Tour the night skies on Shepler's Mackinac Island Ferry
Every summer, Shepler’s familiar blue-and-white boats ferry hundreds of thousands of tourists across the inviting waters of the Straits of Mackinac to the bustling hotels, bars and fudge shops on Mackinac Island.
Shepler’s Mackinac Island Ferry, however, is more than a passenger service; the venerable company also offers themed cruises, including a series known as “Night Sky Cruises,” which tap into a growing phenomenon around the globe — people who want to experience starry nights and celestial occurrences. Lonely Planet recently deemed night sky tourism as a top travel trend; among the reasons is the natural night sky is obscured by artificial light for most people living in the United States and Europe.
Begun several years ago, Shepler’s Night Sky Cruises continue to grow in popularity, and for the upcoming season, the company added more cruises to accommodate demand. The cruises are frequently sold out and attract repeat visitors every year. This summer’s excursions begin in June.
Much of the appeal stems from Mary Stewart Adams, a star lore historian who narrates the voyages through the Straits of Mackinac. Adams is the founder and former program director of Dark Sky Park at the Headlands, a 550-acre county park just west of Mackinaw City. The park is one of two internationally designated dark sky preserves in Michigan — the other, Dr. T.K. Lawless Park in Cass County, was recognized earlier this year by the International Dark-Sky Association. The distinction is given to places that offer unspoiled night-sky viewing.
The darkness of the night sky near the Straits of Mackinac is rare in the heavily populated eastern United States, where most upward views are obscured by light pollution. While surrounding towns on both peninsulas create a sky glow along the horizon, the top of the sky remains clear, said John Barentine, director of public policy for the International Dark-Sky Association, a nonprofit group whose aim is to preserve and protect dark skies. Seeing an unobstructed night sky on a cruise is unusual, he noted.
“Having a guided experience makes it even more special,” he added. “People really appreciate having a guide to tell them what they’re seeing, what is the significance of what they’re seeing. You really can’t go anywhere else and have an experience like that. It’s an important element of the experience. It’s really a neat thing.”
While Shepler’s, like other tourism-related businesses across the state, has gotten off to a later start this year — its season officially begins Friday — the Night Sky Cruises schedule remains intact. Shepler’s will be taking the appropriate cleanliness measures throughout its facilities and vessels throughout the season, said Katie Wiley, director of sales for Shepler’s.
Most Night Sky cruises begin around sunset or moon rise. Two cruises focusing on the annual meteor shower, commonly known as the Perseid Meteor Shower, return after a hiatus last year because of the proximity of a full moon and will be offered in August.
“We’re out there at midnight, and it’s just gorgeous,” said Adams, whose narration includes a blend of historical and cultural context pertaining to full moons, constellations and celestial occurrences. “The thickest part of the Milky Way is overhead. It’s really dark when you’re on the lake — there’s dark water below you and a dark sky above you. You are surrounded by the natural world and the natural light. We won’t have too much interference from the moon this year. It will be a beautiful experience.”
Other noteworthy excursions include “Sun & Moon Cruise,” “Giants in the Sky Cruise,” both offered in July, and the “Cross Quarter Cruise” in August.
The moon comes into its first full phase of the summer over the July 4 holiday weekend. This cruise is timed so guests can catch the moon rising in the east over Lake Huron, just as the sun is setting in the west over Lake Michigan. The Mackinac Bridge stands majestically between them.
“We leave in time to get under the center span of the bridge while the sun is still above the horizon in the west. To be there when the moon is rising and the sun is setting is a remarkable experience,” Adams said. “You’re celebrating a phenomenon under a bridge, where these two great bodies of water meet between two peninsulas. It’s something that is truly unique in Michigan and the world.
Later in July, another spectacular celestial event, the oppositions of Saturn and Jupiter to the sun, offers a unique experience. They will come to their once-every-20-years conjunction at Winter Solstice, 2020, and this summer is a great time to watch them move closer and closer to one another, eventually arriving at their closest approach since the 17th century.
The cruise allows guests to catch the planets in their opposition with the sun, rising in the eastern sky as the sun is setting in the west. The planets star in the evening sky all night long, said Adams, who uses this event to talk about Jupiter in the cultural mythology, including Native American lore.
“You’re not just looking at something beautiful,” she said. “A lot of cultural tales are rooted in the time before the scientific revolution. We project back to a time when there was a different relationship to what these events meant. Being on the water helps facilitate that.”
The “Cross Quarter Cruise” is held during the cross quarter or half way mark of the summer. Historically, the summer cross quarter marks the first wheat harvest, which was celebrated in agrarian cultures by grinding the flour and baking bread. Adams picks up bread from a local bakery, made from locally grown wheat, to break bread with guests.
“These season celebrations are always rooted in a celestial phenomenon — they’re not random,” she said. “Through the ages, people have gathered when things are happening in the sky. When we’re out on the water, it’s a great time to talk about that human history and enjoy a wonderful view of the sky.”
The cruises, she added, are interactive. Everyone sits on the top deck and is free to move around. Adams brings along a music playlist, songs that make reference to the moon, sun, something about the night, “or a song I really like,” Adams said. The varied playlist includes everyone from Ramsey Lewis to Creedence Clearwater Revival to Broadway tunes.
Sometimes unexpected weather can change the dynamics of the evening; Adams encourages sky gazers to live in the moment. She recalled a cruise a few years ago when fog shrouded the landscape.
“You could hear the fog horn going off, and hear the bell from a buoy (channel marker). The moon was the only thing you could see burning through the fog. It was so beautiful,” she recalled. “It was otherworldly, like we had just sailed off the Earth. There are so many people who come out and are intent on seeing the stars, but sometimes things happen, and you have to retrain yourself to take in the experience, let things come that want to come. Let it be and experience it.”
The cruises, Shepler’s Wiley said, draw people for different reasons, but a large part of the appeal is “being out on the water, observing the sky, in view of the Mackinac Bridge, enjoying a beverage, music playing and listening to what is happening around us.”
Adams believes the unique setting between two peninsulas, two bodies of water and a stunning five-mile-long bridge plays a big role.
“There’s nowhere else in the world like this,” said Adams. “Unless you’re a boater, you have few opportunities to be out on the Straits like this. On the cruises, you go out under the bridge and we just hang. The beauty is just breathtaking. It’s Pure Michigan, as pure as you can get.”
Greg Tasker is a Michigan-based freelance writer.
Night Sky Cruises
Dates and times vary, June through Aug. 30
Admission: Adults, $29; children (5-12), $17; children under 5 are free
Shepler’s Mackinac Island Ferry
Mackinaw City and St. Ignace