If you’ve been to Canada’s less populated areas, you probably know the sound of the loon’s call, the smell of pine needles on the ground, and the taste of wild berries.
You also likely know the dark night sky, unobstructed by the city lights that blanket all but the brightest stars.
You don’t have to be an intrepid hinterlander to get to these great dark skies, and you don’t necessarily need friends or family.
Instead, consider going solo.
That’s right — lug your own Dobsonian. Hold your own red flashlight. Check the charts and figure out what that strange cloudy cluster is yourself. There has never been a better time for the lone wolf, given the need for isolation to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and the difficulties presented when travelling more than a few hours’ drive away.
And though solo stargazing can be a cinch, there are some important factors to keep in mind.
Plan around the sky
First — as with any stargazing trip, check the weather. Consider the average cloud cover for your location during the month or season you want to go. One of the greatest disappointments is arriving only to gaze at expected seasonal altostratus cover.
Next — Moon phase. Maybe your goal is to view the Moon in a full or gibbous phase. If not, lunar light can inhibit your enjoyment of other celestial wonders, so plan your trip during the week around the New Moon.
Third — hours of darkness. We’re in Canada, so you should keep the length of the night in mind. Night sky photography isn’t exactly the easiest hobby in the Yukon in mid-June. Even in the bustling metropolis of Edmonton, Alberta, astronomical twilight lasts just two hours around the summer solstice. So check the sunset and sunrise times before you head out.
Choosing a destination
Broadly speaking, if you live in a bright urban area, travelling beyond city limits will likely reveal darker skies. You can reach them driving about two hours away from most urban centres.
Even if you don’t want to road-trip for a single night of stargazing, you can plan for a weekend outing.
Here’s a list from The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada of dark sky preserves, recognized urban star parks and nocturnal preserves.
Don’t forget to check that the park is open and accessible before you head out there. Weather and other unforeseen circumstances can affect park hours.
Another thing to keep in mind is landscape. Calm lakeside locations can be breathtaking, and views from Canada’s ocean coastlines are some of the most stunning in the world. And while it’s nice to see the mountains in Jasper National Park, they will block a fair chunk of the sky from view if you’re at a forested base at nightfall.
Find an astronomy program
While star parties and festivals bring people together to learn about visual astronomy, many events have been cancelled or pushed online this year due to COVID-19 isolation.
Regardless of your level, at-your-own-pace astronomy programs can be a great option if you want to add more education or structure to a weekend itinerary.
The RASC’s Explore the Universe program provides an introduction to all aspects of visual astronomy, as those partaking search for stars and constellations, lunar sites, Solar System and deep-sky objects and double stars. There are some optional activities, including variable stars. The program can even be completed entirely with binoculars and the unaided eye.
You can still contact astronomy club members and groups for tips and advice. The 2020 SkyNews star party calendar includes details for online parties available all over Canada, too.
(Another tip: Locations where star parties are traditionally held tend to be great spots for stargazing, even when solo.)
Pack your tent and sleeping bag
If you’re willing to rough it, consider looking for more rustic accommodations like camping. Booking a campsite really allows you to escape artificial light and experience some truly dark skies.
Wherever you are, don’t forget to be safe and follow Canada’s wilderness rules. While one eye is on the skies, keep the other on your immediate surroundings. Keep your food in a safe location like a cache, and if you’re in bear country, carry your bear spray and bangers. And if you’re near the ocean in a tidal area, check the charts — it would be devastating to watch your telescope wash away like flotsam.
Even before you head out, be sure to give Parks Canada or local park authority a call and ask about rules, restrictions and recommendations.
Gathering your gear
We’ve all been there. You expertly hike out to the back woods only to find your kit has become a graveyard of dead batteries.
So please, for your own sake, remember power before a meteor shower, electricity before galaxies, charge up before you look up — you get the idea.
Other crucial things to bring include the dew shield and power supply for your telescope. A multitool is also helpful for tasks like attaching your spotting scope.
If you’re taking photos, don’t forget your tripod and any additional lenses. A lens cleaning kit isn’t a bad idea, either. You may also want a regular white-light flashlight for light painting, if you’d like to try something different in your wide shots. (Don’t forget to submit your favourite pictures in our Photo of the Week contest.)
There are a few other comfort items that may improve your expedition — a small folding chair and extra warm clothes, for example. It’s best to bring a cell phone in case of emergencies, but keep in mind that there are still many areas in Canada where there is no cell service.
You should also bring a copy of SkyNews magazine — in addition to having helpful features like the seasonal star chart or Exploring the Night Sky, it’s a great tool to share space with people who might stop and ask you what you’re doing.
— With files from Allendria Brunjes and Jenna Hinds