"Dark Skies" by Wes Boyd

Many small towns in the Midwest have a small restaurant that serves as
something of a community center. Usually, there's a big table, seating a
dozen or more, and at breakfast times, it's the scene of people coming and
going, gossiping about whatever happens to interest them -- and in a small
town, that can take a wide range. In February,  snowmobiling and ice
fishing are topics, especially among those that are into the sports, but
the topics can easily be a daughter's new boyfriend, or negotiations to
build a new garage.

The breakfast table at what, in 1989, was called the Carleton Cafe in
Hudson was the scene of a minor event that would eventually add to the
uniqueness of Lake Hudson. It wasn't an altogether inappropriate spot --
the Cafe was named for Will Carleton, Hudson's epitome of the local boy
made good; the lake was nearly named after him, as well, back in the early
days, before American Central Corporation, for whatever reason they had,
named it Lake Hudson instead.

What really made the connection was that on this one winter Saturday
morning, several of the seats around the breakfast table were filled with
local amateur astronomers, grousing about the marginal observing site
they'd been at the night before.

Astronomers of any form like things dark, the darker the better. Extraneous
light, of any form is the enemy to be avoided at all costs, and with the
widespread introduction of the 175-watt mercury vapor light in what seems
like  every yard over the past couple of decades, finding dark spots to
study the night sky has become increasingly a more difficult task.

Finally, one of the astronomers commented, "I don't know what we're heading
all over the country for. After all, Lake Hudson has to have some of the
darkest skies around here." The casual remark around the table led to an
expedition that evening to Lake Hudson's boat launch that evening for four
of the amateurs, where we discovered that the 2560 acres of Lake Hudson was
not only a convenient place to take telescopes, but a good one. From the
boat launch, there was no ground lighting in sight, although there was glow
in the skies from Hudson to the west, and from Adrian, to the east. After a
great deal of looking, we'd found as good a site for astronomical observing
as exists in southern Michigan -- and right in their own back yard.

March brings a special time for astronomy  and another rite of spring at
Lake Hudson, at least if the weather will cooperate.

Two hundred years and more ago, there was a Frenchman by the name of
Charles Messier. He was a comet hunter, and he spent many nights over many
years hunting for the faint fuzzy spots in the sky that would mean that he
had found a new comet. He didn't like interruptions to his comet hunting,
or things that would take him away from it; he was angry that the death of
his wife took him away from his comet hunting.

Messier did his comet hunting with what we, today, would consider to be a
pretty poor telescope. In his endless sweeps across the night sky, he kept
finding faint fuzzy areas that he thought might be new comets -- but comets
move in the sky from night to night, and these didn't. A man  who would get
upset at the death of his wife keeping him from hunting comets would also
get upset at continuing to find these faint fuzzy areas, thinking they were
comets, and they turned out not to be. So, after a while, Messier began to
keep a list of these faint, fuzzy areas that looked like comets, but which
weren't. Eventually, the list reached 110 objects.

No one would remember Charles Messier today, except the odd historian of
astronomy, were it not for his list of things that weren't comets --
because that list is pretty much the list of the best 110 objects outside
the solar system to turn a small, amateur-sized telescope at. These objects
turned out to be star clusters, clouds of interstellar gas, and  galaxies
galore, some awesome in their beauty. Messier missed a few, and a  few got
onto his list that make modern astronomers wonder why he bothered, but if
you ask an amateur astronomer under a dark sky what he's looking at, the
odds are they'll say, "M-something or other".

The one time each year that all 110 of the M-objects can be seen on the
same night is in mid to late March, and even in the best circumstances, a
few are chancy at best. In 1990, we instituted an annual "Messier Night" at
Lake Hudson, to attempt to see all 110 objects, but we've never caught a
March evening when it's clear all night.

We've had a few that started out pretty good. There are a few objects that
you have to somehow pick out of the evening twilight, but given a clear
evening and a little knowledge of where to look, it isn't an impossible
task. Once it gets good and dark,  production is usually pretty steady
until about midnight -- but then, there's a long break as we wait for
summer stuff to fill the sky, and on the few nights we've had where we've
had pretty good starts, it has clouded up about this point and shut us down
for the evening.

As far as I know, I still hold the Messier Night record at Lake Hudson,
after observing 67 in two different years, but a pair of students from
Eastern Michigan University quietly came out in the middle of the week one
night a few years ago, and ran the list to 107, the Lake Hudson record, so
I have little to crow about. But, I keep trying.

The best nights for stargazing at Lake Hudson come in the middle of spring,
just about the time that the trees are leafing out, before the mosquitoes
have gained their full voracity.

It was one spring morning, a few days after a Messier night, that Jim and I
were once again sitting in the Carleton Cafe, along with another couple
local amateurs. It was while the beach was under construction across Covill
Lagoon from our picnic area observing site, and rumor had it that the DNR
planned to put up night lighting at the beach parking lot. If that
happened, this great dark site would be lost to us, and we were saddened by
the thought. "We ought to talk to the DNR about that," I said. "It would be
great if we could turn this into a protected dark sky site."

Jim, who was a lawyer, replied, "If they do something like that
administratively, then they can undo it administratively, just as easily.
We ought to talk to the legislature."

"It'd never happen," I snorted.

"Want to bet?" Jim smiled.

Thus it was, a couple months later, that I sat in the dark at the controls
of the Adrian College Planetarium as Jim made his pitch to our local state
representative, a jewel of a man by the name of Tim Walberg. In an era
where the words "parties" and "politicians" can be dirty words, over
sixteen years Tim proved that you can be honest and honorable, responsive
to the people regardless of political views. I must admit, he was a little
skeptical about our idea until his eyes were dark adapted, and the little
pinpoints of light became visible on the ceiling. We pointed out some of
the things that could be seen at night, then I ran up the rim lighting of
the planetarium, showing the effects of ground lighting on observing the sky.

Two years later, after several trips to the state capitol for hearings and
conferences, Lake Hudson became the first "Dark Sky Preserve" in the
country to be named by a state, where permanent ground lighting was banned
for a trial ten-year period.

Not long after the Michigan governor had signed the bill into law as Jim,
my daughter, and I watched, the Perseid meteor shower on August 12 was
predicted to be the best in over a century, with high rates of bright
meteors. There were a lot of stories in the media about the shower, and the
local astronomy club sent out a news release to the local media
recommending that the viewer seek out dark skies, and noting that Lake
Hudson had recently been named a dark sky preserve. We Lake Hudson regulars
thought that a few people might show up. We were in for a surprise.

Even before dark, the parking lot at the picnic grounds was so jammed with
cars that there was no way in or out. There were hundreds of people laying
out in lawn chairs, or on blankets, just watching the sky!  Some latecomers
told me later that there were people lined up along the entrance road, and
packing the boat launch, the beach -- which had just been opened -- and the

I just wish we could have offered the people that came out to see the
Perseid meteor shower a better show, even though the one we had was pretty
good.  The weather could have cooperated a little more; it was hazy, hot,
humid, and the mosquitoes were about as bad as I have seen them at Lake
Hudson. Fog rolled in early, limiting the amount of sky that we could see
-- but that first couple of hours was worth the effort.

For as soon as it was dark enough to see them, we started getting a steady
stream of meteors -- not a lot, but between big and small ones, at a rate
perhaps twice what we would normally expect for the Perseids. They were a
lot brighter than the normal Perseids. That first hour, I saw more meteors
that could be classified "fireballs" than I'd ever seen in a year.

And it wasn't the meteors that impressed me as much as it was the people.
As each bright fireball went over, there were a lot of "ooo"s and "aaaah"s
-- and, of course, a few voices saying "Darn, I missed it".

That was really what Representative Walberg and Jim and I had in mind with
our work on the dark sky preserve -- not the idea of preserving a
convenient place to take telescopes, but the idea of providing a place
where people can go to enjoy the beauty of a dark night sky. Those
delightful sounds coming from the crowd laid back in their lawn chairs,
staring at the night sky, was the real reward for all those trips and phone
calls to Lansing.

The sun sets late following the long summer days of July, and the twilight
lingers long. Not far past its northernmost summer excursion, the sun lays
not far below the northern horizion for an unbelieveable time. The thin
edge of twilight lays to far to the north late in the evening, peeking
around the corner of the world to put a dim glow of faint color on the
blackening sky.

The long, quiet evenings are a magnificent time to sit and watch the world
turn from day to night and see fireflies dancing in the air, to watch the
fishermen continue to troll up and down the waters as dusk is falling, to
see bats racing madly through the air getting their fill of the many
mosquitos, and just to come a little closer attuned to the pace of nature.
But the long, lingering July evenings are a little frustrating for
astronomy, mostly because the hour is so late when you get started, and
dawn twilight and the day aren't far away at any time.

The most spectacular nights of observing the night sky at Lake Hudson came
in the early 1990s, when the solar cycle was near its peak, and the aurora
borealis danced in the evening sky to the north. On nights that seemed
likely to produce an aurora, we would take telescopes, but only to kill
time until the northern lights perked up, if they did. When they did, a
telescope was not the appropriate observing tool; more preferable was a
good, comfortable lawn chair, and an old blanket to keep off the dew. Jim,
my regular observing companion in those days, and I spent many a night
there in the parking lot of the picnic area, watching the dancing glow of
the aurora.

One evening, my daughter, then perhaps about nine or ten, asked if she
could go with us to watch the aurora. I expected that she'd soon get bored
and want to do something else, but the lights perked up early, and she sat
there enthralled. Adults don't see color well in the darkness, so an aurora
has to be pretty bright to be colorful. This particular night, all Jim and
I were seeing was a dull, flickering glow, but my daughter got a show, for
young eyes see dim colors  better than older ones. "Look at the pinks! Look
at the greens!" she exulted, while Jim and I just could look at each other
in the dark, blind to something we were past seeing.

Perhaps the most glorious night I ever had stargazing at Lake Hudson came
one fall night in the early '90s. Most of the gang was somewhere else far
away that evening, and only Dave and I had been unwilling to make the trip.
The sky that evening was extraordinarily clear and calm and dark, a night
like we'd never seen before. Gazing around the sky with naked eye, we
started hunting Messier objects that we'd only seen with telescopes before,
and eventually came up with more than thirty, just with the naked eye,
though some were just hints of what they might be in a telescope. That
night, Dave even gave up his double star passion to glory in the brightness
of telescopic objects that usually we only saw faintly, while the Milky Way
blazed overhead so brightly that it almost cast a shadow on the pavement of
the parking lot beneath our feet. Afterward, when we'd heard that the rest
of the gang had been clouded out as a reward for their long trek, Dave and
I  felt as if we'd stolen a jewel from them.

The late fall often brought a special opportunity for stargazing at Lake
Hudson. Just as the late summer and fall constellations come up in the
spring if you wait long enough, in the early morning the winter and early
spring constellations are visible. Since winters are cold, and clear nights
the coldest, and the early spring often cloudy, a few of us would take
advantage of the situation and meet at Lake Hudson for what we called the
"Dawn Patrol." There were never more than a handful of us there, real
diehards all, and some weekday mornings during a period when I was trying
to observe some rarely-seen objects in winter constellations deep in the
southern sky, I'd be out there at the picnic area by myself. It can be
extraordinarily quiet at these hours; even the traffic noise from the
highway not far away is at a minimum. The sky can be at its stillest in
these predawn hours, with the heating of the day far behind, and the view
of stars can be steady, indeed. It seems truly lonely and empty out there
at that hour, just you and the stars, with little to distract you. I
vividly remember one morning when I was trying to locate a faint open star
cluster far below Orion when I was startled by a lone goose that flew low
over head, wondering what was going on out there, and with a single honk
letting me know of his presence in the sky overhead; there was more there,
it seemed, than just stars.

I'm no longer as involved with astronomy as I once was. An unexpected
health problem caused my night vision to degrade to some degree not long
after that night, and I've not been able to make out clear, pinpoint star
images since, but slightly out of focus blobs, despite several new pairs of
glasses to try to correct the problem. That took a lot of the fun out of
the hobby, and I turned to other things thereafter. But, I still try to
make it out to Lake Hudson for stargazes a few evenings a year, to watch
the sun set and the night come on, to sip coffee with friends as the
shadows grow long and the light fades, to enjoy as best I can the clear
beauty of a night sky.