By Howard Meyerson
Sitting under a dark sky full of stars can be magical, a glimpse of the sublime and a sight to behold. Yet, many never really experience it. Their communities shine too much light into the night sky.
But three Lake Huron shoreline parks now will offer that experience year-round. Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation in February designating Thompson’s Harbor, Negwegon and Rockport state parks as dark sky preserves.
“On a good night at Thompson’s Harbor, you can see 4,000 stars with the naked eye and the circumpolar constellations,” notes Blake Gingrich, Michigan Department of Natural Resources supervisor for Thompson’s Harbor and Rockport, both found between Roger’s City and Alpena.
“It’s a great way to get people out at night. We were trying to figure out how get them off the couch and out with an astronomer to learn the night sky, even the basics. We want people to experience it and have lifelong memories of (seeing) a dark sky.”
What’s unique about Thompson’s Harbor and Negwegon is their wild, undeveloped character. Rockport was established in 2012 and eventually will have typical state park amenities. All three, however, are located far from communities. Their dark-sky designation requires that any lighting used be motion-activated, shielded or pointed down to preserve the darkness.
Mid-June is when planets like Jupiter and Venus can be seen over the region, according to Sky Map Online, the Internet planetarium (skymaponline.net). Got a telescope? Bring it — even a pair of binoculars. Gemini, Cancer and Ursa Major and Minor are visible constellations along with Cassiopeia, Pisces and Pegasus, among others.
“You can go there and see a dark sky without any light on the horizon,” offers Eric Ostrander, supervisor of Negwegon State Park, which is 20 miles south of Alpena on U.S. 23.
“It’s unbelievable,” he says. “We expect to get a new type of tourism just for that.”
Six dark sky preserves
Michigan now has six state-designated dark sky preserves. It was the first state in the country to designate public land for that purpose. The first designation occurred in 1993 when Lake Hudson Recreation Area in Lenawee County was established as a demonstration site. That was followed by Wilderness State Park in Emmet County and Port Crescent State Park at Port Austin.
Michigan starwatchers also got a boost in 2011 when Headlands International Dark Sky Park was founded in and by Emmet County. It is one of 10 International Dark Sky Parks in the world, designated by the International Dark Sky Association (darksky.org), a group that requires rigorous screening and programming for the designation.
Ostrander said that designation may come for the new state preserves, but agency staff thought it important first to have them dedicated under state statute to protect the night skies they have.
“We decided to do something local first,” Ostrander said. “If a friends group wants to work to help us attain the international gold or bronze rating, and it is something we can attain, each park can pursue it on their own.”
Appears in the summer issue of Michigan BLUE Magazine.