Bundled up against the cool air and bouncing through the twilight in an open Jeep, I felt like I was in the dying moments of a game drive in East Africa.
But instead of trying to catch the last glimpses of animals before darkness – with the frisson of looking for lions' eyes in the gloom – we were watching for the sun's light to disappear completely. Instead of a double-rifle packed for insurance, we were carrying an 800-power telescope.
In an area of southwestern Nova Scotia with some of the least artificial light on Earth, where nearby Kejimkujik National Park (Keji to the locals) is designated a dark sky preserve, a luxury wilderness lodge this summer started taking tourists on what its proprietors call a “night safari.”
“It's a way of extending the natural experience beyond just the daytime,” said Trout Point Lodge co-owner Vaughn Perret. “When I would go out at night it became very apparent to me we were not embracing what was maybe our greatest asset – the darkness.”
The lodge offers the expected range of activities, among them hiking, birdwatching, cycling and fly fishing. Guests can paddle on the tea-coloured river or leap in to cool off after a sauna.
More unusually, visitors also have several options for taking advantage of the untainted skies in this area. Guests can hear an explanation of the night firmament without leaving the property. Early risers can enjoy the sunrise complete with blanket and breakfast.
Perret said the lodge has had good success this summer with night hikes, and they plan to build a treetop star-viewing platform for next year.
Trout Point is a member of Relais & Chateaux, so all this is done in grand style. While night safari guide Michael Hiland gingerly packed the big telescope he built himself, another staffer helped load a table, chair, wine and blanket into the Jeep.
After a short drive, I found myself with a glass of wine in my hand. Lodge employee Daniel Gillis played guitar while Hiland set up his telescope. We chatted about the origins of the universe, the cultural interpretations of star patterns and the dangers of aiming a laser pointer at a plane.
The setting was a disused airfield beside Indian Fields Provincial Park. The trees here are cleared back from the soft-surface runways and the sky stretches in a magnificent arc.
The lodge has been putting together a pitch to the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada to secure a dark sky designation for the entire area. In layman's terms, Hiland explained, in a truly dark sky the Milky Way
will cast shadows on a moonless night. Hiland, who studied astrophysics at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, is good at putting it in layman's terms.
He explained the Bortle scale, which rates the darkness of the sky, and discussed the potentially catastrophic result to Earth of incoming objects (many of which, apparently, are prevented by Jupiter's gravitational field).
Faced with my skepticism that the stars of the Ursa Major constellation look like a bear, he pointed out that cultures around the world have noted the same figure. Gamely he tried to put into simple terms what existed before the Big Bang and into what the universe is expanding.
It was making sense, even to someone who barely muddled through astronomy in first-year university. Back then, I had signed up on the erroneous theory it would be an appropriately light science credit for an arts student. Not so.
This was more my speed. Here I peered into the big scope be-tween sipping red wine and slapping the occasional mosquito.
For such excursions, Hiland said, he normally keeps his telescope, a 10-inch f5 Dobsonian, at no more than 200-power. This helps to minimize the blurring effect of “turbulence” caused by atmospheric haze.
This night, he dialled it in on specific sights and stepped back so I could study the craters of the moon or the rings of Saturn. For the first time, I learned that what looks like a single star in the middle of the Big Dipper's handle is actually Mizar, a system of four stars, and the system Alcor, which includes two more.
Nova Scotia can have chilly summer nights, though. Eventually we packed up and I retreated to the soaring grandeur of the lodge's Forest Suite to leaf through a book on star-gazing. Far more civilized than the university lecture-hall.
Oliver Moore is The Globe and Mail's Atlantic Bureau Chief. He stayed as a guest of the proprietors.
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