Astrophotographer and host of dark sky viewing events at the Dark Sky Viewing Area
The night sky has been a consistent fascination for Joe Gilker. It wasn’t until the year 2000 when he decided to purchase a telescope. From that point on, the sky was the limit (pun intended) in terms of what he could explore and discover. Over the years, Joe also cultivated a skill in night sky photography. Through this continuous pursuit, his knowledge and appreciation for the night sky increased. His skillset for capturing the night sky was duly recognized when he was approached by Lennox & Addington Dark Sky Viewing Area to start hosting night sky viewing events. He has been doing so for about 4 years every summer and finds joy in amazing people with a unique and memorable experience. Situated in Kaladar, Ontario, the Dark Sky Viewing Area is one of the most southern spots in Ontario where people can view the sky in its entirety without any disruptions from light pollution. People have come from far distances to experience and revel in the laser guided tours. Joe shares his stories on his experiences and what people can expect from the Dark Sky Viewing Area.
What can you tell me about the events you lead at the Lennox & Addington Dark Sky Viewing Area?
Well, they’re for the general public not necessarily experienced stargazers or photographers. This is really for general public awareness but also it’s informative for people who don’t know the night sky at all. In many cases, people are seeing things that they’ve never really seen. The majority of folks that go there have never had a chance to look through a telescope before which is very exciting, that always gets some “oooohs” and “ahhhs” from the crowd.
It’s definitely something unique to see. What inspired you to lead these events?
In 2014, the Dark Sky Viewing Area had a photography contest that I entered a few photos over the course of the summer. I didn’t think anything much of it and I ended up winning! The funny part about it was that the judge of this contest was Terrance Dickinson, who is an author and amateur astronomer who is quite well-known in books and he’s the guy who had the site [L&A Dark Sky Viewing Area] created. I knew of him because I had seen him on the Discovery Channel back in the 90s. When I decided to get a telescope back in around 2000, I knew I needed some help so I decided I wanted to get a book and I saw one of Terrance Dickinson’s books and I’m like “I know who this guy is, I’ve seen him on TV.”
So this is what got me started. He’s the guy who got me started in astronomy and photography and all of a sudden he was the judge for this contest and he picked my pictures as the 1st place winner of the contest. I ended up getting a call from Rob Plumley who is the manager of the site. He said “Terrance and I would like to meet with you.” So I met with them and learned they were planning on doing these monthly events throughout the summer.
What a full circle moment! My husband and I went to one of these events last summer and it was fantastic! What would you say have been some of the most exciting moments for you in running these night sky viewing events?
There were two major highlights I can recall. It was our first show of the year in May and we ended up having a surprise aurora borealis of an intensity that I’ve never seen in this area. I watch the weather forecast pretty religiously and they had nothing predicted and we got out there and before it was dark and I was looking out to the northern sky and I could see this greenish glow that shouldn’t have been there. I took my camera and did a long exposure shot and I thought “oh my God, there’s aurora in bright daylight!” Throughout the night it was almost overwhelming to have this intense aurora dancing around the northern sky. This was going overhead and I could have been standing there saying anything and people wouldn’t have noticed what I said. Everyone was just dazzled by this bright light and even myself, I’m trying to keep on point and all of a sudden there’s a big glare up in the sky and I’m stopping to look at it. What’s even funnier is that I’m from way up the tundra of Northern Quebec where big auroras were almost a daily occurrence. You’d walk outside and it would be dark by 2:30 pm during the winter, you’d walk outside and think “yup, aurora again!”
Wow! Then it must be rare to see one out here, right?
Yes. I mean it happens but typically you see it just above the northern horizon but you don’t get it like this overhead and it was a big surprise for everyone, myself included.
You mentioned there was a second highlight in leading these events. What was it?
We were just packing up to leave when this family showed up in two mini vans and it was probably 4 generations from older couples right down to small kids. I started pointing stuff out to them in the sky and they absolutely loved it and one of the girls was translating for her grandparents, who spoke no English. Even though I didn’t understand anything of what he said in the end, the gratitude in his voice was almost overwhelming. This was so meaningful for him and this is what struck me the most. It brought him back to his childhood at the same time too. It was a really nice moment.
What makes L&A and Ontario’s Highlands such a unique place to observe the night sky?
It’s the most southerly point in Ontario to have skies that dark. You can expect the same level of darkness as you would have seen 100 years ago. You have to go significantly farther north anywhere else in Ontario in order to get that kind of effect. All the southern edge of Ontario is the most heavily populated and light polluted area in Canada so you typically have to go quite far up north to escape that light pollution completely. Then we have this little pocket just because of the sparse population in the area that gives you such a beautiful dark sky that you don’t get anywhere else in the area.
I’m sure it must have taken a lot of planning to find the perfect spot for holding these events. What types of events can we expect to see this summer?
We have our regular events that run the weekend of the New Moon starting at the first weekend and last weekend of May. You start off with a roughly 45-minute laser-guided tour of the sky. So it’s basically me describing constellations, different stars, showing the Milky Way when it’s visible and the planets. There’s a lot of questions from the crowd, typically from kids. They have the best questions! There’s really no stupid question especially if you learn something in the end. They’ll ask questions that no adult will ask.
Another thing we’re doing will take place the weekend before the New Moon throughout the summer. It’s the unofficial astrophotographer’s assemble. So we try to get as many photographers out there as possible because most people haven’t photographed the night sky. Night time photography is a completely different animal. There are a lot of online resources out there that can help and I have my blog at darkartsastro.ca. Originally it was the diary of what I was doing when I started back in 2012.
I’d imagine that talking about the night sky leaves room to think of endless possibilities when it comes to wandering. How would you classify your wandering style?
Well, the Memory Maker and the Serenity Seeker. The Serenity Seeker I’d describe that more for myself probably less when I’m out there giving a presentation so usually when everyone has left that’s when the serenity starts. I’m usually out there all night and once it’s done around 11:30 and everyone is leaving, I’m packing up by sunrise to go home after because I’m there for the rest of the night. To me that’s my serenity moment.
When people are coming in to the area on a day when an event is not being held, what would you say are the type of conditions that would be optimal for coming out the Dark Sky Viewing Area?
Obviously as cloud free as possible but also sometime around the New Moon. You don’t want the moon around because the second it comes out, there’s light pollution. The moon is so overwhelming that it washes out the stars and you miss the fine details like the Milky Way. A small crescent moon is not so bad but you have a one-week window of the New Moon. The week before works a little bit better because the moon rises later at night.