The Milky Way glows above Jordan Pond in Acadia National Park, which is said to have the largest expanse of naturally dark sky east of the Mississippi River.Photo Credit : Nate Levesque
In September, the starlit sky reveals itself at Acadia National Park. Summer’s hazy air lifts as if an ethereal hand is drawing back a gauzy curtain to show us the Milky Way as generations of our forebears have known it: a glittering, billions-strong swath through the inky black that sets Mount Desert Island’s ponds and surrounding sea aglow.
Stargazing at Maine’s biggest national park “is this immersive experience,” says Elissa Chesler, a geneticist at Bar Harbor’s Jackson Laboratory and founder of the Acadia Astronomical Society; she moved here from Tennessee, in part, for the view of the stars. “There’s this connection of the earth, the sky, the crashing waves, and it all comes together that you’re a resident of planet Earth.”
There’s no shortage of places in Maine from which to spy on the stars—earlier this year, in fact, the International Dark-Sky Association named Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument its first international dark-sky sanctuary on the East Coast, and only the 12th in the world, for “the exceptional quality of its naturally dark skies. ”
The Pine Tree State boasts a burgeoning astro-tourism calendar that includes the Maine Astronomy Retreat at Medomak Retreat Center in Washington, and Stars Over Katahdin at Katahdin Woods and Waters. But one of the longest-running and most popular events is September’s Acadia Night Sky Festival, thanks to its pairing of family-friendly hikes and nightlife with star shows that are gorgeously reflected in waters surrounding the park.
Founded in 2009, this five-day nerd-out-on-the-stars extravaganza attracts around 5,000 attendees from all over, many from places too bright to see the stars. There are talks, workshops, and activities that encompass everything from determining whether that rock you found in your backyard is a meteorite, to photographing the night sky so it doesn’t just look like a bunch of black with some dots in it, to the pleasures of paddling through a bioluminescent pond.
Even the stargazing community, though, isn’t immune to the effects of a pandemic. Park spokesman John Kelly confirmed that the festival would be postponed until 2021 due to public health concerns, adding that the National Park Service regrets the move but “is looking forward to working with our community partners to promote and protect the night skies above Acadia and beyond.” [Next year’s dates: 9/29–10/3.]
So that’s the bad news. The good news is that outdoor events where social distancing can be observed might still run, including the popular “Stars Over Sand Beach” talk.
The night I went a few years ago was a quintessential stargazing night. There was a new moon, and the sky was a deep black divided by a faintly violet Milky Way. The Beehive, the small mountain I’d hiked that morning, lurked nearby in shadow so thick it looked like a sleeping giant curled around the cove. A large crowd had gathered on the sand, sprawling on blankets as a cool, salty breeze rippled across the starlit water.
With the help of a set of speakers and his green laser pointer, a park ranger boomed stories of the constellations in Greek mythology: Cygnus the swan, who was turned into a constellation by gods sympathetic to his grief over his lover’s death. Capricorn the sea goat. Cassiopeia the queen, forced to spin on her throne for eternity as punishment for her vanity.
As I looked up at the universe, I felt something strange. Scary, even. The more I searched the starlit sky, the more I felt myself loosen and threaten to fall into it. It had happened before, this feeling, especially when I looked at the stars on chilly nights, as that night was. In his 2018 book Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, Alan Lightman describes a similar sensation. He was alone in his boat, motoring across Casco Bay to a tiny unnamed island, when he killed the engine under a moonless sky to lie down and float. “A very dark night sky seen from the ocean is a mystical experience,” he writes. “The boat disappeared. My body disappeared. And I found myself falling into infinity … I felt a merging with something far larger than myself, a grand and eternal unity, a hint of something absolute.”
I ask Chesler, who is one of the Acadia Night Sky Festival organizers, if she ever had that feeling, looking up at the stars on Mount Desert Island. Like a bowing of gravity that threatens to drop a person … I don’t know how else to describe it but up.
Not exactly, she replies. “I feel kind of small when I look up, but that’s comforting to me. I think I’m a tiny part of a much larger thing, and I actually find that to be really wonderful.”
She tells me that when she first moved here, there were so many more stars in the sky that she’d get lost peering through her telescope. To get her bearings, she started with a familiar constellation—for her, it was the Dolphin—and navigated from there. In the fall, she tells me, a lot of people get their bearings with the constellation Orion, the mythological hunter aiming his bow and arrow across the sky, since the middle star in Orion’s “sword” is the brightest nebula in the sky and therefore visible to the naked eye. (Nebulae, those mysterious gas-and-dust clouds of stars exploding and stars newly forming, happen to be Chesler’s favorite celestial bodies. The Orion Nebula “might ruin you forever,” she says, “because it’s one of the prettiest things in the night sky.”)
Since Acadia will be open after dark even though the festival is canceled, I ask Chesler what advice she would give to night-sky watchers like me. She sends me an email with suggestions—and then reminds me to make time to just lie back, in an Alan Lightman kind of way, and “take in the whole vista.” To surrender to the tremendous, possibly unsettling feeling of being very, very small.
“Some people get interested in the technology, in the science,” she says, “but at some point, and especially for me, you just want to step back and say, Whoa—isn’t that amazing? Isn’t that beautiful?”
Some tips for skygazing at Acadia National Park from Elissa Chesler, founder of the Acadia Astronomical Society.
1. Check the weather for nights with the best viewing conditions, but no matter what the forecast says, bring extra layers (and bug spray).
2. Try out some planetarium apps or go to skymaps.com/downloads.html to print a free map that lists night-sky objects that can be seen with the naked eye, binoculars, or small telescopes.
3. Look for “night vision” smartphone settings or apps, which use a red filter so your eyes won’t have to readjust to the darkness after glancing at your phone.
4. To get your bearings, look for the Big Dipper, then locate the Little Dipper and the North Star. Use these to find other constellations.
5. Due to Acadia’s northerly location, there’s a long time between sunset and dark skies in deep summer (less so in fall), so it’s important to know the different twilight times: civil (headlights on), nautical (just dark enough to see planets and bright stars), and astronomical (dark enough to see the Milky Way and deep-sky objects).
6. For an ocean backdrop, go to Schooner Head or Seawall Camp-ground; for lakes and ponds, go to the Jordan Pond House tea lawn or Eagle Lake. Cadillac Mountain offers a 360-degree view, but it can be blustery.
7. Take out your binoculars to have a look at any “faint fuzzies.” These are nebulae, or clouds of dust and gas created by both dying stars and emerging ones.
8. Tackle small goals, such as finding Jupiter’s moons with binoculars or seeing the Andromeda Galaxy with the naked eye. Throw in a new challenge or two for each stargazing session.
9. Don’t be discouraged if you can’t find something. Just keep looking up!