Star Search

Dark sky parks like Mackinaw City’s The Headlands are preserving the nighttime view

Ever wish upon a star, search for the Big Dipper, or pause to admire Jupiter’s gleam?

The connection to the night sky is a personal experience, yet one shared across the spectrum of cultures. Innumerable ancestors paved the way with footsteps under the very constellations that blanket Earth today. Now, this heritage is in jeopardy due to a relatively recent form of environmental damage: light pollution.

Not only is artificial light spilling up into the sky and threatening the view that has inspired poets and thinkers throughout the ages, but this light can also have adverse effects on the melatonin-driven circadian rhythms of humans and wildlife alike.

Behold a new breed of conservationist: preservers of the night sky, protectors of the natural resource overhead. Dark sky parks are on the rise. These havens from light pollution are preserves that offer exceptional nighttime beauty.

The Great Lakes states have been at the forefront of this movement, and Michigan claims a sizable piece of the action.

The Headlands, a 600-acre property in Mackinaw City, is now a destination of choice for the “astro-tourist.” Situated along undeveloped Lake Michigan shoreline, the park has seen a variety of guests, including media heavyweights such as CNN and Martha Stewart and children venturing from South Korea to observe the sky from the park’s pine and cedar forests.

The Headlands’ rise to fame began in 2011, when it earned accreditation by the International Dark-Sky Park Association (IDA), making it the sixth dark sky park in the United States, and the ninth in the world. There are now 20 accredited parks worldwide.

Here, the aurora is no stranger, and bright sky phenomena can be observed throughout the year. The Milky Way is visible in summer and winter, with richest views in August when the constellations of the Scorpion and the Archer rise up over the horizon. Its location near the fifth largest body of fresh water in the world all but guarantees magnificent sunsets and reflected starlight in any season.

The idea of turning the Headlands into a sky park was the brainchild of writer Mary Stewart Adams (now the park’s program director), Mary Lou Tanton, founder of the Petoskey-based Outdoor Lighting Forum, and columnist Fred Gray. Adams saw the tourism potential and heeded the call to preserve the celestial view.

“The stars are to me, a magnificent mystery in that they can give forth light and yet not diminish the darkness,” she says. Adams exudes a passion and poeticism about the rhythms of the sky — “the rising and setting of the sun, the rising and setting of the stars.”

Left: As sunset nears, guests take candlelit walks to viewing areas. Photograph by Adam Smith— Synecdoche design.

Right: No camping is allowed, but there’s a large guest house available for rentals. Photograph by Robert DeJonge

When we live in an environment predominated by artificial light, she explains, we lose the natural rhythm of light and dark.

Adams, not an astronomer by background, is an aficionado of mythology and lore (and clearly the Corona Borealis’ biggest terrestrial fan). “If you’ve never seen a planet through a telescope, mark the moment when you do,” she says. “It’s a historical moment in the life of an individual. At that moment you become Galileo.”

When the storyteller first proposed the idea of the preserve to the Emmet County Board of Commissioners, “dark sky park” wasn’t even part of the vocabulary. But it didn’t take long to win unanimous support. The prospect of nighttime programming was enticing, and the response enthusiastic.

The area’s naturally dark skies made it a promising contender for sky park status, though requirements were stringent. The process involved measuring sky quality, writing a lighting ordinance, and gaining community support. Seventy-five pages of application were submitted to the IDA, the pre-eminent nonprofit organization whose mission is to protect the nighttime environment and to promote responsible usage of artificial light.

The Headlands offers year-round programming under an expanse of stars. Earlier happenings this year have included January’s Campfire Snowshoe walk with Native Teaching and a Valentine-themed exploration of Venus and Mars held in February. On the docket this summer: from Aug. 11-12, the Headlands will host a Perseids Picnic followed by a Shepler’s midnight cruise under the Mackinac Bridge.

Undiminished moonlight bodes well for a spectacular view of the meteor showers, and Northern Michigan’s lights-out challenge should ensure a particularly rich canopy of darkness to give center stage to shooting stars.

Stargazers wait for the sun to set. Photograph by Lorie Axtell.

Public outreach is a common theme at these sky park reserves and is also on the mind of W. Scott Kardel, managing director of the Tucson, Ariz.-based International Dark-Sky Association. Like many astronomers, he has seen a steady decline in the quality of nighttime viewing over the years.

“There is no question that in most places, the night sky is brighter than it’s ever been before. We’re increasingly cut off from our view of the universe,” he notes. One of the biggest spoilers is the increase of lighting for roadways and parking lots — poor applications of lighting, such as light pointed sideways rather than directly downward. The resultant energy waste has been attributed to a loss of more than $2.2 billion per year in the United States alone.

But how did we get into this state?

Kardel believes that historically we have tried to cut ourselves off from nature. Both he and Adams point to the common fear of the dark, and a widely held perception that “the more light we have, the better.” Yet in darkness, some of humanity’s more astronomical advancements have taken place, and stories from different cultures about the stars originated in the dark and grew out of the imagination.

“What consequence is there in our cultural life when we no longer have that experience?” Adams asks. She’s not alone in posing this question.

This year is the International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies as designated by the United Nations. Events are underway around the world to celebrate the role of light in disciplines such as archeology and optics. At the opening ceremony in Paris, Thierry Montmerle, general secretary of the International Astronomical Union, represented 11,000 members and 90 countries when he drew from IAU’s resolution to declare “the enjoyment of the firmament as a fundamental socio-cultural and environmental right … an essential element in the development of scientific thought in all civilizations.”

Adams says in this international community, it means a lot that as many people as possible be reconnected to the night sky.

“You don’t need a telescope or laser pointing. You don’t even need to know what you’re looking at,” she says. “You just need to have the experience.”

Headlands International Dark Sky Park
15675 Headlands Rd., Mackinaw City, MI 49701; 231-436-4051;
Headlands is open 24 hours a day and is free. No camping allowed.

The International Dark-Sky Association

International Year of Light