For millennia uncounted, the sight of the Milky Way, that ghostly ribbon of light that is part of our home, has drawn us to look skyward at night and wonder: Are we alone? Why am I here? And, gazing at the wonder of it all, to question how our collective speck of an existence fits into a universe of indescribable vastness.
But our connectedness to the celestial envelope surrounding this pale blue dot in the cosmos is in danger. For many, artificial illumination—that envelope of “always on” ambient light— has blotted out the night sky. How many city dwellers have forgotten the spectacle of a blanket of stars? How many children have experienced it?
Fortunately, there’s a cure for this celestial deprivation: Headlands International Dark Sky Park at the tip of Michigan’s mitten. Located two miles west of Mackinaw City, the stretch of wilderness along Lake Michigan has been open as a sky park since 2011.
Foundations for the 600-acre Headlands were laid in the 1990s. Prior to that, it was a private tract owned by Roger McCormick of the International Harvester family. Story goes that in the 1950s, he dropped bags of flour from a helicopter to outline the property and then purchased it. He built a guesthouse (it’s available for rent) and beach house, but died before he could build the main house.
Since no other McCormick wanted the land, the family’s foundation worked with Emmet County, the Little Traverse Conservancy, Mackinaw City and others to make it a park. Then, says Emmet County Director of Communications Beth Ann Eckerle, along came “astrosopher,” astrologer/philosopher/storyteller Mary Stewart Adams.
“She recognized we had something really special here,” Eckerle says of Adams, the park’s program director. “She motivated the entire community to see that this is a resource needing protection.”
In the rating system of gold, silver and bronze developed by the International Dark-Sky Association, Headlands, the sixth dark sky park to open in the U.S. and ninth worldwide (there are now 31), is in the high silver tier. “Each dark sky park is in a geographically unique place,” Adams explains.
While visitors are welcome to bring small telescopes for viewing, “My preference is to start with naked eye observation,” says Adams. “Being able to identify the North Star and constellations this way is a lost art in an overly lit world. Too many people don’t know how much star knowledge handed down over the centuries has been lost to the collective consciousness because of light pollution.” She encourages making it a family outing. “Let your child be in the wonder of it all.”
According to Adams, studying the sky is the best way to reconnect with the universe and yourself, and become more aware of your relationship to others. “We can learn a lot just being here. Looking up is how I can learn about the sky and myself. I see this as a reciprocal relationship. It’s not just finding out what’s out there, but also what it reveals about ourselves.”
While some may look up and question the significance of our planet, Adams invites you to think otherwise. “When I look into the vastness, it is a tremendous affirmation that I belong to something great. We owe it to our humanity to be familiar with our environment. That local environment extends as far as the eye can see, and we can see the Andromeda galaxy without a telescope. And that’s a long, long way.”
IF YOU GO
The dark sky park is open 24 hours, every day of the year. Admission and monthly programs are free. Visitors may carry backpacks, chairs, sleeping bags, telescopes and flashlights (cover white lights with a red filter; a red balloon works). No camping allowed.
Plan to arrive in daylight to walk the one-mile, paved, Dark Sky Discovery Trail from the entrance to the main viewing area. You’ll pass through one of the last old growth forests in Michigan’s Lower peninsula. Every tenth of a mile, a cultural interpretation station offers information about each planet in the solar system and how they have been expressed through literature, art and myths.
Later this year a 20-inch telescope will be installed in a dome donated by theCranbrook Institute of Science of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Viewing pads will offer stable telescope and photography platforms.
For more information: midarkskypark.org, (231) 348-1704
This article originally appeared in the 2016 spring/summer issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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