Mont Megantic Dark Sky Reserve
Dark Sky Places Traveling Fellowship Part 1
Thanks to the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, I have received a traveling fellowship to visit all of the International Dark Sky Places in North America between 22 August and 03 October 2011. This series of blog posts will detail my visit to each of these very dark places.
Mont Megantic International Dark Sky Reserve
Situated a few hours east of Montreal in the Quebec province of eastern Canada, Mont Megantic National Park is home to a research observatory, a public observatory, and the ASTROlab science centre. In 2007 it was named by the International Dark-skies Association (IDA) as the world’s first International Dark Sky Park (IDSR).
This designation differs from the similarly named International Dark Sky Park (IDSP) designation in that the IDSR was introduced to allow parks that did not fit in to the US national park model to still aspire towards IDA status; that is, the IDSPs were created to apply to large parks under federal control with no population within the park boundary; the IDSR status is intended for parks who want to work with their surrounding communities towards darker skies for all.
And this is exactly what Mont Megantic National Park did, and in 2007 it was announced as the world’s first (and as yet only) International Dark Sky Reserve.
Astronomy Tourism at Mont Megantic IDSR
Mont Megantic IDSR has a range of incredible resources for astronomy tourism, including the ASTROlab science centre, a public observatory, and a professional observatory with a 1.6m scope which is sometimes opened to the public to use.
The ASTROlab runs astronomy events every Friday night over the summer, including a visit to the ASTROlab, observing at the public observatory (weather permitting) and a tour of the professional observatory.
Each of these resources existed long before the IDSR status was conferred: the professional observatory was built in 1979; the ASTROlab and the public observatory in the 1980s. It was in part to protect the dark skies which these facilities rely on that the IDSR status was granted.
However there are two main difference between Mont Megantic IDSR and any dark sky places in the UK. They are: there is already a well-established winter tourism sector in the area, based around snow sports, and so astronomy tourism isn’t offering to fill an otherwise empty season, as it does in the UK; and it is possible to run astronomy events at Mont Megantic during summer months, unlike the UK, due to Mont Megantic being around 5-10° further south that the UK.
These factors mean that tourism seems to have been far less of a driver in creating the IDSR at Mont Megantic that it is in the UK, where it is really the sole reason, and the driving force in persuading the community around any dark sky place that there are larger benefits than those that accrue to astronomers.
During my visit to Mont Megantic IDSR I stayed at the incredible Haut Bois Dormant in Notre Dam des Bois, just a few miles from the park, run by the delightful Julie Demers. The entire length of the road running through Notre Dam des Bois was festooned with flags advertising the IDSR, and inside the guest house the IDSR was similarly promoted. However speaking to Julie it seems like the astronomy tourism sector is still to grow to its full potential. One limiting factor seems to be the fact that organised astronomy events are only run on Friday nights, and for the rest of the week you’re on your own.
During my visit I met with four people involved in a variety of ways in astronomy tourism at the park. My visit was arranged by Pierre Brosseau, the communications manager at the ASTROlab, who explained a little of the philosophy behind the creation of the IDSR, which he suggested – as did others – was more to do with fact that it was the “right thing to do” and not as much about generating money for the local economy through tourism.
I was also given a guided tour of the professional observatory by Robert Lamontange, the executive director of the observatory, and later that night by Bernard Malenfant, chairman of the board, and founder of the Astronomy Super Festival, who had been there as long as the observatory (legend has it he came in the box with the primary mirror).
The next day I met with Tania Pinard, the Megantic area tourism officer who took me on a tour of businesses that use astronomy to attract visitors in innovative ways, including the Spa Le Montagnais, which offers stargazing from outdoors hot tubs during the Perseid Meteor Shower!
Later that afternoon I met with Sebastien Giguere, the head of education at ASTROlab, who gave me a wealth of information about the public programme within the IDSR.
Dark Sky Survey of Mont Megantic IDSR
On my final night at the park I went to the top of the mountain and took some SQM-L readings of the sky, as well as some astrophotos to gauge just how dark the sky is. The SQM reading average of six readings was 21.4, very similar to Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park and Sark Dark Sky Island. I repeated this reading in the back garden of the Haut Bois Dormant in Notre Dam Des Bois town, and the reading was 21.3, not appreciably different! The Milky Way stood out prominently in both locations, and could be seen all the way to the horizon.