Michigan’s dark sky sites take the spotlight
Before last year, Jim Johnson had never glimpsed the moons around Jupiter.
But on one cool, startlingly clear evening while at the Rockport State Recreation Area near Lake Huron, the Alpena retiree steered a high-powered telescope skyward and spotted the celestial bodies.
“That was beautiful,” he said. “... It makes you feel microscopic in the big sphere of things.”
Awe-inspiring encounters are typical at Michigan’s seven “dark sky” sites. The six Lower Peninsula state parks and a county-owned area bearing the lofty distinction aim to limit artificial light, protect nighttime environments and offer stellar stargazing.
Many of these spots in Michigan are being touted through Sunday during International Dark Sky Week, when amateur astronomers can watch the stars longer — sometimes even all night — during a worldwide initiative that encourages the activity.
As development pushes outward, advocates say such nocturnal events and the rustic locales statewide are not only tourist beacons but connections to the past.
“When you look at the course of human history, particularly at the things that have inspired some of our greatest architecture, literature, scientific research and discovery — it’s all coming out of this drive to understand our connection to the starry environment we find ourselves in,” said Mary Stewart Adams, program director at the Headlands in Emmet County, the state’s first International Dark Sky Park.
In Michigan, “dark sky” preserves stretch back to the 1990s, when the state became the first in the nation to designate a public land tract — Lenawee County’s Lake Hudson Recreation Area — as one, according to the Department of Natural Resources.
Legislation requires that the state park west of Adrian have outdoor lighting that “does not unreasonably interfere with nighttime activities that require darkness,” such as wildlife photography; any permanent fixtures must be fully shielded and directed downward, the DNR said.
Visitors are asked to use lights sparingly; a bulletin board on site reminds them to “please dim your lights so you don’t disturb the people,” said Pam Bobb, a DNR park ranger. Campers aren’t completely restricted, she added, but “if someone’s got a spotlight going out into the sky, we’re going to shut it down.”
Park users have generally been respectful, though, and a core group of skywatchers has flocked there for years with gear to spot twinkling constellations, Bobb said. “It’s been very positive.”
Protecting night skies for those enthusiasts and others has long driven the Arizona-based International Dark-Sky Association, which works to educate the public and policymakers on energy conservation and environmentally responsible lighting.
To combat light pollution and illuminate solutions, a high school student in 2003 created International Dark Sky Week. Meanwhile, the association had also started a Dark Sky Places Program, offering communities a chance to apply for a special designation. There are 60 such places across the globe, communications director Cheryl Ann Bishop said.
The efforts inspired Adams once she relocated up north to teach about night skies and connected with a forum. Eventually, with the help of local officials and advocates, she pushed for the international designation at the Headlands, a county-owned park near Mackinaw City containing about 600 acres of woodlands, more than two miles of undeveloped Lake Michigan shoreline and many wild native animals.
In 2011, it became the sixth International Dark Sky Park in the country and only one in Michigan, Adams said. The Headlands now must measure sky quality and natural darkness, pursue public outreach; and offer free 24-hour access.
The designation has also garnered attention. “We were immediately catapulted onto an international stage,” Adams said. “We had people coming from around the world to see this area to learn about the night sky.”
That success, she said, led to legislation in 2012 that secured Lake Hudson’s status as a dark sky preserve while also granting that title to Wilderness State Park in Emmet County and parts of Port Crescent State Park in Huron County.
Adams later galvanized groups orbiting three other northeast state parks: Rockport in Presque Isle and Alpena counties; Negwegon in Alpena and Alcona counties; and Thompson’s Harbor in Presque Isle County. Those supporters worked with state Rep. Peter Pettalia, R-Presque Isle, who introduced a bill naming the three properties dark sky preserves. Gov. Rick Snyder approved the legislation in February; it goes into effect next month.
The parks have fewer requirements, and a separate process, than the International Dark-Sky Association sites. Rockport — which boasts nearly 4,300 undeveloped acres and once was state forest — now has a lone service light at its boat access site, but even that’s compliant with dark-sky rules to minimize impact, said Blake Gingrich, a DNR parks and recreation supervisor.
Still, Rockport already had a reputation as a hotspot for visitors seeking a clear view of the heavens. In August, more than 200 gathered there to watch the Perseid meteor shower, said Carol Dodge Grochowski, president at the Friends of Rockport/Besser Natural Area.
The park is perfect for other phenomena as well, she added. “It’s just massive amounts of stars and the Milky Way is very visible as a streak across the sky. It’s pretty fabulous. Then we’re up far enough north that every now and then we get in on the northern lights.”
Spotlighting such natural wonders far from urban centers spurred 20 state parks to participate in International Dark Sky Week for the second consecutive year, extending hours so the curious could stargaze, said Stephanie Wirtz, a DNR recreation programmer. “A lot of people don’t get an opportunity to do that. It’s important for people to just get out in nature in general.”
The chance to roam outdoors lured Elizabeth Furest and Chris Frendo one night this week at Maybury State Park near Northville. The friends, who grew up in the Grosse Pointes, explored a trail with flashlights, stepped past thick trees, then peered up through cloud cover to sight clusters of shimmering stars.
“There’s this vastness that you forget about,” Furest said. “It’s really cool to look up at the sky you know people have been looking up to for hundreds of years. How often do you stop and just look up? It’s a lost way for people to kind of navigate the world.”
To learn more:www.michigan.gov/dnr
A recreation passport is required for vehicle entry at state parks. For info: www.michigan.gov/recreationpassport.