Astronomer completes Dark Sky mission in NWT

Astronomer completes Dark Sky mission in NWT
Peter McMahon gazes at a band of aurora borealis illuminating the Salt Plains in Wood Buffalo National Park.Photo: Peter McMahon.

An award-winning science journalist, night sky photographer and overall adventurer has wrapped up his mission to shoot all of Canada’s Dark Sky preserves with a stop in Wood Buffalo National Park last week.

Peter McMahon, a columnist for Sky News – the Canadian magazine of astronomy and stargazing – set up his tripod for the first time in the Northwest Territories to capture the twinkling northern lights for a feature on the world’s newest and largest Dark Sky Preserve, designated just this August by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.

“Ironically, this is sort of the last step in rendering me not a massive poser in terms of what I do because I’d never been to the North before and it’s dark,” McMahon, also a children’s author and the former online producer for Discovery Channel Canada, told The Journal. “I’d been in Yukon in the summer but never the NWT. It’s beautiful. I was just blown away by my first night out at the Salt Plains shooting the sky.”

McMahon, who has spent the last two years exploring the country’s dark sky preserves from Nova Scotia to Alberta for his column, presented a collection of his photos to interested members of the public last Wednesday evening in Fort Smith.

“You have such a resource in Fort Smith. When you go and look up at the sky from anywhere here, you are viewing an endangered ecosystem,” he told a packed room at the Parks Canada office, referring to the growing problem of light pollution. “As someone from Ontario, I’ve seen the northern lights but very rarely do you get the solid curtains and pillars of aurora that I saw here. You get a glow if you’re lucky.”

According to McMahon, Canada is a world leader in dark skies.

Celebrating the Dark Sky: Astronomy photographer Peter McMahon completed his mission to shoot every one of Canada’s Dark Sky Preserves by visiting its newest one - Wood Buffalo National Park - last week. McMahon will be showcasing Fort Smith and the park in Sky News magazine.

Photo: Peter McMahon

Celebrating the Dark Sky: Astronomy photographer Peter McMahon completed his mission to shoot every one of Canada’s Dark Sky Preserves by visiting its newest one – Wood Buffalo National Park – last week. McMahon will be showcasing Fort Smith and the park in Sky News magazine.

“Canada has almost 20 (preserves) and there’s maybe about 35 in the world…When I found that out a few years ago, I was very heartened by it because I’ve always been a fan of the night sky and popularizing astronomy,” he said.

McMahon’s breathtaking photos use a variety of lens and camera settings to showcase snapshots such as a vast Milky Way in New Brunswick’s Mount Carleton Provincial Park – what McMahon said was probably the darkest spot in the Maritimes – and a bejewelled shot of the heavens in Quebec’s Mont-Mégantic National Park where McMahon saw over 2,000 meteors fall over a mere two days.

A shot from Nova Scotia’s historic St. John’s Anglican Church in Lunenburg was one of the most interesting images to the public as McMahon described it as a 250 year-old planetarium.

Rick James, Mike Couvrette and Mike Keizer lounge on the rocks by the Rapids of the Drowned as astronomy photographer Peter McMahon snaps shots for Sky News.

Photo: Peter McMahon

Rick James, Mike Couvrette and Mike Keizer lounge on the rocks by the Rapids of the Drowned as astronomy photographer Peter McMahon snaps shots for Sky News.

“There are stars on the ceiling of this church – which has been restored basically from scratch after a fire – that show the sky as it would have looked from Lunenburg on the night of the first Christmas,” McMahon said in his presentation, followed by a series of impressed gasps from the group.

Other photographs highlighted nebulas, shown as purple-tinged clusters of stars, elegant bird shadows plastered against a vibrant capture of the transit of Venus from Point Pelee National Park, or a misty bright spot that McMahon pointed out as the Andromeda Galaxy, 2.5 million light-years from Earth.

A two to three-page spread about Wood Buffalo National Park along with three or four photos of the illuminated night sky will be featured in Sky News, plus details about Fort Smith and all its amenities from dining to accommodations sometime in mid to late 2014, McMahon said.

“As far as I know, I’m the world’s only astronomy food critic,” he joked. “This was the place with the best donair pizza by far, by the way.”

McMahon called Fort Smith and the surrounding park the “surprise” of his entire Dark Sky Preserve tour across the country.

“What an amazing community…It was spectacular, as you can see by the photos, and more than what I was expecting.”

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