event I’m sure. I am grateful to the RASC officials such as Randy Attwood who lobbied for the stamp issue, a process that began three years ago.

I was first contacted by Canada Post in October 2016 though the final image was not selected until October 2017. Since then, its use was to be kept secret until the “Big Reveal” unveiling at the General Assembly. For the most part, it was!

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This is a shot I took of some of my fellow RASC members and friends from across Canada enjoying me taking a picture of them at the ceremony at the University of Calgary.

Many thanks! And now mail some letters!

— Alan, July 2, 2018 / © 2018 Alan Dyer / amazingsky.com 

 

Winter Stars over the Badlands


Orion Rising Star Trails at Dinosaur Park

The clouds cleared to present a magical night under the Moon in the Badlands of southern Alberta.

At last, a break in the incessant clouds of November, to provide me with a fine night of photography at one of my favourite places, Dinosaur Provincial Park, declared a U.N. World Heritage Site for its deposits of late Cretaceous fossils.

I go there to shoot the night sky over the iconic hoodoos and bentonite clay hills.

November is a great time to capture the equally iconic constellation of Orion rising in the east in the early evening. The scene is even better if there’s a Moon to light the landscape.

November 27 presented the ideal combination of circumstances: clear skies (at least later at night), and a first quarter Moon to provide enough light without washing out the sky too much and positioned to the south and west away from the target of interest – Orion and the winter sky rising in the east.

Below is a slide show of some of the still images I shot, all with the Canon 6D MkII camera and fine Rokinon 14mm f/2.5 lens, used wide open. Most are 15-second exposures, untracked.

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I kept another camera, the Nikon D750 and Sigma 24mm Art lens, busy all night shooting 1200 frames for a time-lapse of Orion rising, with clouds drifting through, then clearing.

Below is the resulting video, presented in two versions: first with the original but processed frames assembled into a movie, followed by a version where the movie frames show accumulating star trails to provide a better sense of sky motion.

To create the frames for this version I used the Photoshop actions Advanced Stacker Plus, from StarCircleAcademy. They can stack images then export a new set of frames each with the tapering trails, which you then assemble into a movie. I also used it to produce the lead image at top.

The techniques and steps are all outlined in my eBook, highlighted at top right.

The HD movie is just embedded here, and is not published on Vimeo or YouTube. Expand to fill your screen.

To help plan the shoot I used the astronomy software Starry Night, and the photo planning software The Photographer’s Ephemeris, or TPE. With it, you can place yourself at the exact spot to see how the Sun, Moon and stars will appear in sightlines to the horizon.

Here’s the example screen shot. The spheres across the sky represent the Milky Way.

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Look east to see Orion now in the evening sky. Later this winter, Orion will be due south at nightfall.

Clear skies!

— Alan, November 29, 2017 / © 2017 AmazingSky.com

 

A Night at Police Outpost


Milky Way in Twilight at Police Outpost Park

It was a perfect night at a dark site in southern Alberta. The Milky Way shone to the south and aurora danced to the north.

I had scouted out this location in June and marked it on my calendar to return in the fall when the centre of the Milky Way would be well-placed to the southwest.

The site is Police Outpost Provincial Park, named for the North West Mounted Police fort that once occupied the site, guarding Canada’s sovereignty in the late 1800s.

One result from the night of shooting is the opening image, the first frame from a time-lapse taken while deep blue twilight still coloured the sky. The main peak is Chief Mountain in Montana.

Twilight Aurora at Police Outpost
A fairly mild dispay of aurora in the darkening deep blue twilight over the lake at Police Outpost Provincial Park, in southern Alberta, on September 26, 2016, with the stars of Perseus rising, and with Capella low in the northeast at centre. This is a stack of 4 x 20 second exposures for the dark ground and water to smooth noise and one 20-second exposure for the sky, all with the 25mm Canon lens at f/2.8 and Canon 6D at ISO 2000. 

To the north an aurora display kicked up over the lake. While it never got very bright, it still provided a photogenic show over the still waters.

Aurora over Police Outpost Lake
A fairly mild dispay of aurora over the lake at Police Outpost Provincial Park, in southern Alberta, on September 26, 2016, with the stars of Auriga and Taurus rising, including the Pleiades at upper right. The Hyades in Taurus are the most prominent stellar reflections at lower right, in the still water this evening. Capella is the bright star above centre; Aldebaran is at right. This is a stack of 4 x 20 second exposures for the dark ground to smooth noise and one 20-second exposure for the sky and water, all with the 25mm Canon lens at f/2.2 and Canon 6D at ISO 3200. 

The waters were calm on this windless night (rare for southern Alberta), and so reflected the stars and Northern Lights beautifully.

Big Dipper Reflection
The Big Dipper reflected in the still waters of the lake at Police Outpost Provincial Park, in southern Alberta, on September 26, 2016, with an aurora to the north at right. Only in autumn can one shoot the Dipper reflected in the water in the evening sky, as it is then riding low along the northern horizon. This is from a latitude of 49° N where the Dipper is circumpolar. This is a stack of 4 x 25 second exposures for the dark ground to smooth noise and one 25-second exposure for the sky and water, all with the 25mm Canon lens at f/2.2 and Canon 6D at ISO 3200. 

Here, the Big Dipper reflects in the lake as we look north to the Lights. The movie below compiles still images and two time-lapse sequences, of the Lights and Milky Way. The sounds are the natural sounds I recorded on site, as flocks of geese were getting ready to migrate and the owls hooted.

Enjoy! — As always, for the best view, enlarge to full screen or click through to Vimeo with the V button.

— Alan, October 6, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com