3 Ways to Experience the Night Sky in Thunder Bay

Out-of-this-world views are easy to come by in and around this Northern Ontario city.
Thunder Bay Ontario night sky in the winter with snow and a snowshoe in the foreground.

Check out a different kind of nightlife in Thunder Bay, Ontario! The city is home to an observatory and several astronomy groups, and the long dark nights of winter are ideal for stargazing, catching a glimpse of a meteor and even, if you’re lucky, a sky filled with unforgettable northern lights.

1. Discover Where History Meets Technology:
David Thompson Astronomical Observatory (DTAO)

The David Thompson Observatory at night; a white metal dome-shaped building with a lit window at the top which exposes the telescope. There is a mist of stars in the night sky overhead and the dark silhouette of forest in the background.
Seize the opportunity to view some incredible skies around Thunder Bay at the DTAO. // Photo credit Tourism Thunder Bay

The David Thompson Astronomical Observatory is located at Fort William Historical Park, which is a large and fascinating recreation of an 1815 inland headquarters of the North West Company, including a farm, armory, bakery, canoe building workshop and tinsmith, among many other buildings. What does a fur trade company fort have to do with astronomy? David Thompson was a surveyor, cartographer and partner with the North West Company, who used tools like a telescope, sextant and chronometer, as well as his skills in math, astronomy and surveying, to create a massive map of about 4 million square kilometres in the country that is now Canada. First Nations peoples are said to have called him “the stargazer.”

Today at the Observatory that bears his name, you can view the night sky through a powerful 20-inch telescope, one of the largest for public viewing in central Canada. The adjacent Discovery Centre is home to astronomy software and computers, and video feed and projection systems for observing images, so even if it’s a cloudy night you can still experience a virtual tour. Historic navigation equipment and a meteorite collection are also on display in the Discovery Centre.

A man wearing glasses and lab coat peers through a huge observatory telescope.
See the stars like never before through the observatory telescope. // Photo credit Fort William Historical Park

The DTAO offers regular astronomy events with themes like life on Mars, the star of Bethlehem, and Indigenous perspectives on the night sky.  There are also special events tied to occasions like the Perseids meteor shower or a solar eclipse. The Fort has an RV campground too, so if you’re camping, you’re close to home when your late night ends!

the Orion Nebula; a bright white flare in space, surrounded by swirls of purple light and dots of stars of various sizes. a galaxy of white light in space, swirling from its center point in a spiral pattern, surrounded by dots of white stars. Flame and Horsehead Nebulas; 3 very large, bright white stars surrounded by a red haze and the blackness of space, dotted with many smaller stars.
The Orion Nebula, Whirlpool Galaxy, and the Flame and Horsehead Nebulas as seen from the David Thompson Astronomical Observatory. // Photo credits Randy McAllister

2. Meet Fellow Star-Gazers:
The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC)-Thunder Bay Centre

The local chapter of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada meets the second Tuesday of each month, September through June, to talk about all aspects of astronomy at open-to-the-public meetings at its new location at the David Thompson Astronomical Observatory at Fort William Historical Park. There are more than 50 members so you are sure to be able to chat with someone who shares your interest level and knowledge. Plus, the chapter also occasionally offers public viewing nights at various places in Thunder Bay and the surrounding community, often beautiful Hillcrest Park, so check their events listings at their website or Facebook page. Bring your own telescope or binoculars, or take a look at the sky through one of the many telescopes and binoculars set up by members. In the summer months, keep an eye out for their public workshops and talks at provincial parks in Northwestern Ontario, including Sleeping Giant Provincial Park and Quetico Provincial Park (recognized as a Dark Sky Park).

3. Connect with Other Celestial Sky Fans:
Thunder Bay Starchasers

The Northern Lights over Ontario; swirls of vivid purple, pink and green in the night sky, framed by the black silhouettes of trees. The Northern Lights over Ontario; swirls of vivid purple, pink and green in the night sky, framed by the black silhouettes of trees.
Magnificent Northern Lights over Shebandowan, Ontario. // Photo credits Tony Zaporzan via Thunder Bay Starchasers Facebook

The Thunder Bay Starchasers is an active Facebook group where you can connect with fellow stargazers, check out some incredible photography and videos of the night sky, including the northern lights and deep space shots of galaxies and nebulae, as well as daytime events like a solar eclipse or shots of the sun taken with specialized equipment. There are casual meet-ups as well for those interested in gathering with their telescope and photography equipment to check out some local views of the night sky.

See the Night Sky in Thunder Bay

Whether you’re meeting with a group or simply stretched out on a dock or campsite with vast swathes of sparkling stars, dancing aurora borealis or a moonrise overhead, Thunder Bay is an exceptional place to see some exceptional night skies. 

About Bonnie Schiedel

Bonnie Schiedel is the founder of www.tbaywithkids.ca, which covers fun family-friendly attractions, events and restaurants in Thunder Bay. She enjoys canoeing, hiking, snowshoeing and travel, and you can read more of her award-winning work at www.northstarwriting.ca.

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