The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.
The WildeBeat edition 13: The Wilderness at Night, part 1
This is a supplementary transcript of our audio program. CLICK HERE to listen to the original program, and see the associated show notes.
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Getting into the backcountry for the darkness? Listen next, to part one of The Wilderness at Night, on the WildeBeat.
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News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.
This is program number thirteen.
I'm Steve Sergeant.
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STEVE: When we think of spending time in wild places, most of us think of what we're going to do during the day. The activities we do, we imagine doing in the daylight. And when we think of the views, they're in the daylight too. But half of the time of any given year, the wilderness is dark. And half of that time, when the moon isn't up, the wilderness can be really dark.
Part of the wilderness experience of going where the impact of man's hand is substantially unnoticeable, is seeing the night sky. Mike Koop, the president of the San Jose Astronomical Association, discovered this early in life.
MIKE KOOP: 'Course I started in boy scouts so we were quite fortunate to have a fantastic troop where we did fifty mile backpack trips every summer. And we did a lot of trips to the Emigrant Basin, just north of Yosemite, did a lot of trips in Yosemite itself. And a big part of our trips is, we would of course be going in the summer, and we were fortunate enough to always avoid the thunderstorms. For a while there we wouldn't even take tents, and we'd just put our bags out, and just enjoy the wonderful summer sky that we would get. The persieds always seemed to be going, and that got me very active in meteor observing actually.
STEVE: Jamie Dillon, a scout leader and amateur astronomer from Salinas California, says that those really dark skies are a big reason he gets into the wilderness.
JAMIE DILLON: The sky takes on a different sort of aspect. The milky way jumps out at you. I really like to watch the milky way in Cygnus; all the dark nebulae, all through Scorpius and Sagittarius in the summer sky. In the spring sky, the Coma Berneces is a big bright open cluster that covers a broad area of sky, Bernice's Hair, and that's beautiful. Also the thing I remember looking to the northern crown, which has a name… Corona Borealis. And it's a really pretty arc of stars, that looks like a tiara. And so I knew that by face, long before I knew that by name.
STEVE: So clearly, there are those enthusiasts who seek out the backcountry at night. But when I talked with Chad Moore, a physical scientist for the National Park Service, he said dark skies are important to the majority of park visitors.
CHAD MOORE: I think an increasing number of them are seeking dark night skies in their national park experience. For a lot of people, a starry sky is an important backdrop of their experience, the same way that soundscapes are. When you think about going to the Grand Canyon, you know you want to look at this big hole in the earth and take in the view, but you also want that scene to be peaceful, and not the sound of crowds or busses or aircraft. And the same is true I think for dark night skies: If your sky is covered with light from a distant city, maybe the city you tried to escape, and then here you have the light from the city that follows you.
STEVE: So you're saying that people don't go to Death Valley to see the beam out of the Luxor casino?
CHAD MOORE: I don't think so! In fact I think the great majority of people who go to Death Valley probably just came from Las Vegas, and are looking for a very different experience.
STEVE: What is the state of the night sky in the large national parks? Are visitors to those areas going to see the kind of dark night skies that people saw before electric light?
CHAD MOORE: In all of the national parks that we've surveyed, and we have data in almost forty parks to date, we've only found one park that has really had no sesible light pollution. And that is Natural Bridges National Monument in southern Utah. Now there are another half dozen parks that are very dark: Bryce Canyon, where I'm stationd is one of them, Capitol Reef also in southern Utah is another, the northern portions of Death Valley, Great Basin. These kinds of places are not quite pristine, but they're certainly spectacular. I wouldn't go so far as to say that it's an experience like what it was before electric lights, a hundred and twenty six years ago. Then I guess there's another tier of parks where I think a lot of people are expressed with the night sky, but unfortuately, they don't know what they're missing. And being a large park does not necessarily keep the light at the boundary.
STEVE: Chad Moore will be back in part two of this edition.
Mike Koop has direct experience with a not-so-dark sky in Yosemite National Park.
MIKE KOOP: I remember one time we were up at Glacier Point. We had conditions change immediately, and you just see this huge blue glow that was in the sky, and it just, while we could still see the milky way, it just really deteriorated our view. And that was just from the clouds. Moisture had just come in, and that was enough to have light bounce from Fresno.
STEVE: But say we want to get into a dark wilderness sky in some of those darkest locations that Chad mentioned. Mike has advice for how to get started as a backcountry amateur astronomer.
MIKE KOOP: First thing I would do is to make sure to bring a sky map. And there's a great skymap at skymaps dot com. And you can download that, it's a single sheet, and it's got a good planisphere on it. Wonderful starting point to get going. But just with your eyes, you can go through and you can make out all of the constellations, and trace them all, and that's a wonderful starting point for astronomy. If you have binoculars, bring them out, and you can see many of the globular clusters that we like to look at; star formation regions, nebula. And one of my favorite things to do is take binoculars, still, and go through from nebula to nebula, globular cluster to globular cluster, and go up the chain of the milky way. It's just a wonderful experience.
STEVE: And this doesn't have to be a heavy kit…
MIKE KOOP: Not at all, not at all! Just any binocular will do. You know, the binoculars you probably have in your closet for sporting events, even the small ones. Any optical aid will work.
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Next time — In part two of The Wilderness at Night, the science of darkness in the wilds.
The Wildebeat is produced by Steve Sergeant for Effable Communications. Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. Future editions of The Wildebeat depend on your news contributions, and on your financial support. Please see our website for details. Send your comments to webmaster at wildebeat dot net.
This has been The Wildebeat, program number thirteen. Thank you for listening.
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