"Definitely worth the trip: the observatory sits in Mont-Mégantic National Park on a 5,500-square-kilometre reserve, the first International Dark Sky Reserve in the world"
When we arrived at the Mont-Mégantic observatory our plans to see a night sky lit by only stars was stubbed out with the force of an asteroid hitting the moon.
“Can we look through the telescope?” asked Will.
“It’s going to rain.”
“Can we use a tiny bit of light for our photos?” asked Andrew.
“You will be asked to leave the premises.”
“Can we…?” Dan began, but “no” came the reply, almost in reflex.
There was no chance we were going to see the stars that night.
And what a shame. From the Eastern Township’s Dunham through Coaticook and all the way to Mont-Mégantic National Park, we’d come to see the Dark Sky Reserve. Situated in the midst of the Appalachian Mountains, the park and the surrounding countryside, the reserve received its designation in 2007, but not for the reasons I assumed. While the area is inherently dark, the darkened sky itself is not a natural phenomenon; it took the combined efforts of an entire region to produce it.
Mont-Mégantic is home to the ASTROLab, a learning centre located at the base of the mountain, devoted to making astronomy both accessible and available to everyone; where people of all ages can dip their toes into the complex mysteries of the universe and understand them simply.
At the top of the mountain, there are two observatories. The first is l'Observatoire populaire, designated for school groups and visitors, which is home to a 60-centimetre telescope. The second is the scientific observatory, reserved for scientific research exclusively, and home to a telescope with a lens large enough to, oh, you know, zoom in on Andromeda!
Led by the ASTROLab, the observatory and the National Park, Mont-Mégantic was officially inaugurated by the Dark Sky Association as a reserve after a hard-won victory, and by getting not just one, not even 10 but 35 communities on board to agree to reduce light pollution. Now when you walk the streets of Granit, Haut-Saint-François and Sherbrooke at night, you’ll notice the streetlights are dimmer and the dark is darker. The municipalities have mandated that outdoor lighting points downward, and only high-pressure sodium bulbs are used, which emit a less obtrusive yellow-orange glow rather than an LED’s typical harsh blue hue.
More than 2,500 light fixtures were replaced and the effort has created near-perfect conditions for astronomers who wait for months for a turn to put an eye to the 1.6-metre lens telescope at the scientific observatory.
It seemed we would have to wait, too.
Tails between our legs, we returned to the auberge—a family-run inn—to contemplate our existence in ways more finite than imagining the length of a light year or the texture of dark matter. Over dinner, we talked hypotheticals and backup plans. I suggested we bivvy on Mont Mégantic’s neighbours, Mont Saint-Joseph or Victoria—Dan suggested we “bevvy” instead.
“But the observatory under the Milky Way!” Andrew said, as the sky opened up and rain pelted the windows as if sharing in our despair.
Will agreed. “It is the view.”
Drowning our sorrows in butter and escargot, we had just about given up when a call from Guillaume Poulin, a scientific communicator at the observatory, came through. He may as well have burst through the doors with an exo-planet balanced on his fingertip like a basketball. Not only would we get to see the stars from the top of Mont Mégantic the next night, but close up through a telescope, we’d see the Moon.
We clinked glasses in a great “Salute!” to the stars that aligned for us. A reminder, that even as adults, we should wish on them more often.
• • •
“Would you like to take a look?” Guillaume asked, as he cracked a bar of dark chocolate and zoomed in on the Moon. He may not have known that drones and Quebec’s microbrews were the way to the rest of the team’s heart, but he sure knew the way to mine.
As promised, the night was clear and the top of the mountain was cold. Like a curious eye through the crack of a door, the telescope peeked through the roof of the l'Observatoire populaire at the sky.
We lined up in a queue, much like kids on a school trip do. As Will moved up the ladder putting his eye to the telescope, Dan and Andrew started singing Ground Control to Major Tom, and one by one we looked up at the Moon. For something I see every night, I’ve never imagined it like this before. The grey, blank desert seemed not a desert at all. For a place without life, it seemed to me to be marked by it—it had texture and features; pockmarks and valleys; craters within craters; and mountain ranges as high as the Alps. The landscape wasn’t barren, but alive with a history of things colliding into it.
For the next hour, Guillaume took requests playing astrological DJ, spinning the telescope like a record into place.
Did you know that from 1.2 billion kilometres away Saturn looks like a Cheerio in the Milky Way? Or that a dead star looks like an eraser smudge? Or that the stars in the Hercules Globular Cluster look like a spider’s web in the rain?
When we pried our eyes from the lens and walked outside into the night, I was sure the sky had fallen. A billion tiny points of light poked holes in the blackened horizon that draped all the way around us. We walked to the summit to watch the Moon set and while we pressed our eyes to our cameras capturing the night sky, within the walls of the observatory behind us astronomers were capturing the nuances of the galaxy, with eyes pressed to telescope.
Will and Andrew set their cameras to time-lapse and we retired to our cabin on the mountainside. We talked late into the night, while the cameras consistently clicked, capturing the old celestial light that worked its way through dark matter, the atmosphere and the city lights, right onto our sensors.
• • •
So this is what breathing should feel like.
As we followed La Route Verte north from the Eastern Townships, the Saguenay came at us not only with its magnificent fjords but with a rushing gust of the smell of pine. We rolled down the hill into Sainte-Rose-du-Nord, a life-like Christmas village known as the pearl of the fjord.
Down on its sleepy pier, fishermen cast lines out into chocolate water. They sat so still I found myself speaking in whispers.
The Saguenay River sits in a gash made from ancient ice. The fjords, which loom so tall and mighty over the water, are remnants of a glacier that once chipped away at their granite slopes with the hardened hands of a stonemason. They’re among the largest in the world, stretching from the St. Lawrence River through to the Laurentian Mountains, moving deep into the Canadian Shield.
When the glacier receded, it pulled in the seawater from the upper St. Lawrence (which flows into the North Atlantic Ocean) and the freshwater from Lac Saint-Jean. Like oil from vinegar, the freshwater floats on top of the saltwater, and later in a boat en route to Parc national du Fjord-du-Saguenay—Saguenay Fjord National Park—we sat on top of them both.
Our boat was actually more like an igloo than a ferry, and made me wonder what this landscape would have looked like as a field of ice. Glass windows domed over our heads, so no matter where you looked you were reminded of how small you are, how dwarfed, next to the Precambrian rock that towers—so incredibly old!—above you.
As we whipped along, through the glasswork, a patchwork of pine carpeted the walls of the craggy cliffs. When Ave Maria started playing on board, for a brief moment I thought we were sinking.
“It’s tradition,” the boat guide said to me.
He pointed to a white figure perched high on the green and grey granite summits. The Virgin Mary looked down gently on the bay below with her palms in prayer over her heart. She acts as a reminder that while the landscape is beautiful, it hasn’t always been kind.
When Charles Napoleon Robitaille crossed the frozen Saguenay River in 1878, the ice cracked from under him, bringing his horse and sleigh down into the frosty water. As the story goes, with the icy kiss of death on his lips he implored the Virgin Mary to save him, and somehow he survived. But the plunge made him gravely sick, so again, he asked the Virgin Mary to help him recover. And again, somehow he did.
Having evaded death twice in concert, he commissioned a sculptor to create a statue of the Virgin’s likeness. At 35 feet high and made of three tons of white pine, she looks over the mouth of the river, her lips pursed against the elements and her body parched from wet weather in a casing of lead.
We laughed at the tale, the grandiose homage. I didn’t realize, in short order, I’d be tempted to invoke the Lady myself.
• • •