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Vankleek Hill Skies helped inspire The Backyard Astronomer as a young man

I have always had a personal connection with the country skies of Vankleek Hill.

My passion for the night began in 1965 at the early age of eight. It was an elementary school library book entitled “Stars” that drew my attention to the heavens.

Thumbing through the book, my first “wow factor” was a drawing of our sun compared to the tiny earth. Like a string of pearls, you can line up 109 earths across the belly of the sun and it would hold 1.3 million of our worlds inside if it was hollow – it is not. I read about its distance of 150 million kilometres, the colours of stars, their temperatures, distances, compositions, etc. – I needed to learn more.

I grew up in the suburbs on the southern tip of the island of Montreal and night skies were fairly dark back in those days. As the years passed, I eventually bought a pair of binoculars, along with the monthly issue of Sky and Telescope magazine for its articles and the pullout sky chart in the middle of the publication. On clear nights I started learning the constellations and over the months and years became familiar with the starry patterns, as well as the movement of the naked-eye planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn).

I purchased my first small 70mm telescope in June of 1968, along with professional star charts. I was now able to hunt down and observe some of the brighter star clusters and lovely double stars. The extra magnification gave decent views of Saturn’s rings, Jupiter and its moons as well as the cratered moon.

Eight years later I sent away for a serious telescope, capable of viewing galaxies tens to hundreds of millions of light-years away. It was an eight-inch f/6 Newtonian reflector on a heavy 45-pound equatorial mount. Now I had the equipment – all I needed were dark skies. But where could I go?

Along came January of 1976, when I joined the Montreal Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. The Society now has 29 centres located in major cities from coast to coast. Here is where I met a few influential people who would help in my pursuit of astronomy, such as David H. Levy, who went on to discover and co-discover 23 comets – including Shoemaker-Levy 9 that collided with the planet Jupiter in 1994.

However, it was Fred Clarke and Alister Ling who launched my star gazing into hyper-drive. I am still in contact with Alister and David, but sadly Fred was killed in a car accident in 1998, leaving us far too soon.

Fred’s parents lived in Vankleek Hill and allowed Alister and me to set up our telescopes under its pristine dark skies. It was during a mid-spring weekend and a new moon that we made our first 90-minute road trip from Montreal to Vankleek Hill in Al’s Volkswagon Rabbit. Arriving at our destination we stepped out of the car, immediately looked up and my knees buckled. My eyes were treated to more than a thousand bright stars against a black velvet sky. We must have stared for what seemed an eternity and then remembered to unpack our telescopes for the first of many great nights viewing the cosmos and its treasures.

Over the years we made monthly visits, if weather and personal schedules allowed. We endured bug-ridden, humid summer nights and braved bone-chilling January and February weekends, where the winter constellations such as Orion appeared extra bright. The silence of winter nights allows one to hear their heartbeat. I had observed and imaged the sky as never thought possible.

I now live in rural South Dundas, under the starry canopy and veil of the Milky Way. Although I have been looking at the stars for decades, I will never forget the memorable skies of Vankleek Hill.

Until next time, clear skies.

Known as “The Backyard Astronomer”, Gary Boyle is an astronomy educator, guest speaker and monthly columnist for the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. He has been interviewed on more than 50 Canadian radio stations and local Ottawa TV. In recognition of his public outreach in astronomy, the International Astronomical Union has honoured him with the naming of Asteroid (22406) Garyboyle. Follow him on Twitter: @astroeducator or his website.

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