Richard Huziak is standing on the edge of a river valley in Grasslands National Park, waving a laser pointer at the night sky, like a schoolteacher standing at a celestial blackboard.
“Here is the Big Dipper,” the astronomer says, excitement in his voice, as the red laser light cuts across the firmament. “Here is Cassiopeia, here is the North Star” – and the tour goes on.
Grasslands National Park in southwestern Saskatchewan is one of the darkest places in Canada, which means, paradoxically, that it has one of the brightest night skies.
Because there is no human-generated light, you get the full glory of the stars – so much so, Huziak explains, that in the deepest night, your body can cast a shadow by the light of the Milky Way.
Alas, on this night in mid-August, the two dozen or so visitors to this stargazing event can’t enjoy the complete experience. The moon is gloriously full, dominating the sky.
Huziak, a prominent amateur astronomer from Saskatoon, apologizes for the modest light show, but no one is disappointed. A couple of strong telescopes are on hand to view the moon. And because we are in the midst of the Perseid meteor shower, his presentation is interrupted by “oohs” and “aahs” as trails of fire appear for explosive instants.
Such fireworks have made Grasslands a favourite of astronomers – as is Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, straddling the Alberta-Saskatchewan boundary, about 120 kilometres to the northwest.
Because of the efforts of Huziak and other sky-watchers, both parks are classified as dark-sky preserves, pristine black-sky areas that are zealously protected against light pollution.
It means southwestern Saskatchewan just might be the darkness capital of Canada. It is also one of the quietest spots in the country. Of the 12,000 or so annual visitors to the Grasslands, many of them are here for the sky.
They also come to discover how heavenly bodies and earthbound creatures are linked together in one natural system. Maintaining that connection is one of the park’s central missions.
Grasslands’ deep darkness allows insects, plants and animals native to the area to live normal lives, without false signals from unnatural light. This is exemplified in the story of the black-footed ferret.
On this night in the park’s West Block, along the Frenchman River Valley, visitors are invited to join Parks Canada staff on a jaunt to monitor the activity of this endangered nocturnal animal.
The ferrets were once common denizens of the rich prairie grasses, living on the meat, and in the conquered burrows, of the abundant prairie dogs. But onrushing civilization devastated both species. By 1937, the black-footed ferret was believed extinct.
In 1981, a handful of the ferrets were discovered in Wyoming, sparking a species recovery campaign. With the prairie dog population recovering, 34 ferrets were released in Grasslands in 2009 to try to restore the traditional balance. (Plains buffalo have also been reintroduced.)
Because the area is so dark, the ferrets come out at night – as do teams of naturalists lugging hefty battery packs. In an area where unnatural light is normally scorned, special flashlights are deployed to detect these party animals.
Flash a light at most animals at night, and the eyes glow red. Flash it at a ferret and they glow green. Once the ferret is detected, GPS monitoring systems determine if this is a known creature or a new addition.
Some visitors in our group come back to the campfire after spotting one of the cat-sized beasts. Others admit they spied “only a badger.”
It is not just animals that have used this dark, but remarkably active, prairie sky as their guide. Sitting Bull roamed here after the Battle of Little Bighorn. Mounties crossed the craggy buttes on the trail to Fort Walsh in the Cypress Hills. Cowboys tended cattle in the big ranches that formed the park’s building blocks.
And, incredibly, they did it all without laser pointers.