Dark Sky Park designation sets Quetico among the stars

·4 min read

We might take a starry night sky for granted in our corner of the province, but Quetico Provincial Park has proven itself dedicated to providing a celestial haven for night owls that is guaranteed to be free of intrusive light pollution.

The park has recently earned itself a certification from the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) recognizing it as a Dark Sky park, a location that has met stringent regulations that help to curb the impacts of light pollution in the night sky, as well as the negative effects it can have on plants and animals - including humans. Quetico has now joined its "sister parks" Voyageurs National Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in their Dark Sky Park designation, and is only the third Provincial Park in Ontario to achieve the feat.

Trevor Gibb is the park superintendent for Quetico Provincial Park and he noted the recognition from the international association really highlights the efforts that park staff have made in order to keep the park as pristine as possible.

"The Dark Sky Park designation is awarded to a park that has an exceptional quality of starry night skies and an exceptional nocturnal environment," he explained.

"It has to be a park that's protected for scientific, natural, educational or cultural reasons and have opportunities for the public to visit the park and enjoy it. You have to meet a bunch of criteria to be considered for Dark Sky Park status, but the key criteria is just the quality of the night sky."

Light and fixtures that aren't designed with dark skies in mind contribute to light pollution that both hampers the natural vistas of the Milky Way galaxy. Think of the glow you can see when driving at night as you approach the nearest town or city, or how few stars can be seen from inside of town versus out in the country. Light pollution can also have negative impacts on the natural processes and behaviours of plants and animals in the environment, similar to how it can throw off our circadian rhythms and make going to bed at healthy times much more difficult. In order to achieve that Dark Sky Park recognition, Gibb explained there were several steps, two years in the making, that had to be taken in order to reduce the amount of light that would beam up into the sky at night.

"It was a lot of work," he said.

"It's a voluntary process, but it's quite the rigorous application process with the IDA. One of the first things we had to do was an inventory of all of our light fixtures around the park, park offices and campgrounds, and then we had to create a lighting management plan to change all the lighting we needed to change to dark sky friendly outdoor lighting."

The changes to fixtures doesn't mean taking them away, as that can create safety hazards. Instead, Gibb noted that new fixtures were installed that directed light downwards instead of allowing it to beam up into the night sky.

Another step in the process was proving to the IDA that the night sky is "exceptionally dark, beautiful and free of light" as Gibb put it, which is obvious to anyone who has camped out under the stars at Quetico, but hard to convince with word of mouth alone. The answer, then, was plenty of legwork and some very late nights.

"Starting in 2019, we sent our park rangers all over the park, but into the backcountry as well to do sky quality measurements in the middle of the night to measure the darkness of the night sky," Gibb said.

"Over time, since this is an annual thing we'll be reporting on, it will show improvements or degradation of the quality of the night sky due to light pollution. We owe a huge kudos to our backcountry rangers for paddling all day long, clearing portages, and then waking up in the middle of the night. They have to take these readings during astronomical darkness. In August, that's the middle-middle of the night, like 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning."

Gibb said there isn't a lot that will change for visitors to the park now that Quetico is Dark Sky certified. The park will have some new educational signage and publications to teach campers and other park visitors of the importance of keeping skies dark, and those who camp overnight will be encouraged to keep their own lights to a minimum in order to let everyone experience the majesty of the stars.

"At Quetico and Ontario Parks, what we do is preserve the natural environment and we are concerned with maintaining the ecological integrity of our parks," he said.

"This is just one way that we can do that by reducing our light pollution in our campgrounds and developed areas and promote the importance of natural night skies."

For more information of the International Dark-Sky Association, their initiatives and the importance of combating light pollution, visit their website at www.darksky.org.

Ken Kellar, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Fort Frances Times