Spotlight (or Lack Thereof) on Vancouver: McDonald Park Dark Sky Preserve

Just over a week ago, on New Year’s Eve’s Eve, my significant other started looking up (no pun intended) local haunts for stargazers. B-cat is a budding physicist/mathematician who is somewhat interested in astronomy; I had dropped out of the New Year planning effort.

“How about here?” B-cat pointed at the map, at the ocean. “It’s a dock that extends out to sea, with nothing around it.”

I saw myself being elbowed off the dock by amateur astronomers and sinking slowly into a watery grave as they counted down.

“Or we could go to Burnaby Mountain. They say it’s nice up there.”

I recalled the mosquitoes attacking my face as I lay by the Burnaby Mountain Park parking lot, the year of the Perseids meteor shower, with 60 other human logs.

The brainstorm session went nowhere. The next day, B-cat and I awoke at dinnertime.

“We only have four hours to get anywhere for countdown!” I wailed.

“GPS says McDonald Park is only an hour away — let’s go there. We have plenty of time to prepare,” said B.

B-cat is no cheetah. We did not set out until slightly under an hour before midnight, armed with three half-eaten bags of snacks we’d already been working on and a towel. One never travels without a towel.

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Park sign, photo taken by me

With B-cat’s driving, we reached the park with 15 minutes to spare. What we first saw was that the entrance was squeezed between the two fields of two creepy farms. What we then saw were the locked gates of the park.

“Park open during daylight hours only,” a sign said. A dark sky preserve… closed when it’s dark?

McDonald Park is, to summarise, an hour from Vancouver proper by highway. Located in Abbotsford (approx. 10 minutes out of the city), it is snuggled against the Sumas Mountains and maintained by the government — with the efforts of the Fraser Valley Astronomers Society — as an area free of city light pollution. This is of course so you could better observe the night sky. The park is only open during daytime and FVAS events.

And then B walked around the gate while I ducked underneath, and we were in.

Under a huge, dinner roll-shaped moon, we hurried down the path/road into the park. B-cat suggested spreading our “blanket” (in this order) under the drooping trees in the dark, at the empty campsite in the dark, by the abandoned playground swings in the dark, and further on into the darkness… in the dark.

B doesn’t watch that many horror movies.

As I tried to explain horror movie logic to him, an owl hooted in the distance, the sound echoing through the mountains. A single metallic creak came from out of the darkness, somewhere by the campsite. And then… silence. I grabbed B and fled.

We set up our picnic in the middle of the road, from which we could see attackers from any direction. B took out his phone; it had an analog clock, with only hour and minute displays. He began looking for a different clock app at 11:55. Predictably, we entered 2015 staring at the app menu. (But we were with each other, and it wasn’t freezing; it was a good night.)

Google Street View of the main path/road as seen from inside the park
Google Street View of the main path/road as seen from inside the park

Ten minutes later, a car pulled up beside B’s, until then the only vehicle at the gate. Two men got out with flashlights and walked rapidly down the only path.

“Should we hide?” I asked.

“Hide where? They can see us anywhere, with the moon this bright.”

“We can at least move off the path?”

So B-cat and I dragged the blanket five feet off the path, into the bramble-filled ditch. There we squatted, less comfortable but no less visible. The two strangers passed us, literally within arm’s reach, without a word or glance. They disappeared into the woods.

Less than 10 minutes later, two figures came running out of the woods without any light.

“Hey, what’s up?” B called out as they passed us. No response.

“Should we get out of here, too?” I asked.

“That might be a good idea.”

So we chased the strangers across the field and back to the gate, where they took the final few steps to their car at a (strangely) leisurely pace before driving away.

What were they running from? Was it safe to go back into the park? I suggested they might’ve committed a crime, and that if we went back we’d be mistaken as the perpetrators. B suggested they might’ve been too spooked by the sight of us to continue their trek. A friend later suggested they might’ve stumbled upon a bear. We may never know.

The stars were nice, though.

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You can read more about McDonald Park here: http://www.hellobc.com/abbotsford/things-to-do/parks-wildlife/parks.aspx

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