MOUNT MEGANTIC, CANADA — In southeastern Quebec, there is an enormous dark sky reserve, which was the first of its kind when it was created in 2007. The reserve is spread over a small section of the Appalachian range where Mount Megantic stretches up into the sky. The mountain is one of the tallest in this region of Quebec. At the mountain's summit, under the great dark sky, there sits an astrological observatory complete with a giant telescope and an ASTROlab.
Nearby sits another peak, Mount St. Joseph. At its summit stands a chapel erected in the 19th century. European settlers credited St. Joseph with helping them survive their first harsh winter. The twin monuments to God and Universe stand nearly opposite each other, overlooking the Lac Megantic region of Quebec's eastern townships.
On clear nights at the 5,500-square-kilometer reserve, visitors can see nearly every star in the night sky. Even without the massive telescope on the summit, you can spot galaxies, planets, and constellations; you can count the stars, and trace the ones that fall, shoot, and spark across a sky as black as pitch.
Without the light from cities to mar it, or a cityscape to jut into view, the sky above feels enormous and goes up, out, and around for miles and miles.
For the past 30 summers, the mountain and the observatory have been home to a popular astronomy festival. Each year, hundreds of visitors make their way to Mount Megantic's summit. Once there, they stretch their necks back and turn their eyes up toward the heavens as the park guides give a tour of the celestial wonders — the sun, moon, stars, and the whole universe beyond our small blue planet.
This is a region known more for showcasing the exquisite elegance of nature than anything else. This summer, however, the region gained notoriety for something altogether different.
A week before the opening night of the astronomy festival, about 50 kilometers west of the mountain, in the nearby town of Lac Megantic, a train jumped the tracks. Under the shadow of Mount Megantic, the train's cars caught fire, and fireballs exploded into the sky. Fire engines rushed in from as far away as Maine.
The Music Cafe, a popular bar in the Lac Megantic's downtown, was the epicenter of the disaster. It was filled with people doing what people in bars do: hanging out, listening to music, tossing back drinks. Some people were having fun, others might have been having less fun. Some people were probably sitting alone, others with old friends. Some had met new friends, others just-for-tonight friends. Then the train jumped the tracks, caught fire, and destroyed the picturesque downtown.
It was nearly a week later that a group of tourists, park employees, and scientists filed into the lecture hall in Mount Megantic's ASTROlab for the opening of the astronomy festival.
"This is a particularly poignant anniversary," said the observatory's executive director, Robert Lamontange, speaking in French. "As you know, we are all in mourning following the catastrophe that occurred at the end of last week at Lac Megantic."
The national park, like the rest of the Lac Megantic region, was closely connected to and relied upon the nearby town of Lac Megantic. The town of about 6,100 people was one of the largest in the area of small, interconnected communities.
People here know each other, the executive director said, and each permanent park employee knows several people who died or who were in some way impacted by the disaster.
The entire region, Lamontange continued, "has been gripped by the devastation" that killed dozens of people, including parents, friends and neighbors. "People we all knew. It makes us think about the discourse over the past couple years concerning protecting nature and the environment. [The Lac Megantic disaster] underscores the urgency of addressing these issues."
At 8 p.m., after the executive director spoke, the entire Mount Megantic park, from the welcome center to the observatory at the summit, joined many throughout Canada and parts of the Northeastern United States in lighting candles and observing a moment of silence in memory and solidarity with those suffering from the fallout.
In the last century, the town of Lac Megantic was the regional center for the passenger and commercial freight train system. Over time, however, the town's rail-centric economy gave way to other industries, namely tourism, eco-tourism and lumber processing. The town and the surrounding areas rely on tourism dollars to survive.
According to tourism officials, upwards of 45 million Canadian dollars come into the Lac Megantic region during the tourist-heavy months. There is a bitter irony to the fact that the very rail system that gave birth to the region may also be its temporary undoing.
Already the area is feeling the loss of tourism dollars. On the opening night of the astronomy festival, normally one of the most popular events of the year, many spots that had been reserved in advance were canceled last minute.
Park officials couldn't, or wouldn't, say exactly how many people decided against coming to the astronomy festival, but it was enough that the late-night shuttles, which leave hourly to carry visitors from the mountain's base to the observatory at the summit, were empty or nearly empty.
Park officials, however, decided against cancelling the late shuttles altogether, hoping instead that people would reconsider their visit or that other people would come along spontaneously to fill the bus seats for a few hours of looking up and from this small section of the Universe into the beyond.
Other tourist destinations in the area were also feeling the pinch. Many hotels and motels are still filled with journalists and Canadian officials there to investigate the disaster, but sooner or later those people too will leave. The mayor of Lac Megantic, Colette Roy-Laroche, has made a public plea to people not to cancel their summer plans.
In the days following the explosion, disaster tourists — local day-trippers from nearby towns — have been pouring into Lac Megantic on the backs of thundering Harleys, or piled into cars and vans. Some have found spots across the lake that have afforded them a view into the town's leveled "red zone," the area still blocked off in the town center.
The day-trippers can also be found standing beneath the enormous cross that stands on top of a small mountain peak looking over the lake and town of Lac Megantic. From the bottom of the cross, which is illuminated at night, the tourists, armed with imposing cameras and binoculars, have a relatively clear and detailed view of the wreckage in the town below.
On top of Mont Megantic, some 50 kilometers away, however, the tourists and the guides, many who are in mourning, look up and out towards the heavens.
It is close to midnight on the summit, a cold wind has kicked up. There is laughter and the hushed joy, wonder, and even a touch of fear that comes when humans come face-to-face with the grand great deep of the Universe. There is a feeling of camaraderie among the small groups of visitors queuing in the dark to peer into the telescope's lens. People gather in bunches around the guides explaining about stars and constellations light years away.
In a corner of the observatory, the candle is still lit and flickering against the wind, and suddenly grief and absence is, as the author CS Lewis wrote, "like the sky, spread over everything."
Neda Semnani is a freelance writer at work on her first book. She is the former Heard on the Hill columnist and the arts and culture reporter for CQ Roll Call. Her work has also appeared in the Washington City Paper, BuzzFeed, CityStream, and more.
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