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These days, everyone’s a sourdough baker, fire pits are sold out everywhere and telescope sales have skyrocketed. That’s right, telescopes are suddenly hard to find amid the coronavirus pandemic as Canadians opt to explore closer to home, spurring a renewed interest in those twinkly lights in the sky, rather than board flights for far-flung destinations.

Calgary-based Alan Dyer, astronomy photographer and creator of the website amazingsky.com, says fall is prime astronomy season. “You don’t have to go around the world to do stargazing,” he says. Lucky for us, Canada’s latitude provides plenty of stargazing opportunities – and you don’t need even a telescope to take advantage; you can be a novice and still enjoy the night sky with simple binoculars and trusty phone apps. Dyer recommends SkySafari, which has a free version as well as more advanced paid versions. Other apps to get up to snuff on the stars include Night Sky, Sky Chart and even the NASA app if you’re looking for additional space education.

This time of year is one of the best to clearly see the Milky Way and 2020 presents a rare chance to spot Mars, Saturn and Jupiter visible all at once in the evening sky. “The Milky Way is right across the sky, the centre of the galaxy is low in the south so we get our best views,” Dyer says. “Take any binoculars, scan along the Milky Way and you’ll see star clusters, little patches of gas and nebulas, and other little star groupings.” The Mars opposition in October will be so bright that even the naked eye will see a reddish object and with a telescope you’ll be able to see markings on Mars. Even better, Mars will remain in a great viewing position through November.

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While getting away from city lights will make stargazing easier, these four Canadian destinations allow you to not only wonder at the sky, but also spend a night in the great outdoors, whether this fall or next summer. Just download some apps, bring binoculars and look up.

Night sky hikes in Nova Scotia

True North Destinations eco-domes under the Milky Way.

Glen Strickey/Handout

Along the famed Cabot Trail in Cape Breton is the newly opened True North Destinations, a collection of partially see-through eco-domes that allow guests to take in the glory of the night sky. Owner Tanya Hinkley created the domes to combine eco-luxury with the natural landscape of northern Cape Breton. That connection to nature continues with their Skyline Night Hike. Under the blanket of a star-speckled sky, a two-hour hike with a Parks Canada rep will have you pointing out constellations and the Milky Way as you learn about the forest, wildlife and culture of the area. If you can’t pry yourself away from your dome for a hike, just turn off the lights, settle in and stargaze from the deck or hot tub. “My daughter has seen many shooting stars,” Hinkley says.

Chasing stars in Jasper, Alta.

The Northern Lights dance over the Athabasca River in Jasper.

Alan Dyer /Handout

Jasper National Park is the second largest Dark-Sky Preserve in the country (there are 17 such areas, which restrict artificial light pollution, designated by the Royal Astronomical Society in Canada), offering 11,000 square kilometres of stargazing opportunities. The annual Dark Sky Festival is still on this year, running Oct. 16-25, though fewer activities are being held in the park to ensure logistics allow for proper physical distancing. Self-guided tours are also an option. But simply being in the park itself provides ample night sky opportunities: The sandy shore of Lake Annette offers comfortable seating for some self-guided stargazing; tranquil Lac Beauvert is walking distance from Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge; and a bit farther out is Medicine Lake, where you can see billions of the universe’s stars and possibly the Northern Lights. For adventure, hiking and camping types, Tonquin Valley has 70 kilometres of trails and a night sky free from light pollution.

Star sanctuary in a Grey County, Ont.

Freija's private 100-acre bird, wildlife and stargazing sanctuary borders a 350-acre conservation area.

Freija

For city dwellers in the Greater Toronto Area, getting into a dark space to see the stars isn’t as difficult as one may think. Grey County, about two hours north of Toronto, has some of the darkest skies in the province. While technically not a Dark-Sky Preserve, the area still offers glimpses of the colourful Aurora Borealis. Up the outdoor experience at Freija, a private 100-acre bird, wildlife and stargazing sanctuary bordering a 350-acre conservation area. Stay at one of two campsites on the property or book the Forest Loft, a cozy and chic open-concept barn that’s accessibility-friendly. The site is equipped with an outdoor fire pit, firewood and a charcoal barbecue. Dinner under the twinkling lights is in your future. Just bring binoculars. By day, you can hike trails, canoe and even snowshoe when the white stuff finally arrives.

Star stories in Saskatchewan

Inside a Tipi at Saskatchewan's Natural Historic Site of Wanuskewin Heritage Park.

Wanuskewin

Mark your calendars for June 2021, because Saskatchewan is in your stargazing future at the Natural Historic Site of Wanuskewin Heritage Park. Located in Saskatoon on a traditional gathering place for every First Nation of the prairies for more than 6,400 years, the site hosts night sky viewings during summer months along with its Han Wi Moon dinner events. A meal of locally foraged foods is followed by a dessert delivered by nature – a Saskatchewan sunset that gives way to a sky dancing with stars. Storyteller Curtis Standing recounts ancient star stories of the human connection to land and animals, while his partner, Teedly Linklater, drums and sings traditional songs. Itching to get a bit of stargazing in before summer? Starting this November, a new permanent exhibit at Wanuskewin shares star stories taught by star knowledge-keeper Wilfred Buck via a large-sided tepee made into a theatre.

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