Look Up, Way Up Observatory

Look Up, Way Up Observatory

by Janet Davies

Wesley and Natalie Stewart were renovating their old farmhouse in Spring 2018. Having built a deck, they  were sitting out looking at the night sky when Wesley had an idea. Having rented in Picton for three years, they were impressed with the profound darkness of County Road 5. “I have an idea,” Wesley said. “Oh dear, should I be worried?” Natalie thought. He wanted to buy a bigger telescope and offer a unique stargazing experience to visitors and locals. Here’s what they told us about turning that idea into a business.

WES: We call it Look Up, Way Up Observatory,

We want to give people a real idea of what it’s like to be a backyard astronomer. Most people think about buying a telescope at some point. Most don’t actually do it, but many who do are disappointed. Online reviews for beginner level telescopes say things like “The telescope was broken. I couldn’t see anything. It wouldn’t focus. It was just blurry garbage.” In reality those are common problems and there’s nothing wrong with the telescope, they just didn’t know how to operate it.

We Can Help With That.

We start with a little presentation about 45 minutes long talking about telescopes, why we need them and what they do for us. A telescope’s main job is to gather light. Objects up there are very faint and we can’t see them with the naked eye. The big mirror or lens on a telescope gathers the light so that you can see those faint objects and magnifies the object so you can see it better. We talk about eye pieces. Any telescope is only as good as its eye piece. Frankly, a cheap telescope comes with cheap eye pieces and you’ve got a double negative. We talk about what we can actually see up there, which means we talk about the moon, because that’s what people go for first. Seeing the craters is impressive, but it doesn’t mean much if you don’t know what the features are, so we look at maps of the moon and things like where the astronauts landed.

NAT: We take our 55 inch TV out there and the big screen helps people visualize. Wes uses a pointer and it’s very interactive with demonstrations that helps make complicated things simple. It gets people involved, makes it interesting to learn. Everybody can see and get involved, so if they do purchase their own telescope they will have success.

WES: I have everything on my tablet and I mirror with that. We talk about the moon and the planets that are visible that night, usually Jupiter and Saturn, about deep space objects, and what you can realistically expect to see when you leave the solar system. We cover how galaxies, nebula and star clusters appear in a telescope, and here we have to get rid of some misunderstandings. Astronomy magazines are very misleading with their full color pictures. It’s the camera and computer software that brings those pictures to life, adding color and detail. You won’t see that with a telescope, so it is misleading. A lot of ideas out there are not accurate, so we dispel some myths and focus on what is doable.

Once we identify what you can see, we talk about how to find objects. When you look up, you won’t spot them because they are too faint. I show how to get your telescope on those objects by using the constellations that point to them. You can use a star chart to find them. Identify the spot in the sky that you want, use your finder to put your telescope on that spot. You usually start with a wide angle lens to give lots of light and a nice big picture. You may have to try a few times, but once you get it in your big eye piece you can change to a smaller one and really zoom in. That’s the presentation, then we stargaze to our heart’s content.”

NAT: “We want it to be a casual and friendly experience. We have snacks and drinks. We want a smaller experience, normally no more than 10. A small group, particularly if people all come together, is more likely to open up, ask questions and relax. We have a campfire, if people are chilly. We could go different ways, maybe make it a premium experience, or private parties and have catering.” but we’re just getting started and we have to find out how to make all that work. We also have to establish how much people are prepared to pay for that!

 We told Natalie and Wesley about the municipality’s Experiential Tourism focus for 2019 to help support businesses looking to address issues like what to charge, how to pitch the experience, promotion ideas. Experiential tourism is a strong trend as people look for unusual, authentic activities that let them interact with local people.

NAT: One of the first things we got in place was insurance and safety measures. This is a night time thing and we’re working in the dark, but people need to be able to see, so we use red lights which don’t affect your night vision. We rent a good outhouse that is all lit up and safe!

Going Forward.

WES: We got started late in the season in 2018 after renovating the house, but we’ll kick off earlier this year. In 2019 I plan to do video astronomy too. I want to add a second telescope with a dedicated camera so we can show images live on my laptop. That will be especially good for older people. As we get older our night vision gets worse and it can be tricky keeping your balance when you close one eye and don’t want to touch your telescope, so you don’t jiggle it. With live video, they will be able to see things they might otherwise miss. You can see things with the camera that you can’t see with your naked eye, so that’s where we are heading.

Cleaning Company

In the meantime, Natalie and I run a small cleaning company that pays our bills. This past autumn we got a good commercial contract and invested in more cleaning equipment.

NAT: Outside the businesses, I have started painting, mostly for myself. I don’t really want to become part of the arts community, it’s not my scene, but I put some paintings in a local vacation rental and they sold. Now I’m thinking of using our barn as a studio and maybe display my work. It’s a very old barn because this is a very old house. It’s called Halfway House because it’s halfway between Demorestville and Picton and it was once an open house where people could sleep if they couldn’t make it all the way. I’d be happy to show my work to people who come for stargazing. The trouble is they come in the dark! But who knows. As long as it doesn’t take the focus away from Look Up.” We can assure Natalie that a lot of couples in the County run two or more businesses from their home. It’s kind of a County thing!

Promoting The Business

WES: We are on the official tourism website now http://www.visitpec.ca and we want to market ourselves as family friendly and accessible, something different for people to do at night outside of restaurants and bars. Last year we distributed flyers through the Picton Gazette and, despite being late in the season, we got a lot of phone calls from visitors and local people, too. As well as online searching, some people like something they can put on the fridge as a reminder.

NAT: We are on Instagram and Facebook and we’re thinking of promoting Look Up on the Airbnb Experiences section on their website. Visitors can find accommodation and things to do at the same time. It’s weather contingent, of course, but if people dress smart, warm clothes in spring and autumn, long sleeves and bug spray in summer, they’ll really enjoy it.

Wes has been doing this for 30 years but I when I first saw his presentation I was blown away. I will never look at the sky the same way again. You think you know the sky, but all of a sudden everything is different, even the moon. So much to learn and see, and if you come back at different times of the year you’ll be able to see different planets. We will put rack cards into B&B’s and rental places. We’ve already had T-shirts and mugs made up for a bit of fun. People, especially kids, like to have a memento of what they did on holiday, something they really enjoyed.

WES: It should be on everyone’s bucket list, to look through a really good telescope at least once in their life. A woman from Kingston saw our flyer last year, and she was excited because it was something she’d wanted to do all her life and never had the chance. She came with a bunch of kids and they all absolutely loved it. There are very few places around here you can get this experience. There’s a place in Tweed, called Dark Sky, but that’s more a location for people to set up their own telescopes. We were surprised when we moved here how very dark it gets, and if you go to Long Point it’s even darker – as dark as anywhere you could go up north.

Why The County?

WES: We are Jehovah’s Witnesses and after attending training for missionaries who stay in Canada, we were asked to move to Picton. We didn’t even know where Picton was! Before that we were in Bolton for a year and a half, but I’m originally from New Brunswick and Natalie is from Prince Edward Island.

NAT: PEI and The County are similar in many ways, the white sands and farming and all. PEI hasn’t got the wineries, but microbreweries are coming, and they are both island communities where people are close knit and real and will always help you out. We used to rent in Picton before we found this house. It was empty and in rough shape and we did a ton of work. It had horrible paneling everywhere and low ceilings in the kitchen, but as we ripped things out we discovered hidden gems. We did it all ourselves, with help from friends. It’s funny how Wesley got the idea for Look Up almost as soon as we had a deck to sit on. There was a lot of preparation to do on the land, so that would be more hard work, but I agreed right away. After 25 years together I trust him! We’d been doing this volunteer work fulltime for 26 years, even before we met each other, and we moved around to wherever there was a need. It’s been very fulfilling.

WES: But we don’t plan on moving away from here any time soon. Now we have this house, and we are happy here. The cleaning company is well established and we’ll work hard on Look Up in 2019.

NAT: When I first came here I looked around to see how people made a living, and I was astonished at the amount of tourism. Before we came, people told us something is happening here and now it’s full speed ahead.

We had to think How can we tap into it? How can we be part of what’s happening and still keep a simple life? Can we take advantage of the huge market here but stay true to ourselves and be original?

I even thought of starting boat tours, because we have a boat! Wes has been around boats and fishing and water all his life, but you can’t do it all. As long as you build on what you’re good at and what you love doing.

WES: Summer is short, you have to make the most of it. But now the tourist season is definitely getting longer in Prince Edward County. Anyway, we are doing what we can, and we’ll figure it out as we go along!

For startups or businesses looking to expand or re-locate to The County, you can fill out this Business Inquiry Questionnaire, and the Community Development Department will respond in 48 hours.

The County Logo

For startups or businesses looking to expand or re-locate to The County, you can fill out this Business Inquiry Questionnaire, and the Community Development Department will respond in 48 hours.

Subscribe to our newsletter to receive the latest news on amazing Recent Success StoriesAvailable HousingAvailable FundingAvailable Jobs and more.