Why stargazers are flocking to Mount Desert Island and looking up.
By Sara Anne Donnelly
Photos: (1) Sue Anne Hodges, (2) Ray Yeager – RTY Photography, (3) Sue Anne Hodges, (4) Moe Chen
I had come to Mount Desert Island to figure out why everyone up here seems obsessed with the stars lately. I decided to start with one of Acadia National Park’s most popular programs — the Stars Over Sand Beach talk. So, one night last August, I stretched a blanket out on the cool sand along Newport Cove as Acadia National Park ranger Michael Marion showed me and about three hundred other stargazers the constellations. The dot of Marion’s green laser outlined Hercules, Cygnus, and Cassiopeia, while in the darkness on Earth, Marion was nearly invisible except for the outline of his wide-brimmed ranger hat against the pale dunes. The Perseid meteor shower was shooting off its earliest blazes that night, brief spits of starbursts from all corners of the sky that every few seconds produced gasps and squeaks of excitement up and down the beach. Marion began explaining how close we are to those shooting stars.
“All of us are made of star stuff,” his voice boomed through a pair of scratchy speakers set on the sand. “Every atom, every molecule, every element that’s in our bodies originated in the heart of a star in some part of the universe. It’s all connected.”
Stars Over Sand Beach is part of Acadia National Park’s new promotion of its oldest attraction — the largest expanse of dark sky east of the Mississippi River. In 1999, the National Park Service added the protection of what it calls “natural lightscapes” to its mission, calling national parks “some of the last remaining harbors of darkness” where visitors can experience this “endangered resource.” Historically, Acadia has been overlooked by star tourists who typically migrate to more remote parks in the Southwest, where the air is drier and the weather more predictable. But the park’s recent star-marketing has attracted thousands of new night-sky watchers who tell me with hushed wonder that the darkness on Mount Desert Island is special. But why?
The Wabanaki people, whose ancestors lived on Mount Desert Island (MDI), believe the stars light the way for a spirit’s journey through the afterlife. They call a starlit journey to reincarnation or peaceful slumber “the good walk.” The good walk is what you wish for yourself and your loved ones. But not everyone walks the sky under nature’s streetlamps. Evil souls are condemned to wander a black sky where the stars are obscured by fog. Without the stars, these souls stumble blindly until they dissolve. The stars, the story teaches, are salvation.
This Wabanaki folktale is especially ominous today. Because of light pollution, the dead sky the Wabanaki feared is all most of us know.
Light pollution is nighttime light that shines not just down toward the ground where it is useful to humans, but up into the sky where it can ruin the view for a stargazer standing as many as two hundred miles away. About two-thirds of the world’s population views the night sky through a haze of urban and suburban glow that erases all but the brightest stars. According to National Geographic magazine, light pollution affects most of the United States and Europe and all of Japan. By 2025, researchers believe there could be no dark skies left in the continental United States.
Besides erasing the view, in the past decade or so scientists have also begun studying light pollution’s environmental impact. Early findings are troubling. It turns out artificial light disrupts some animals’ nocturnal migration, reproduction, and feeding. It sends, for example, birds careening into buildings by the thousands or circling searchlights and marine gaslights to exhaustion. Every year, hundreds of thousands of newly hatched endangered sea turtles mistake the flicker of Florida nightlife for the reflection of the stars on the ocean and die crossing the sand toward a mirage.
And artificial light also endangers humans. In his 2011 documentary, The City Dark, filmmaker Ian Cheney compares the orange, starless sky over his Brooklyn apartment with the dense Milky Way over his childhood home in Waldoboro, Maine, and asks, “What do we lose when we lose the night?” A lot, Cheney found. Artificial light obscures astronomers’ search for catastrophic meteors, may increase breast cancer rates among night-shift nurses, and encourages a warped Earth-centric view of existence. Cheney worries that even the dark skies of our rural state are threatened by the expansion of artificial light.
“In areas that are developing more quickly than others, we’re losing the night sky more quickly than I’d like us to,” Cheney told me. “But I am also guardedly optimistic as groups around Acadia are taking steps to tie people’s concept of preserving the wilderness experience to the stars. These efforts help us see that the stars are part of nature, and that the night sky is part of what makes Maine unique.”
I’ve been to Acadia countless times during my life, but I first thought about its stars only six years ago when I interviewed a plucky local bed-and-breakfast owner named Peter Lord. Lord was MDI’s dark skies protector before light pollution was a buzzword. In 2007, Lord, an amateur astronomer and self-appointed starlit skies booster, began pushing what back then made plenty around town scratch their head — protecting one of the eastern seaboard’s last pockets of darkness by capping Bar Harbor’s commercial and residential lights. At first it was a tough sell. How could a bunch of adorable street lamps and an illuminated roof moose shine brighter than the Milky Way? To prove it, Lord bought a handful of sky-quality meters, and he and a few College of the Atlantic students wandered the island collecting what would become foundational data about light pollution on MDI. It turned out that light from Bar Harbor, the island’s largest town, reduced the number of visible stars from around thirteen thousand over the dark southwestern side to around fifteen hundred over the town itself. That orange glow blocking the stars over Cheney’s Brooklyn? Bar Harbor’s miniature version was visible from the top of Cadillac Mountain.
The effect of artificial lighting on Bar Harbor’s celestial beauty, and that effect’s threat to the town’s tourism base, compelled the town council to pass a landmark ordinance in 2009 requiring all new commercial, municipal, and residential properties to put what looks like an overturned bowl on top of exterior lights to cast illumination down instead of up. The town of Mount Desert and the city of Ellsworth have since passed similar ordinances.
Worldwide, light pollution, when it is curtailed, is usually done so by municipal ordinances like Bar Harbor’s. Maine is one of only a handful of states ahead of the curve at the legislative level — since 1991, Maine law has required all state-funded light fixtures above one hundred watts be capped. This and our stretches of rural and protected lands make us a dark-sky sanctuary of sorts on the East Coast, a perk not lost on Maine stargazers.
Beyond Maine, none are more dark-sky friendly than Flagstaff, Arizona, which has been capping artificial light since 1958 and in 2001 became the first International Dark Skies community certified by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) in Tucson. Borrego Springs, California; Homer Glen, Illinois; and the Isle of Sark in the United Kingdom have since been added to that short list. Nationally, nightlight policy has lagged, though there are some recent and notable exceptions. In 2010, Slovenia became the first country to pass a nationwide law restricting nighttime light, and as of July 1, shops in France are required to shut off their lights after 1 a.m. to conserve energy and to protect the night sky.
For the last four years, Acadia National Park planner John Kelly has been trying to convince the International Dark-Sky Association to designate Acadia as a Dark Sky Park. But IDA won’t consider Acadia until it has capped two-thirds of its lights, a tall order for the budget-conscious park. Kelly says the stars were one of the reasons he decided to move to Maine to accept the job on MDI. Driving up here to interview at the park, he noticed the dense swath of the Milky Way stretching over I-95. He pulled onto the shoulder, shut his lights off, got out of his car, and stood there looking up. He stayed for a while. He was on a highway north of Bangor, nowhere noteworthy, but it felt special because of the sky. After Bar Harbor passed its lighting ordinance, it was Kelly who would gather a who’s who of area nonprofits and booster groups, including the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce, Jackson Laboratory (JAX), the Friends of Acadia, and the Abbe Museum, to create the Acadia Night Sky Festival. The four-night festival is intended “to promote the protection and enjoyment of Downeast Acadia’s stellar night sky as a valuable natural resource,” according to park promotional materials. The festival is indeed the best way to meet Acadia’s stars. It’s held every September and includes night hikes and climbs, lectures on the stars, star art, and a flurry of other star-nerd events in Bar Harbor and the park.
The biggest festival ticket is the star party at the top of Cadillac Mountain. Anyone who’s anyone in the local astronomy scene is there. At the star party, astronomers point their telescopes at whatever celestial body intrigues them and invite the public to take a peek. Close to fifteen hundred people showed up at the star party I attended in 2012, four times the number expected and about half the number of visitors to the entire festival. There were so many people that the shuttle service from the base of Cadillac to the top was overwhelmed and Kelly let visitors drive up instead, as long as they shut their headlights off as they approached the summit.
The star partiers came from all over. Many of them, like Toledo’s Jim Gasser, had recently added the Acadia Night Sky Festival to their annual astronomy tour. Gasser, an automotive engineer by day, had already that year traveled to Utah to see the lunar eclipse and Iowa to watch the transit of Venus. Along the edge of the summit parking lot, Gasser had mounted a Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope beside a giant pair of binoculars, both pointing at globular cluster Messier 22. “I’ve got M22 in Sagittarius here,” he announced like a sideshow barker, coaxing strangers from the darkness until in the half-light of his red headlamp he could make out their faces. His voice then quieted reverentially as he told them that M22 is one of the brightest clusters in the night sky and contains as many as one hundred black holes. He smiled as the visitors’ eyes widened
“The sky is different here because it’s incredibly clear and incredibly dark,” he told me, stepping aside to let a couple from upstate New York peer into the Schmidt. “I just think it’s a natural resource as much as animals and scenery and nature on the ground. It should be preserved and taken care of.”
A few days before the star party, I had met JAX geneticist and amateur astronomer Elissa Chesler. Chesler agreed to take me to her favorite after-work viewing spot — her back porch. The night I went to her house was cool and buggy, the kind of wet MDI night suited for a glass of wine at McKay’s, but the sky was clear. And the sky was really all we cared about.
Chesler welcomed me into her house and showed me her collection of telescopes, which she had brought out for my visit. There were half a dozen of them stacked in cases or displayed on mounts all over the living room. As her fiancée, Laura, made chamomile tea in the adjacent kitchen, Chesler lowered her voice. “There’s something in the ten commandments of amateur astronomy,” she whispered with her Tennessee drawl, “and that is you never reveal the total cost of your astronomical equipment to your spouse. You do it one part at a time.” She glanced at Laura, who stood stirring her tea at the kitchen counter. In a louder voice, Chesler held up a lens, grinned, and said, “This piece cost me only $200!” Laura glanced up, expressionless. She’d heard this one before.
Chesler opened the sliding door to the back porch and ushered me outside. I watched the red light of her flashlight bob in the darkness as she unpacked a waist-high equatorial mount that follows the rotation of the sky. This mount is a particularly pricey model with a computer that directs the lens toward whatever celestial body Chesler chooses. The buzz of the crickets in her backyard was soon joined by the whirring of the mount as it rotated Chesler’s telescope in search of the night’s focus, a globular cluster in Hercules called Messier 13. Chesler, in a glow-in-the-dark NASA t-shirt that she called “over the top, I know,” peered into the eyepiece, mumbling apologies for the delay. She wasn’t used to setting this mount up in the dark. The telescope pointed at nothing. She wouldn’t let me look yet. She tried again. More whirring as the telescope rotated.
“You can actually get lost here very easily,” she deadpanned, squinting into the scope. “I like to say there’s too many stars.”
After a few minutes, she fixed on the cluster. Globular clusters, she explained, are gatherings of stars that usually swirl around black holes at the center of a galaxy. She let me look. The image at the end of the finder was blurry. But soon my eye adjusted and I saw it — three hundred thousand stars fuzzed around each other like a cotton ball between two of summer’s brightest lights, Vega and Arcturus. I was looking at perhaps the most famous globular cluster in the sky — Messier 13, or M13. In 1974, Carl Sagan was part of the team that beamed a message to extraterrestrials that might be peering back at us from M13, twenty-one thousand light years away. The message included a graphic of a DNA double helix and the numbers one through ten.
“I think these are pretty cool,” Chesler said of globular clusters as I kept looking at the cotton ball trying to comprehend all of the stars I was seeing. “But they’re not my favorite. I’m really a fan of bright nebulae and planetary nebulae. They’re so striking with the different patterns and the gases. I also enjoy a good planet here and there.”
Chesler’s day job is very Earth-bound — she studies addiction and genetics — and the stars provide a grand perspective. She told me she accepted the faculty position at JAX over other offers because of the dark sky here. At her previous home in Knoxville, if she wanted to catch some sweet nebulae she’d have to spend a while cramming her hulking Dobsonian telescope into her Saturn — there’s only one way it fits, she says — then drive an hour and a half to get far enough from the light pollution in the city to see the stars. But here, she just has to go out on her back deck. And the skies are darker than any she’d find in Tennessee. So dark you can see the gaps in the Milky Way. So dark that at a friend’s lawn party recently she saw the Milky Way reflecting off the ocean. I told her that sounded incredible.
“When you see all of this moving around you throughout the year — objects are kind of moving around, planets are orbiting through — it’s pretty phenomenal,” she said. “You’re just this one little person.”
After hanging out with Chesler, I decided to take a long drive around the island. It occurred to me that I’ve never really looked up the way stargazers here look up. They look up like there’s an answer overhead, and just searching for it is a comfort. I took a right off Crooked Road and went south on Route 3, through Bar Harbor and beyond until the island darkened and the sky returned. I pulled over, shut my car off, and got out. I tipped my face up and my eyes were drawn to a brilliant point directly overhead. It might be a planet. But then it was twinkling, so it was probably a star. Chesler had taught me that. Of a star so many miles away, all that survived was this light echo. I considered the enormous sweep of the Milky Way, so many stars they clouded together and made the ocean below its shimmering disciple. The sea breeze picked up, lifting my hair with MDI’s perfume of salt and sap.
I get it, I thought. This is the way to love the night. On a dark island with the stars in the sky and the stars in the sea, you feel like you’re floating. And you are. I stood there for as long as I could, while the wind gathered, and tried to fathom that.
Looking for a Star Mate?
The Acadia Astronomical Society, a collection of amateur astronomers based on Mount Desert Island, meets at the Jesup Memorial Library in Bar Harbor on the second Wednesday of every month. The group holds star parties throughout the year, except during the winter. For more information, email email@example.com. Other volunteer astronomy groups convene for star parties and viewing events around Maine. Many suspend meetings during the coldest months, but some, like the Penobscot Valley Star Gazers, have been known to brave the cold. Contact the club for upcoming events.
Southern Maine Astronomers (Portland, southernmaineastronomers.org)
Interested in stargazing in Maine? Here are a few tips for exploring the cosmos over Acadia and beyond.
Celestial highlights over Acadia National Park, by season:
During the winter in Acadia (Dec. 21–Mar. 19), the air is cold and the humidity is low, which makes for clear viewing. Look for the Orion Nebula; the winter hexagon stars Sirius, Rigel, Aldebaran, Capella, Pollux, and Procyon; the Ursids and Quadrantids meteor showers; and the planet Jupiter.
During the spring (Mar. 20–Jun. 20), look for the vernal equinox; the constellations Ursa Major, Cancer, Gemini, and Leo; the planets Mars and Saturn; and a lunar eclipse.
During the summer and fall (Jun. 21–Dec. 20), look for the summer triangle stars Altair in Aquila, Vega in Lyra, and Deneb in Cygnus; the constellations Hercules and Pegasus; and the Perseid meteor shower. The park’s annual Night Sky Festival occurs in September, with four days and nights of star parties, star talks, local star folklore, and other celestial celebrations.
Stars Above, Earth Below: A Guide to Astronomy in the National Parks by Tyler Nordgren (Springer-Praxis: 2010) has a chapter on Acadia National Park that focuses on the tidal influence of the moon and sun. For DIY viewing, a rotating star map is available for sale in the Acadia National Park gift shop at the park headquarters. Dwight Lanpher, Maine’s astronomy club liaison and a founding member of the Acadia Astronomical Society, recommends viewing the stars from the Seawall Campground picnic area near Manset, where Lanpher says you can see the Milky Way intersect the ocean at the horizon.
Sara Anne Donnelly is a freelance writer and author of Insiders’ Guide to Portland, Maine.