Friday was day two at Starfest, Canada’s most amazing astronomical gathering [Aug. 12-15, 2010], and we were not due to be on stage till 7 p.m. We’d only got back to the hotel room around 4 a.m. that morning, and were at the Starfest observing site at 10 a.m. So what do you do at Starfest in the daytime, you ask?

Starfest has a fully loaded schedule of daytime activities. These included everything from learning astrophotography to fascinating lectures from people like René Doyon, a Canadian astrophysicist who is working on the amazing new James Webb Space Telescope (the Hubble Space Telescope replacement).

An added bonus: as we were leaving Starfest to return to Toronto, René was our driver. The conversation was not something that you would readily forget. What an absolutely fascinating and surprisingly normal person.

There are also vendors that attend Starfest – great news for equipment junkies like me. Meade Instruments was there with its 16-inch fully computerized Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope. Very pretty, but what caught my eye was the Coronado H-alpha solar telescope right beside this monstrosity. This amazing telescope is designed for only one purpose: to let you see solar flares, prominences and the surface of the sun.

The view was nothing short of stunning. Even my wife was amazed. The disc of the sun was a blood-red circle the size of a quarter, and solar flares were easily seen. Sunspots were wreathing with so much surface activity that it made you want to buy the telescope – which costs about $4,000 tax in – right there.

All the newest telescopes, eyepieces, accessories and astrophotography gear were here in abundance. Personally, I was most interested in the telescopes that everyone had brought with them. You name it, every type of telescope was there, and of course everyone wants to show them off with all their modifications.

Though we spent most of the afternoon walking around, we covered only a small portion of telescopes there. Everyone was friendly and most curious about the Yukon and her fabulous night skies. As evening arrived, we were treated a spectacular view of a blood-red sun sinking into the distant horizon and Venus rising nearby to make it even more dramatic.

It was now closing in on lecture time: time to get ready. That night’s lecture was on the Northern Lights and the wildlife we sometimes cross paths with.

I came equipped with lots of great pictures of the Northern Lights and the local wildlife. The Starfest audience was amazed! So thank you to those who submitted pictures. After the presentation, we were bombarded with questions. Those most frequently asked:

How often do you see the Northern Lights?

Can you hear the Northern Lights?

How cold is too cold to go observing?

What are the best months to go deep sky observing?

How far do you have to drive to get truly dark skies?

What do you do in the summer months?

Afterwards, as we went on our way for another night of deep sky observing, we were stopped and asked to give another lecture. Apparently some people had missed the Northern Lights lecture, and a scheduled speaker, Terence Dickinson, the editor of Sky News Magazine, was unable to attend.

A few years ago Terence Dickinson co-wrote a book called The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide. This is the quintessential book for all amateur astronomers. It covers equipment, accessories and the night skies in easy-to-understand descriptions and illustrations. I have recommended this book to hundreds of people, and everyone has the same response: “The best-read book in my library.”

Though it was an honour to fill in for such a well-known astronomer and author, I was a little disappointed. I wanted to shake Terence’s hand, and thank him for writing such a useful book.

Giving another lecture also meant preparing for it, after a heavy night of observing. As this was day three and we were averaging three hours’ sleep a night, we had to scramble to put together a lecture by early afternoon. But it went great.

At the final dinner in the big tent, there was one more surprise waiting for us. We were escorted to a table where renowned comet hunter and author David Levy sat. He co-discovered a comet that ploughed into Jupiter, and yes, we saw this event take place in the Yukon. Dinner conversation was fascinating, and all I could do was try to absorb it all.

Starfest 2010 was by far the best star party that I have ever attended. The people involved and the organizers’ skills were off the charts. If you ever get the chance, do yourself a favour and attend Starfest.

The best part of this trip was coming home and observing under those old familiar Yukon night skies. It is nice to see Jupiter is finally higher in the sky and the Pleiades star cluster also making an appearance.

It is a time of great change as we say goodbye to our summer constellations and hello to our fall and winter constellations. Dust off that telescope or pair of binoculars in the closet, get a copy of Sky News, and head outside and see for yourself.

Clear Skies from James “Deep Sky” Cackette.

James “Deep Sky” Cackette can be reached at yukonnightskies@yahoo.ca. See his photo adventures on Facebook at Yukon Night Skies.