Photography via Istock

Can You See Stars at Night Where You Live?

Dark Sky Preserves limit artificial light and nearby towns consciously work to reduce their light pollution.

I’m barely an hour outside of Montreal when I receive a text message that I’ve “wandered into a data roaming zone.” To avoid unexpected fees, I go off the grid, which is not quite what I had in mind when I decided to visit Au Diable Vert, a 148-hectare park outside Sutton that was named for a French expression meaning “very far away.” But as I pull into the folksy Hotel Beatnik, I realize how appropriate it is. The concierge hands me a set of metal keys, as opposed to a plastic key card, and my room has neither a TV nor a phone. Hotel Beatnik also hosts poetry readings and jazz shows, so this decor is in keeping with the Eastern Townships’ love for the antiquated.

The next evening, at the National Geographic Observ­Étoiles stargazing experience, I’m handed an augmented-reality headset and an app-equipped smartphone for a presentation that concentrates on a time before “digital detox” was a health-and-wellness concept. I take my spot in the tiered 180-seat gallery that has been built into the side of Mont Sutton at an elevation of 365 metres. It reminds me of an ancient Greek amphitheatre, albeit smaller and with more comfortable seats.

Au Diable Vert is one of two Dark Sky Preserves in Quebec (there are 22 in all of Canada), so there is no visible artificial light, and nearby towns consciously work to reduce their light pollution. I can see the Missisquoi River and Vermont’s Green Mountains but little else on the horizon.

“Ten thousand years ago, there was no radio, no TV, no Internet, no newspapers, nothing,” begins astronomer and editor of Astronomie-Québec Pierre Paquette. “So what did people do at the end of the day? They looked to the sky.”

We orient ourselves by looking south to Saturn, which is one of the brightest stars this evening. It sits right under a nearly full moon (described as a “waxing gibbous” that will be 100 per cent visible in a few days). The smartphone projects 17th-century illustrations onto a transparent glass pane in my headset, as Paquette uses a laser pointer to isolate constellations while regaling us with 15,000-year-old legends.

An augmented drawing of the centaur Nessus appears over Saturn and the stars that make up Sagittarius. Paquette tells us that the gods made him into a constellation out of pity after he gave up his immortality. Elsewhere we spy Coma Berenices, a hard-to-see cluster of stars named for Queen Berenice II of Egypt, who, in 243 BC, swore to the goddess Aphrodite that she’d sacrifice her long hair if her husband, Ptolemy, returned safely from war. “People imagined all sorts of things while looking at the sky,” says Paquette. “It’s easy when you have nothing to do.”

As my trip unfolds with win­eries, spa retreats and all things low-tech, I absorb Paquette’s words more and more. Driving to the airport, I’m almost sad when I hear the ping of incoming notifications as I return to mobile coverage and reality.

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