Best spots for sky-gazing at night

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      Warm summer nights are meant for lying under the stars and watching celestial phenomena like meteor showers and moonrises. Over the next three months, mark your calendars to catch the Buck (July 14), Sturgeon (August 13), and Harvest (September 12) full moons, so named by Native Americans, as well as the Southern Delta Aquarids (peak, July 28-29) and Perseids (peak, August 12-13) meteor showers, first identified by astronomers in the 1800s. There’s only one catch: find the right spot with a superb sightline unaffected by artificial illumination. Here are four such places best suited to sky-gazing at night.

      An evening or two before the full moon, Boundary Bay Regional Park in Delta is the place to head. Pick a spot among the driftwood on the park’s Centennial Beach, spread out a picnic supper, go for a swim in the bay’s warm water, paddle a canoe or kayak on the cresting tide, and then settle in to watch as the waxing moon peeks out from behind Mount Baker. It’s an unrivalled sight, especially when coupled with a lipstick sunset in the western sky above the Strait of Georgia. Note: park gates close at dusk; when star-gazing, leave vehicles on the perimeter road.

      One of the rewards of regularly seeking out vantage points to catch the moon at its best is the certainty of knowing where such cosmic happenings occur. Nothing is more predictable than watching the full moon change hue from peach to silver as it arches above Blackcomb Mountain as viewed from Rick’s Roost in Whistler’s Alpine Meadows neighbourhood. Named for the late local photographer, Rick Flebbe, this was his lookout of choice when shooting images for post cards. A bench now graces the spot, but moss-covered granite slabs and boulders suit just as admirably. The surfaces of Green and Alta lakes twinkle below as rosy alpenglow lingers on the faces of both Blackcomb and Whistler mountains and the full roster of Hibachi Range peaks.

      Annual meteor showers don’t appear with anything rivalling the clockwork precision of the Earth’s satellite. This August, the Perseids will be all but overpowered when caught in the full moon’s high beams. A far better chance of glimpsing meteors in motion occurs near the end of July within six days of the new moon, when the night sky is all but pitch-black. Of course, you may have to wait up until midnight to catch the Southern Delta Aquarids’ show. Plan on spending the night at Golden Ears Provincial Park’s North Beach, whether spread out on a blanket or at a tent site at the adjacent campground on the shores of Alouette Lake. Unlike observing the moon’s ascent, star gazing requires a bit of neck craning for a full-blown scan the heavens. Either lie on the sandy beach or, better yet, use the hull of an overturned canoe or kayak as a backrest.

      Abbotsford’s McDonald Park is one of a dozen national dark-sky preserves designated by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. During the day, the grassy park on the banks of the Fraser River makes a bucolic place to pause while exploring the Fraser Valley, particularly after shopping at one of the nearby fresh produce stands. At night, Sumas Mountain’s looming presence blocks artificial light cast from Chilliwack, Abbotsford, and Mission. Within this natural amphitheatre, the dark sky assumes new life, particularly when members of the Fraser Valley Astronomers Society are on hand with as many as 40 telescopes.

      When contacted by the Georgia Straight, FVAS president Paul Greenhalgh invited everyone to McDonald Park on the evening of July 28 to observe the Aquarids, which he estimated would produce about 20 meteors per hour at their peak. “The radiant point for this shower will be in the constellation Aquarius,” Greenhalgh said. “This year, the thin crescent moon will be hanging around for the show, but it shouldn’t cause too many problems. Best viewing is usually to the east after midnight.”

      As for the Perseids, Greenhalgh noted that although the full moon will definitely present a problem, it could still be a great show, with up to 60 meteors per hour possible. “The reward of astronomy is appreciating the scale of distances in space, like standing on the bow of a ship as the Earth sails through a debris field of boulders. Everybody’s connected to the universe. It’s something we sense in our gut.”

      ACCESS: Boundary Bay Regional Park lies 40 kilometres south of Vancouver in Tsawwassen. Take the Highway 17 South exit (28) from Highway 99 toward the Tsawwassen ferry terminal, then turn south on 56th Street (Point Roberts Road), which leads into Tsawwassen. Turn left onto 12th Avenue and follow it around to Boundary Bay Road and Third Avenue, which lead south to the park entrance at Centennial Beach. To reach Rick’s Roost, turn west off Highway 99 at Alpine Meadows, north of Whistler Village, then follow Alpine Way to its highest point. A dirt road leads a short distance uphill to the viewing bench. North Beach lies at the north end of the access road that runs through Golden Ears Provincial Park in Maple Ridge, about 50 kilometres east of Vancouver via Highway 7. To reach McDonald Park dark-sky preserve, take the Trans Canada Highway Exit 104 in Abbotsford and drive a short distance to the west end of No. 3 Road. Visit the Fraser Valley Astronomers Society website.




      Jul 13, 2011 at 11:45am

      I was hoping for a list form article. Too much writing to find a good location. Didn't even bother reading.

      How about:

      1. THis Spot, Address:

      2. THAT SPOT, Address:

      Just... so wordy for a list.


      Jul 15, 2011 at 2:42pm

      McDonald Park was a hard-won fight by the Fraser Valley Astromers Society to get dark sky preserve designaton. The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada had nothing to do with it!!

      Also, McDonald Park is located on the banks of the Sumas River, not the Fraser River.


      Jul 16, 2011 at 11:59am

      Thanks for the correction, kiwi-canuck.

      Yr right. It's the Sumas, not Fraser, River.

      The RASC lists McDonald Park as one of a dozen such sites across the country but makes no claim to having anything to with achieving the park's dark sky preserve designation. That credit rightly goes to members of the FVAS.

      When I interviewed Paul Greenhalgh he said the club was actively seeking more such preserves with the help of local governments in the Fraser Valley. Here's hoping.

      Meanwhile, onward to the the club's week-long star party in August under Meritt's pristine night skyscape.

      Martin Dunphy

      Jul 16, 2011 at 4:31pm


      That's because it's not a list.

      It's a column.

      Have a nice day.

      james putnam

      Jul 17, 2011 at 12:02am

      being a backyard astronomer learning to navigate the celestial sea i was very happy to find an article sharing the joys of star gazing. one thing i have learned from looking up into the universe is that it gives us perspective about our lives back down here on Earth. thanks jack for a great article.


      Jul 20, 2011 at 9:44am

      This is an incredibly informative and beautifully written article. I love the picture too. I will have to save it for reference. Thanks Jack and Louise.

      Greg K

      Aug 11, 2012 at 10:31am

      Do not go here: Boundary Bay Regional Park. The Park closes at 10, and Rangers still patrol here after hours. They gave us the boot. :(