By STEPHEN A. NELSON
“My God, look at all the cars!”
So exclaimed local artist Di Ward, when she saw the heavy traffic for the Beyond The Stars star party at Lake Annette October 25.
It was the opening night of Jasper's Dark Sky Festival.
Scores of cars lined the road and filled the parking lots as locals and visitors made their way out to the lake shore for a night of star gazing.
Billed as a “galactic experience,” it was an almost perfect night for the 15 or so visiting astronomers to set up their telescopes and set the controls for the heart of distant suns. Star-struck visitors were lined up 10 deep to peer through the lenses to infinity and beyond.
The clear skies and open space transformed the beach area into a natural observatory. The Milky Way appeared directly overhead like a glacier of stars.
“It looks like a planetarium,” said one awe-struck Japanese visitor.
Tourism Jasper's CEO Mary Darling said about 500 people attended the inaugural event. And she estimates that - despite the clouds and cold rain - there were another 300-400 people at Pyramid Island on Saturday night for the Starlight Adventure.
Even though hard numbers are hard to come by, even an informal head count shows how much the Dark Sky Festival has grown in scope. At the first star party two years ago, there were an assortment of astronomers, a murder of media people and a small assembly of accidental tourists.
This year, the festivities not only pulled visitors into Jasper's orbit, they made an impression in cyberspace, too.
Tourism Jaspers' media specialist, Kimberley Hill.
said that the media campaign "gained 31 million impressions on Facebook, 12,700 interactions and almost 30,000 visits to the Jasper Travel website.”
In addition, Hill said, the festival is getting the attention of international freelance journalists who are “helping to spread the word about Jasper as a place to come to.”
One person who has seen real growth of the festival's star appeal is Marianne Garrah at Jasper Community Habitat for the Arts. Since the first year of the festival, the Habitat has run and hosted the Dark Sky Photography workshops with famed photographer Yuichi Takasaka.
In 2011, 15 photographers signed up for the two workshops on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
In 2012, that number doubled to 30. This year, 44 people attended the two sessions with Takasaka – and there were even more who wanted to take part.
“We did have to turn people away on Saturday,” said Garrah.
Garrah said the participants were increasingly from further flung regions.
“Interestingly, in year one, we saw people from town and region mostly. In the past two years, we are seeing people from out of province, mostly.”
Rene Vena – owner of Café Mondo – says she wasn't sure for the first two years of the festival.
“This being the third year, I was very surprised at the number of people it attracted,” she said. “We were extremely busy on the weekend – and they were all people from out of town here for the Dark Sky Festival.”
Vena said she is already looking forward to next year's festival.
“It is nice ... both the travellers and the locals have the chance to visit when the town is quiet.”
Tracy Maple, owner of Buffalo Betty's Gifts store, was a bit more muted in her response.
She said the three Dark Sky Festival weekends (so far) haven't produced any real change in sales at the store.
But, she says, her staff noticed this year the town was busier than your average weekend in October. "Given a few more years, it has the potential to have success similar to Jasper in January.”
There is a difficulty in producing hard numbers to prove just how many people came for Dark Skies. Parks Canada's figures for visitors to the Park over the weekend won't be available for months. And there was no toll gate set up at either Lake Annette or Pyramid Island.
"It's a very hard number to track,” said Darling, noting that visitors can come to Jasper at this time without necessarily signing up for a Dark Sky package. At the events, nobody is distinguishing the visitors from the locals taking part.
But for Darling, there is no doubt that the stakeholders, partners and sponsors are getting a real return on investment.
“Dark Sky” packages feature at hotels and restaurants served astronomy-themed menus.
Darling said partners are seeing value in the festival – and that they want in.
“They're not only telling us[they see real value], but they're building more product. And actions speak just as loud as words sometimes.”
STEPHEN A. NELSON IS A JASPER-BASED FREELANCE JOURNALIST