The Milky Way as witnessed from BC’s Blackcomb Mountain, with Whistler below.

Awash In The Firmament

Humankind has marvelled at the nighttime heavens since time began. From hyper-focused telescopes to lying in a field with our eyes to the skies, we travel time and space to explore why the ceiling of stars speaks to our heart.

“The night sky was indigo. Stars hung down around us all the way to the horizon. The lake surface was so still that it reflected every star till our bows and wakes would seem to knock them from the sky.”

— David James Duncan, from The Brothers K

Each July, as the Pacific Northwest basks in the sleepy warmth of summer, the Starship Earth enters a stream of debris left in space by Comet Swift-Tuttle. Though the effects are more pleasing to the psyche, our planet’s five-week transit through the stream is the cosmic equivalent of driving through a dust cloud trailing out behind a logging truck on an unpaved road. The Earth, travelling along its orbital path at a speed of 30 kilometres per second, forges ahead through the cloud while thousands of specks of dust and rock are superheated by friction with the upper atmosphere. Those burning specks, along with momentarily heated atmospheric gases, form the illuminated trails we know as meteors — or, less technically, shooting stars. On any night of the transit, you can turn your gaze skyward, toward the constellation of Perseus, and watch the streaks of light that form the poetically named Perseid meteor shower. In accordance with the abundant providence of the season, when the dark falls, the heavens come cascading down above us.

For me, as for so many others, watching meteors was the entrance to a lifelong fascination with the night sky. Every year when I was young, my father would wait for a clear night during the Perseids, preferably one with a new moon. When the perfect evening arrived, he’d drive my sister and I outside the city to the darkness of the surrounding countryside. We’d bring Canadian Tire sleeping bags to lie on and flashlights covered with red tissue paper so we could read the star guide without spoiling our night vision. Then, for hours, we’d lie on our backs in a farm field, trying to count as many shooting stars as we could. It was a thoroughly magical way to fall asleep.

Skygazing has carried us humans into wonder and mystery since the beginning of time — surely since the first synapses of consciousness started firing many millions of years ago. And the Northwest, where we spend so much time in the outdoors under the clear skies of summer, is a perfect place to look up and let our imaginations drift off to alternate worlds.

Star trails over Whistler’s Fissile Peak and reflected in Russet Lake. The two straight lines are satellite trails.

Star trails over Whistler’s Fissile Peak and reflected in Russet Lake. The two straight lines are satellite trails.

The stars, after all, are the gateway to the eternal, the realm where we came from and to where we’ll eventually return. Scientists know it, and mystics of all stripes know it, too. In one of the most striking passages in David James Duncan’s novel The Brothers K, a tale of a working-class family from rural Washington, the narrator has a vivid dream of his family afloat on a calm lake at night. They are all in small skin boats, like open-topped kayaks or umiaks, towing another skin boat in which their father, soon to die from years of smoking and mill work, lies. The stars are bright above and shimmer in the water all around. “Stars lay deep below us, hung above us, surrounded us. And there was suddenly no question, in that great sphere of stillness, that everything, even Papa’s disappearance, was going to be all right.”

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”

— John Muir, naturalist and author

In astronomy textbooks, the brief account of our creation is this: a Big Bang, then clusters of matter forming into the galaxies, stars, planets and nebulae of our observable universe. But a version I admire, although I know it’s not quite technically true, is the medieval concept of the firmament: the sky as a solid dome that holds the stars, and which separates the world we can see from the heavenly waters beyond. Perhaps it’s living at the edge of the great Pacific that makes me love this idea or a childhood spent on quiet lakes and swift rivers. The Earth is a boat and all of us are passengers, and our boat is bearing us ever outward on our long voyage through the waters of space. And everything is going to be all right.

if you’re heading more than a few hours into roadless terrain — or, for that matter, going anywhere at all with your phone — there’s a good chance that you’re navigating with GPS. Like so many of the technologies that we rely on without thinking about much, the Global Positioning System is a complex marvel of science, mathematics and engineering that gives us capabilities that were almost unimaginable a few decades ago.

Above the clouds on Whistler Blackcomb.

Above the clouds on Whistler Blackcomb.

The little receiver that tells you just where you are on the map is a tiny component in a vast, and vastly expensive, network that connects GPS-capable devices to a swarm of 27 satellites orbiting 20,000 kilometres above the surface of the Earth. At any time, at least four of the satellites are in view from any point on the planet. From these, your device receives a stream of time-stamped coding that allows it to trilaterate its latitude, longitude and elevation. The sky isn’t just a tableau of useless beauty — whether you’re hiking in the Cascades, paddling in Gwaii Haanas or traversing the Babines by bike, we still look up to figure out where we are and which way we should go. It’s always been that way; it’s just that now it takes a different form.

In the past, of course, it wasn’t an electronic device that cast a keen eye to the heavens but rather the eyes and minds of skilled travellers. In his book The Wayfinders, Wade Davis, the former explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society who now teaches at the University of British Columbia, articulates how Polynesian wayfinders used the stars to cross vast stretches of ocean: “Enshrouded by the night, the canoe itself became the compass of a needle that was the sky.” It was the same for traditional cultures all over the world, the map overhead was as familiar as the blinking blue pins that move along our backlit screens.

The circle completes, a bit strangely, in the fact that many of us now fall back on modern technologies to admire the same star fields that our forebears of all cultures once knew so well. The best viewing of the night sky, whether for meteor showers or flame-like aurora, requires getting as far as possible from artificial light sources, and in the Northwest, that means leaving populated areas for high alpine, interior plateaus or wide expanses of ink-black water. We’re lucky to live in a part of the world where we can still find dark sky; if you want to admire the night sky properly, you’ll have to seek undeveloped areas that are still most like what our ancestors knew. John Muir was right, as usual: “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” And since we’ve lost most of the sky knowledge of the past, those fancy little GPS machines can help us find our way back out.

“For a moment of night we have a glimpse of ourselves and of our world islanded in its stream of stars.”

— Henry Beston, naturalist and author

David McColm, the Whistler-based photographer who spends countless hours shooting time lapses and long exposures of the night sky, is another person who caught the space bug as a kid. “I was always interested in astronomy, space exploration and the night sky,” he says. “I remember watching Neil Armstrong and the first moon landing with my family on a grainy black-and-white TV in our basement. I thought then, and still do, that being an astronaut would be the coolest thing ever.”

Though he hasn’t made it beyond the bounds of gravity — not yet at least — there are some nights high in the Coast Range when the sky is so clear that it feels like there’s nothing at all between our rocky Earth and the neighbouring stars of the Milky Way. Often combining geological features with astral phenomena, McColm’s photographic work has made him constantly observant of what’s happening overhead.

“There are many factors that come into play when I go out to shoot at night,” he says. “There’s the weather, if I’m looking for interesting cloud formations with enough clearing to see the stars. There’s the moon, since where it is and when it rises over the mountains factors into my timing and framing. There are astronomical events, like if the aurora are forecasted to possibly be out that night, and safety, since on most of my shoots I’m out by myself. I also think about the glow of city lights, and, if it’s winter, where the grooming machines are working. After considering all of those, I’ll make a call as to where I’ll head that night.”

A look through McColm’s images — or his Deep Sky time-lapse film, which you can find on Vimeo — provides plenty of inspiration to set out on your own photographic expeditions. He lists the Whistler alpine, Garibaldi Provincial Park and the many trails and lakes of the surrounding area as his favourite places to shoot. The Sea to Sky Gondola has also opened up higher-altitude areas that weren’t readily accessible with heavy camera gear.

The photographer freezes a self-portrait on Whistler’s River of Golden Dreams.

The photographer freezes a self-portrait on Whistler’s River of Golden Dreams.

The aspect of his work that’s perhaps most fascinating — of any night sky photography, in fact, even if it’s your first attempts with a tripod and SLR — is the layers of time that the resulting images reveal. While daytime photography preserves only fractions of a second, an image of the firmament can span millions of years. Consider that light takes slightly over a second to travel from the moon, several hundred years to travel from Polaris, and 2.5 million years to travel from Andromeda, one of the neighbouring galaxies most easily visible from Earth. Attached to a telescope, a camera can look back much farther still. Everything in the frame has happened already, and most of it long before humans set foot in these mountain passes and glacial valleys. Photons of prehistoric light that have voyaged across space and time before passing through a camera lens: could there be any more tangible way of capturing the infinite?

“Outward and outward, forever outward.”

— Walt Whitman, writer

On a warm August night a few years ago, I was walking with a friend along the sandspit that connects Chesterman Beach to Frank Island in Tofino. There was no moon, and the sky above was a bright spread of stars bisected by the white band of the Milky Way. The stars were beside us as well, and the sea, warmed from months of summer sun, was so full of bioluminescence that the foaming curl of each wave was outlined in a soft neon green. After each wave had broken, its whitewash rushed quietly across the sand, carrying thousands of tiny points of light. We waded out in knee-deep water, letting the broken waves surge past our legs like the flow of rapids in a river. From there, it was as if we were at the centre of a huge sphere of stars, the near mirroring the far. Like those nights watching the Perseids as a kid, it was utterly magical. But when has a night out under clear skies not been so?

There’s no doubt that our ancestral connection with the night sky has been diminished; we spend most of our time in a world of streetlights and backlit screens, we’ve lost the intimate familiarity that we used to have with the movements of the heavens. And with most of the Northwest’s population living in a few densely settled areas, when we do look up, our views are heavily filtered by the orange glow of light pollution. Davis describes how traditionally trained Polynesian navigators can name and follow 220 stars in the night sky. Most of us would be hard-pressed to identify any more than a few stars and a handful of constellations.

Aurora borealis from Whistler Mountain. Put your

Aurora borealis from Whistler Mountain.

The positive, though, is that some of the technologies that so easily distract us from the sky are also powerful tools to reconnect us to it. Your GPS can lead you out into wild and dark areas where not a single artificial light mars the view; a free app on your phone can give you an interpretative map of the exact star fields you’re looking at from any given place at any given time; your Instagram feed can deliver NASA photos from the Hubble Space Telescope that will bend your mind as you sit at the breakfast table with your morning coffee;
summer 2015 CMC 89and a quick browse of a space-weather website can tell you if any aurora activity is in the forecast.

“There’s definitely a lack of personal experience with the night sky,” David McColm says, “since it’s difficult to get a clear view free of artificial light. But with today’s preponderance of night-sky images and social media, I believe that people are becoming more familiar with it again and that personal connection is something that more and more people would like to experience.”

Whether it’s the end purpose or not, stargazing is an essential component of any overnight summer adventure in our part of the world. What climbing, backpacking or off-grid surf trip is complete without a few hours admiring the heavenly waters? Before the cold and cloud of autumn arrives, you could set out to learn the shapes of a few constellations, or lie under the trails of a meteor shower, or wait until a solar flare brings a display of the northern lights to the latitudes of the northwest. Whatever form your astronomical explorations take, you’re guaranteed to encounter some form of memorable beauty. All you need is a clear night, a dark sky, a star guide and something to keep you warm. You’ll find the eternal sky is still as it always was: a calm sea for our steady voyage into the great vastness beyond.

Author / Contributor

Malcolm Johnson

Malcolm’s work focuses on sustainability, outdoor sports and the culture and environment of the Canadian coasts. He’s been the editor of SBC Surfer magazine and contributed to The Surfer’s Journal, Explore, up! The Vancouver Sun, CBC, Surfline, Transworld Surf and a wide range of other print and online publications...

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