My nine-year-old daughter Riley had never seen a shooting star. She told me this a few days ago, as we were talking about the Headlands International Dark Sky Park’s ‘Lights Out Around the Bay’ challenge. She seemed disappointed in this fact, as if she were missing out one of life’s great joys. “That’s why the Dark Sky Park wants us to turn off our lights,” I told her. “So that we can see the full glory of the night sky. We’re lucky where we live [in Harbor Springs], our night sky is pretty magnificent. But the more light that is shone into the air, the less stars and shooting stars you see. And on Tuesday night, there is supposed to be a meteor shower. The park wants us to enjoy the show with as little light pollution as possible.” She quieted down, and I thought her mind migrated to more important topics, like whether or not her favorite boy band singer had posted a new Instagram pic. “Can we stay up and see the stars that night,” she asked a few minutes later. I could only answer yes.
Instead of staying home and watching TV until dark, I decided to take Riley and my twelve-year-old son David to the Headlands International Dark Sky Park, if the sky was clear. The weather forecast called for thunderstorm and rain, but by 8pm the sky was clear of all but a few lingering clouds. So we threw on sweatshirts and jackets, grabbed a towel as a blanket, packed up the camera and drove 40 minutes north to the park.
Emmet County’s Headlands Park was named an International Dark Sky Park in May, 2011, one of only 12 parks in the US and 17 parks in the world with that designation. The Dark Sky Viewing Area is located on a secluded shore along Lake Michigan about a mile into the park. We arrived at 9pm, and already the viewing area was packed with about 100 star-gazers. David grabbed his iPhone, ran down to the shore, and took this picture of the sunset.
Riley was intrigued by the park itself, especially the forest. We walked along the shore, stopping to watch the sun sink beneath the distant waves. We found some rocks stacked in funny little towers and a tangle of roots exposed along the beach. We took pictures, tossed around the football, sat in the grass and talked about the stars and why the twilight sky gets dressed in silken gowns of orange, purple, blue and red. When the first stars awoken in the darkening sky, we opened an app on David’s iPhone and learned their names. We were shocked to discover that two of the brightest stars visible in the early twilight hours were Saturn and Mars.
Once darkness enveloped the park, the show began. Twice this year my family has stayed up late to watch fireworks. I can’t count the number of times we watched movies past midnight. Yet, as I stared up into space, I couldn’t help but wonder why we never stay up to watch the stars. As exciting as fireworks are, or as entertaining a movie or TV show is, nothing could inspire the awe in my children as deeply as staring up into the heavens.
And what a sight we were greeted with. There was practically no ambient light from cities, parking lots or porch lights. There seemed to be more stars than blackness. The Milky Way, appearing like a ghostly cloud across the eastern sky, was visible. We saw numerous satellites. David used his app to point out several constellations. Two gentlemen from Illinois arrived with a massive telescope the size of a small cannon and allowed the three of us to gaze at Saturn’s rings and moons.
When the sky became fully dark, a park representative called for attention from the well over 200 guests. He talked about the park and gave a quick synopsis of the stars, planets, satellites and other objects in the night sky. My son was captivated by the program, especially as the speaker discussed the vast number of stars. My daughter kept a look out for a meteor.
As the night progressed, I tried to take a photograph of the night sky. Unfortunately, it takes more than a nice camera and a tripod to capture an image like the one above. If I was disappointed, it was fleeting. No photograph could ever capture the full majesty of the night sky as we were seeing it.
Before the advent of electricity, and the flood of light pollution, this was the night. It amazes me to think that there are people in major cities that may live their entire lives without seeing a single star. There are those who have never traced the outline of a constellation or, like my daughter, wished upon a shooting star. At the dawn of human thought, we stared up into the sky in wonder. The stars inspired us, guided us, and forced us into acknowledging how little we know about ourselves and our place in the universe. When I think of the big-box stores and their massive, overly lit parking lots, I grow saddened at the thought that the stars are an endangered species. We have become, as a nation, so afraid of the dark that we keep it at bay with flood lights on our porch. We are losing the night sky.
Just as we were leaving, a brilliant shooting star streaked across the sky. David and I saw it, but Riley was looking away. If she was disappointed, it didn’t show. “I’ll see one next time,” she said as we worked our way back to the car. “Maybe we can stay up late tomorrow night too.”
The Headlands International Dark Sky Park is located 2 miles east of Mackinaw City.
If you go, please go prepared. If you bring a camera, leave your flash behind. It is jarring to be staring up at the night sky, only to have your vision temporarily blinded by a flash. Also if you must bring a flashlight, and I would argue that even in the darkest of night you can make do without if you allow your eyes to adjust, bring one that shines green, red, or, preferably, amber light; those light wavelengths do not negatively effect the pupils of those around you. As you approach the Dark Sky Park parking lot at night, or as you are leaving, try to drive with just your fog lights.
Parking is a chore, and the one-mile driveway to the Dark Sky Viewing Area is a single lane road, so plan on arriving early. I would recommend driving all the way to the parking lot and, if it is full, finding parking along the road pointing towards the exit. It can be near impossible to turn around if you park pointing towards the viewing area.[/fusion_text][/two_fifth]