Fighting light pollution in Nova Scotia

How astropreneur Tim Doucette works to keep the night skies above him as black as pitch, and why that’s important to Nova Scotia and the world

During the day, amateur astronomer Tim Doucette, who is legally blind, wears dark glasses to help his damaged eyes cope with the sun. But through the lens of his telescope, when the stars emerge over his observatory in the back woods of Yarmouth County, he can see forever.

Not always, of course. This is Southwest Nova Scotia, after all. In summer, the evening sky here is perfectly clear about half the time. But that’s enough to draw hundreds of visitors a year from Halifax and Montreal, from New Brunswick and Ontario, from the United States and the United Kingdom to his celestial peep show in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night.

He estimates that more than 2,000 people (“astrotourists”), each paying a fee, have passed through his Deep Sky Eye Observatory since he opened for business near his hometown of Quinan in 2016. They come for his rustic, yet comfortable, back-of-beyond accommodations. They come for his genial lectures on planets, nebulae, and galaxies. Mostly, they come for the dark.

“I don’t know how much you know about readings,” (which, as it turns out, isn’t much) he queries from his 300-square-foot operations centre. “But we’re into the seventh magnitude of visual. My best reading is 22.6.” Translation: It’s black.

From here, with Mother Nature’s cooperation and the right equipment, an observer can discern heavenly bodies that are more than 100 million times dimmer than, say, Venus. For inveterate stargazers, that’s enormously alluring. It’s also a singular thrill on which many are willing to spend substantial sums.

Doucette’s unprepossessing enterprise is part of a bigger trend in leisure travel. Reliable numbers are elusive, but current research suggests that dark-sky enthusiasts comprise one of the fastest-growing segments of the annual $8-trillion US global tourism industry. To get their night fix, middle-class Americans have been known to blow a month’s wages on last-minute airfare to, say, Chile, if the viewing is ideal.

“It’s definitely a thing,” says Halifax’s David Lane, a life member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and a past-president of the city’s chapter, who has known and admired Doucette for years. “Tim has tapped into, for lack of a better word, a yearning. People are inundated with light these days. We are pouring it into the night sky almost indiscriminately. There’s also an environmental dimension. How do we generate this electricity? Well, in Nova Scotia, it’s with coal.”

For Doucette, light is the enemy. His Deep Sky Eye lies within only one of two UNESCO dark sky territories in North America, a designation he (and the previous owners of a nearby luxury resort, Trout Point Lodge in East Kemptville), worked hard to secure in 2014. Renewal of the status, which bestows obvious commercial benefits, is not automatic. Periodically, advocates of this Acadian Skies and Mi’kmaq Lands Starlight Reserve must prove that their area remains as stygian as ever. That chore is on Doucette—right now, in fact. “The applications are underway,” he says.

It doesn’t help that local support for the initiative isn’t unanimous. Recently, he says he fought a neighbour who had erected a 55-watt LED streetlight and pointed it directly at the observatory. Doucette shrugs. “We contacted our lawyer,” he says. “The light is still shining, but no longer right at us… There’s a story behind it, but I won’t get into it. It’s a jealous individual. That’s all I’ll say.”

But most locals support Doucette’s efforts. Argyle’s municipal council, recognizing the tourism potential, has wholly endorsed the dark skies program. La Société Touristique Bon Temps d’Argyle, which played a crucial role in obtaining the region’s original designation, remains a full-throated partner. Nova Scotia’s tourism department invites visitors to “discover and savour” starlight encounters, “whether in the Acadian Skies and Mi’kmaq Lands region, or another part of our province.”

Patrick Wallace, who has owned Trout Point Lodge with his wife Pam since 2018, says: “On clear nights, the skies never cease to amaze our guests. Many of them specifically mention stargazing as a highlight of their time with us. The fact is, we are blessed with something that 99% of the population is not.”

No one appreciates that better than Doucette. Born and raised in Yarmouth County, he fell head over heels with the night sky as a kid. The magic of that celestial dome was intoxicating. Somewhere up there are the hundreds of billions of stars that cosmologists estimate comprise the Milky Way. Beyond that, they said, the observable universe contained as many as one septillion more (that’s 1, followed by 24 zeros). It seemed a shame, somehow, that only 5,000 of them were visible from Earth with the naked eye. Worse, yet, Doucette’s naked eyes weren’t up for the job.

“I was born with congenital cataracts,” he says. “I went for surgery when I was a teenager, and they had to remove the lenses of my eyes. They didn’t replace them with anything, but they did widen my pupils. So, I now have nice, 12-millimetre apertures: permanently dilated eyes with no lenses. Eventually, I kind of got discouraged, so I put stargazing on the back burner.”

Years passed. He graduated with a degree in computer science from Dalhousie University in Halifax and eventually moved to Moncton where he worked in IT for Blue Cross. The job was OK but something was missing. His wife Amanda, who is also visually impaired, worried he was spending too much time playing video games. So, she bought him a telescope. He joined the Royal Astronomical Society. He built a small observatory in his yard. And he started thinking about the dark skies of home.

“My parents were getting older,” he says. “One day, I was sitting in my cubicle working overtime and I said, ‘What the heck am I doing here?’”

Photo: Brenda Tate

Doucette still works 40 hours a week as a software developer for a medical consulting company. Now, though, he toils from his Quinan home in the daytime. The nights are for Deep Sky Eye, which he owns with his wife and brother, and which he’s determined to keep building as a going concern. Currently, he offers visitors tent and cabin lodgings, BBQ stations, and continental breakfasts along with presentations, tours of the night sky and access to his Celestron EdgeHD telescope equipped with a 4,000-millimetre lens (for what he calls the “Holy Cow!” factor).

Meanwhile, he labours to keep the skies dark. “I just did a presentation in June to Argyle municipal council,” he says. “They really understand the importance of this. We’re proving that astrotourism works here. We’ve had people from all over the world here. Council is actually approaching the provincial government to have excessive light included as a nuisance clause in the bylaws.”

At times, though, he simply prefers to be alone with the stars.

“It’s a funny thing,” he laughs. “But with my eyes the way they are, I can actually see through a telescope better than most people. The lens of the eye is a natural filter for ultraviolet light. But I don’t have lenses, so I can actually see in the UV band. I can perceive things, colours nobody else can.”

In a way then, Tim Doucette really can see forever.

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