The stars come out to shine at Ontario’s dark-sky preserves

At designated sites across the province, visitors can camp out and take in the stars — without light pollution getting in the way
By Claude Sharma - Published on July 9, 2018
the milky way
The Milky Way, as seen from Gordon’s Park on Manitoulin Island. (Gordon’s Park)

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TEHKUMMAH — Wrapped in a soft blanket, Harpreet Whar is shivering. Yet the cool air doesn’t bother her, and neither do the mosquitoes — because she’s truly witnessing the stars for the first time.

The luminous points don’t just appear; they pop and glow. “It’s breathtaking. I can see maybe three stars at the most where I’m from,” says Whar, who’s visiting the dark-sky preserve at Gordon’s Park on Manitoulin Island.

Whar and her boyfriend, Aakarsh Rai, both from Olathe, a city in northeastern Kansas, often take lengthy road trips around North America. The twentysomething couple made stops in Toronto and Niagara Falls during their latest trek, in May, and added a last-minute visit to Manitoulin Island so they could stare at the stars.

“This experience is unbelievable,” Rai says. “Coming from a populated suburb, we are not used to seeing stars at all. I can’t stop looking up at the sky.”

Gordon’s Park is an eco-resort campground close to Tehkummah, a township of fewer than 500 people — and it’s home to one of the two privately owned dark-sky preserves in Canada (the other is in Quebec). According to the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC), a dark-sky preserve is “an area in which no artificial lighting is visible” — it must also promote measures to reduce light pollution.

In simple terms, a dark-sky preserve is a place where, thanks to the darkness, it is relatively easy to see the stars and planets with the naked eye.

“You step outside in Toronto, you look up, and you see black sky,” says Robert Dick, a member of the RASC and a longtime instructor in astronomy at three post-secondary institutions in Ottawa. “You go outside in Gordon’s Park and you can literally follow a path across a field without any light whatsoever because there is enough light from the starlight.”

Gordon’s Park received its official dark-sky designation in 2008. Today, stargazing is the park’s signature attraction during the spring and summer months. Park workers say the experience is especially eye-opening for tourists who live in or near big cities. “They tell me, ‘Wow, I can see more than just the Big Dipper,’” says Maggie Riley, the park manager. 

There is more to the experience than simply looking up at the sky. Park astronomer Gordon Soplet uses a special laser pointer to guide visitors on a “tour” of the cosmos. “If there was a hole in the bowl of the Big Dipper, it [would leak] onto Leo,” Soplet explains on a recent night, pointing high above. “That’s the constellation Gemini, the twins.”

Soplet regales the audience with tales from the Greek, Roman, and Indigenous traditions. “The Aboriginal cultures around the world have star stories that relate to their lifestyle and ceremonies,” he says. In Anishinaabe star lore, for example, Corona Borealis is identified as a sweat lodge.

Soplet believes these stories connect stargazers to an earlier time: “Before electricity, we never had this kind of light pollution. It is increasingly rare these days to see these pristine, dark night skies.”

In addition to its cultural value, a dark sky is an ecological treasure, Dick says. Light pollution is harmful to humans and wildlife. “Light provides behavioural cues to wildlife that also change their biology,” he says. “When you provide artificial light, you’re now fooling the body into thinking it’s daylight, and different chemical [and] biological processes occur.”

And gazing at the stars can be fun. Gordon Park owners Rita and Terry Gordon didn’t expect to cater to the astronomically minded when they opened for business 30 years ago. But today, so-called star parties are a major attraction of their park and of other dark-sky preserves.

“A star party is a gathering of astronomers, seasoned or amateur,” Rita Gordon explains. Patrons can pitch a tent and camp out under the starry canopy. At Gordon Park, many enjoy wine and cheese along with their stargazing.

There’s also some indication that star parties can help dark-sky preserves buck a decades-long trend that has seen Canadians cut back on camping: according to Dick’s research, once a park receives dark-sky designation, its attendance remains stable or increases.

There are now eight dark-sky preserves in Ontario and 22 in Canada. The RASC used to receive about one application a year, but more parks are now seeking the designation. So far in 2018, Dick says, “We’ve already designated four.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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