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Just Out Of Sight

Just Out Of Sight

Things seen and unseen near Fort Smith
By Mark Rendell
Jan 09
From the January 2017 Issue

“Do you hear laughter?” asks a friend, trying to listen beyond the distant hum of a generator. It’s now 2:30 a.m. and we’ve parked the orange 1984 Westphalia in a concrete square where a gas station or perhaps a strip mall once stood. The top is popped for the night, and two of us are snuggled in up above, while three of us are squished head to toe on the fold-down bed in the back.

There really is nothing left of Pine Point but a sprawling grid of concrete streets and wilting telephone poles. It’s less like the houses, shops, school and hockey arena were torn down or packed up and shipped to Hay River when the mine closed in 1988, and more like an atomic bomb touched down a few kilometres away, vaporizing everything an inch above the ground. Still, there’s something so thin and empty about the place, it’s electric. “I’ve heard that people from Fort Smith and Hay River come out here every summer to camp where their old houses were,” a friend says. 

The next morning we tour the town. There’s no sign of campers, though we find a rusty car flipped sideways in a ditch, trees tangled up around it and bullet holes splattered through the roof. Nearby, there are painted white stones placed lovingly along the edge of a sandy path and on top of the hill there’s a wooden cross. It doesn’t look like a grave so much as the altarpiece for an open air chapel. We get back in the van, and drive south as it begins to sprinkle with rain.

Rain is not a good sign. We’re headed south to northern Alberta and the world’s largest dark sky preserve, deep in the heart of Wood Buffalo National Park, to the annual Thebacha & Wood Buffalo Dark Sky Festival.

To be fair, for about four-fifths of our crew the trip is more of an opportunity to hitch a ride out of Yellowknife and let loose for the weekend than to “do astronomy”—an attitude on cringe-worthy display as we pull into the family-friendly festival two days late in a rusty van filled with more beer than telescopes. Still, it would be nice to see stars. 

“I’m going to create a giant vacuum to eat up all the clouds,” says a tiny girl of seven or eight with a tangle of red hair and a mischievous smile. It’s just before midnight and we’re standing in an open meadow sloping down to the shore of Pine Lake. All around us is the dense silhouette of boreal forest, and behind us, a dozen or so kids are whirling in circles of green and orange and purple—what the festival’s program calls the “Glow Stick Rave.” 

“It’s got to be a big vacuum,” she adds, pointing to a tent covering telescopes and expensive astronomy gear. “And we need a box, twice as big as that tent to store the clouds.”

It’ll have to be mighty big container for all these clouds, I concur, looking up at the night sky. It’s meant to be awash with constellations and crisscrossed by ribbons of aurora. But it’s mostly grey, with only a star here or there winking mercifully through crimps in the cloud cover. 

“So how are we going to get up there and capture the clouds?” I ask my young friend, genuinely enjoying her million-mile-an-hour thought process. 

“Rockets,” she responds. 

“Makes sense.”

She skips off to join the rave. I head to the fire pit in the centre of the camp. Earlier, I'd come across a large metal tube on wheels with a grill on the front and an ominous sign on the side: danger bears inside. There was no grizzly when I peaked in. But it’s awfully dark just beyond the ring of benches around the fire. At least I know where the laughter is coming from tonight as the glow sticks whirl away.