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Astronomy club sets up new site in the dark of Elgin

Sarah Rennie

Following the loss of a longtime observatory site in Hemmingford in 2019, the Société d’Astronomie du Planétarium de Montréal (SAPM) has been searching for a replacement. A new location in Hemmingford was established near the fire station, but it is closer to the village and its associated light pollution.

“For the diehard members of the club who wanted darker skies, we moved westward,” says SAPM member Pierre Tournay. “The idea was to find an accessible spot with as little light as possible, under 90 minutes from Montreal,” he says, recalling how they blindly started knocking on doors, moving west bit by bit from Hemmingford, to Havelock and into Hinchinbrooke. One night, he decided to drive even farther, and found himself crossing the covered bridge at Powerscourt. “On the other side of it, I felt I was transported back into the 1800s. I thought there must have been a power failure,” he laughs. Tournay stopped and got out of his car and looked up. “You could see the Milky Way with the naked eye,” he exclaims.

 

Matthew Wallace stands with the sign located at the new SAPM observation site located on his farm in Elgin.  PHOTO Pierre Tournay

 

Convinced he had found that elusive ideal of dark skies and low light, he returned home and began searching on Google maps for an open space with an access road. Then the club members started to knock on doors. “It took 15 different spots to find the one in Elgin, and the better part of 18 months,” he says. That spot turned out to be located on the 3rd Concession, east of the Paul Sideroad, on land owned by Matthew Wallace of Ferme A&B Blankers. Tournay says he was thrilled when his unsolicited knock at Wallace’s door was answered and his request to set up an observation site on his land well received.

 

A light pollution map clearly shows the absence of light in Elgin. PHOTO Pierre Tournay

 

“He just showed up here,” Wallace laughingly recalls. “I thought it was a great idea, and we don’t use the land back there,” he adds. The site is right on top of what locals refer to as the Hogsback. It took five loads of gravel to smooth out the access road enough that members could securely transport their delicate equipment in the back of their “city” cars. “It’s really dark back there,” he confirms, noting that the guys who came to the site last summer were pretty hard-core observers, with top-notch equipment. “You could see the moons around Saturn,” says Wallace, whose young family was able to enjoy a close-up look at the night sky with the SAPM members.

“It’s a great spot, with a beautiful horizon, and dark,” says Tournay — emphasis on dark. “To get even darker skies, one must go to Mégantic or La Vérendrye Park, but those are three- to four-hour drives each way,” he says, insisting Elgin is the darkest location south of Montreal.

“We are chasing galaxies and nebulas, so we need the dark,” he explains, adding that while COVID kept the astronomy club’s members from enjoying the Elgin site as much as they would have liked, the few times they did come out they were able to see celestial objects without telescopes, “which is a very good sign.”

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