The stars above the Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park became a little easier to enjoy last Thursday when the park’s new observatory was formally unveiled.
Friends of Cypress Hills Park CEO Gerald Gartner took great pleasure in handing over the keys of the observatory to park staff to culminate a three-year dream to make this facility a reality. The observatory is equipped with a 14-inch computerized Celestron telescope, and is situated beside a classroom building which seats 60 and utilizes a viewing screen to show large groups the imagery captured by the telescope.
Gartner highlighted that fundraising for the project began in 2008, and after site preparation work last fall they just completed construction, highlighted by over 2,000 hours of volunteer sweat equity.
“I feel tremendous,” he said. “It’s a tremendous feeling that we finally got to this point after three years of fundraising and then six months of hard work.”
“The use of this facility will now be turned over to the park to use, to expand their astronomical programming, to develop an outreach program for the school, to establish an astronomer-in-residence program, and to provide public access to the stars,” Gartner commented during an opening ceremony on Aug. 25.
The Friends of Cypress Hills Park generated a total of $150,000 through their fundraising efforts, and the park added another $50,000 in site preparation and servicing. However, the building only became a reality after nearly all of the construction labour was donated by volunteers and contractors.
“The Friends see this as becoming a premier teaching facility for your visitors. We need to teach the young and the old on the importance of the dark skies and the roll that our celestial sky played in our lives and the lives of our ancestors. And what better place to learn than in the Cypress Hills Dark Sky Preserve.”
Royal Astronomical Society of Canada representative Richard Huziak admitted that the observatory only enhances the already outstanding star viewing from the Cypress Hills.
“The viewing at Cypress Hills is spectacular. It’s known as one of the darkest areas in North America, and it’s also known as one of the clearest areas of North America, so your probability of clear skies is about 70 per cent. It’s generally clear and dry here, and also at up over 4,000 feet you get just a better look at the stars because you’re in just a clear atmosphere.”
Huziak was among the large turnout of skywatchers at the park participating in the 15th annual Saskatchewan Summer Star Party at Cypress Hills.
“I think it’s very unique,” Huziak said of the park’s observatory. “There’s not a lot of parks that would want to take on the project of building and managing an observatory and a classroom facility. But Cypress Hills Park is so enthusiastic, the staff here is so good. And they already had a very sustained astronomy program before the Friends of Cypress Hills decided well maybe we should build you guys an observatory and classroom. This is pretty unique and the enthusiasm behind it is fantastic.”
Huziak was also speaking as one of the individuals instrumental in the Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park’s designation as a Dark Sky Preserve on Sept. 28, 2004. The park was the third location in Canada to receive Dark Sky Preserve status, but at over 96,000 acres it is by far the largest in the country and the world.
“The preservation of the now scarce resource, the dark nighttime sky, within our so called Land of Living Skies, became the passion of the park, the park staff, and the parners of the park,” he explained.
Last Thursday’s opening also came a decade after the discovery of Comet Petriew during the Summer Star Party in 2001 from the Meadows Campground. This discovery ultimately set off a chain of events culminating in the creation of The Cypress Hills Dark Sky Preserve that was signed in 2004 and ultimately set the stage for the further addition of the observatory facility.
Marty Halpape, South Park Operations Manager with Tourism, Parks, Culture and Sports, Parks Service Division said the new observatory makes the park the enjoy of Canada’s parks system.
“We at Parks Service are extremely proud of this new facility and what it means for our park and what it’ll mean for you, as our visitors. This observatory will add a whole new dimension to your Cypress Hills experience. It is another example of how parks are growing,” Halpape said.
“Now our visitors to Cypress Hills will not only experience the breathtaking vistas, the challenging heights and the rich, rich history, they will also be able to explore the universe.”
Halpape saluted the Friends of Cypress Hills for their efforts that have enabled Cypress Hills to be the first Provincial Park in Saskatchewan to offer an education opportunity to visitors about the wonders of the night sky.
“Their support is invaluable. Their dedication in seeing this project through, and others like it, has enhanced Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park as a destination.”
Cypress Hills MLA Wayne Elhard also saluted the observatory project.
“This observatory will mean so much to visitors of the park,” Elhard said. “It will mean another place to appreciate the endless Saskatchewan skies and to marvel at the stars above, and it will be a place of discovery.”
Gartner said the view from the observatory is one that has to be seen to be appreciated.
“It’s beautiful. It took us a little while to get the telescope working properly, but now that it’s going it’s tremendous. Tremendous views out there. And I’m not an astronomer but when you look at the moon and stuff it’s quite interesting. It’s different. We always dream about that when we’re kids so now, here it is. Let’s do it,” Gartner said.
“You can get out to see the nebulas and that kind of thing so it’s a pretty powerful unit.”