By Bob Confer, 11/12/21
Even with everything we know – or think we know – about the cosmos, it is still overwhelming to see, and try to comprehend, the nighttime sky.
The stars excite our most primal feelings and instincts. You feel insignificant, awestruck, and maybe even a little bewildered. You can’t help but wonder about those countless stars, planets, and galaxies and your place among them. How did those celestial bodies get there? Why do they look like that? Does anyone live there? Why are we here?
Those thoughts are magnified when seeing that sky in its purest state, when you can literally see stars by the thousands.
Most people reading this column aren’t afforded that opportunity. We think we can see the stars, but really we can’t.
It doesn’t matter if you live in the most remote locales of Niagara, Orleans and Genesee Counties — you’re still missing out on thousands of stars for the same reason that the city folk and village residents do: light pollution. I can’t even escape it living among the farmland of Gasport.
Light pollution is epidemic. 99% of the residents of the continental US live under some of it and a whopping 80% of North Americans can’t see the Milky Way.
Where does it comes from?
Look off in the horizon and you may see a glow from a nearby village or city that obscures that portion of the sky. Now, imagine countless cities and towns around us, all pouring that much light and then some into the skies. This accumulated visual noise spreads into the night, creating a glow that extends far beyond its sources. The ability to see the faintest of stars, including the dense Milky Way, is affected and what we think is a true nighttime sky really isn’t close to that at all.
In our neck of the woods, it’s a result of being near numerous cities, small (Lockport), medium (Buffalo and Rochester) and large (Toronto). We’re within 500 miles of 43 percent of the US population and 50 percent of the Canadian population. Imagine all of the lights used to illuminate their homes, the roads they drive on, and the businesses that serve them. Rarely are the lights off even in the wee hours, meaning the glow over populated areas is relentless. In essence, a mammoth light umbrella covers most of us.
Here in WNY, there is a small area of dark sky that creeps into southern Allegany County in the town of Alma, where my camp is. It’s a community in which residents have pondered how to capitalize on dark sky tourism.
There’s certainly a market for that; astrotourism is literally a growth industry. More and more people are booking trips to dark sky locales to get away from the city lights and see the stars. But, without venues, get-togethers, and beds-and-breakfasts — just yet — in Alma, how would a Western New Yorker experience the nighttime skies as nature intended?
Get in the car. Book a road trip, a camping trip around the stars.
Local stargazers can find true dark skies within two fine public assets that are a tank of gas away — NY’s Moose River Plains and PA’s Cherry Springs State Park.
The Moose River Plains complex in the central Adirondacks is 80,000 acres of state-owned forest and lakes, with 116 primitive (no water or electricity) roadside campsites for tents and small campers, most of which have a picnic table, fireplace, and outhouse. They are available on a first-come, first-served basis and are free of charge. Be aware, the roads through that state land are gravel or dirt, and many of them are closed during the early-spring (the Adirondacks’ mud season) and during the winter months they are primarily snowmobile trails.
Cherry Springs, near Coudersport, is a treasure – it was the second international Dark Sky Park in the USA and it’s the only one on the east coast. There are 30 campsites on the 82-acre premises and many more in the surrounding 262,000-acre Susquehannock State Forest. Throughout the year, professional and impromptu get-togethers happen on the observation field at Cherry Springs, including twice-yearly Star Parties which bring hundreds of professional astronomers, culminating in a public viewing event with high-powered telescopes and astronomy talks from experts.
To get the most out of your skywatchers’ vacation, schedule your visit to these destinations around the new moon (which, basically means “no moon”), so your views aren’t obscured by moonlight. Four days on either side of a new moon are prime viewing. The new moons for 2022 are: January 2, February 1, March 2, April 1, April 30, May 30, June 28, July 28, August 27, September 25, October 25, November 23, and December 23.
You don’t need fancy equipment to get the most out of the experience. The naked eyes are more than sufficient. A good telescope helps, but if that’s not in your budget, your binoculars will work incredibly well (just get a tripod and a strap mount for holding the field glasses atop it).
Take my advice: Schedule a mini-vacation to a dark sky location next year. I strongly believe that you haven’t lived until you’ve experienced the purest and deepest nighttime skies. Do it once and you’ll want to do it again. It’s that inspiring of an experience.