06/25/2014 12:00AM ● Published by Laura Christman
Photos: Courtesy of Lassen Volcanic National Park
Lassen Volcanic National Park and Whiskeytown National Recreation Area are sharing their dark sides, encouraging visitors to look up and notice stars and planets that pop into view against the black of night.
The night sky in such places can be unbelievable. So much so, that some visitors who see Saturn’s rings for the first time check to see if a photo is affixed to the front of the telescope.
“People will think it’s a sticker,” says Lassen Park Ranger Kevin Sweeney.
“That’s a pretty common reaction. It looks just like a photograph,” says Shasta Astronomy Club member Greg Williams, who helps at Whiskeytown star viewings.
The astronomy emphasis at Lassen and Whiskeytown is part of a recent push by the National Park Service to embrace the night sky as an important resource.
“We’re in this dark corner of California. We still have that darkness,” says Sweeney, noting artificial light in urban areas makes it difficult to observe stars. “We have fewer and fewer places where you can go out and see the Milky Way.”
Lassen Park held its first Dark Sky Festival three years ago. This year’s festival is Aug. 1-3 and includes ranger-led activities, observations with telescopes, film showings of “The City Dark” and talks by NASA scientists. Lassen offers regular constellation tours throughout the summer and has a Junior Ranger Night Explorer program for children.
Astronomy doesn’t draw visitors to the national park the way its peaks, fumaroles, lakes and trails do. But when the wonders of the night sky are pointed out, Lassen Park visitors often become, well, a little starstruck.
“We find these astronomy programs are some of the most popular programs we offer,” Sweeney said.
Whiskeytown is getting an enthusiastic response to its programs too. Last summer, Whiskeytown changed its Friday evening ranger talks at Oak Bottom amphitheater, replacing traditional topics like bear safety with astronomy themes. Rangers roll in information on nocturnal animals and other after-dark aspects of the park.
“There’s a whole different world that happens at night that I think a lot of people don’t think about,” says Interpretive Ranger Matt Switzer.
The change in topics resulted in more people attending, he says. After each presentation there’s a chance to view the night sky through telescopes.
“It’s a nice way for people to come up and spend the evening and see what they may not be able to see in their own backyards,” Switzer says. “It brings out the inner child in everybody. Everybody gets that sense of wonder and exploration.”
Whiskeytown purchased a telescope for the program last summer. Williams, outreach coordinator for Shasta Astronomy Club, brings telescopes and offers expertise. Shasta Astronomy Club also works with Whiskeytown on special viewing events if there’s a meteor shower or eclipse. And the club holds public star parties twice a month (Saturdays closest to the new moon) at the Mt. Shasta Mine Loop Trail parking area.
“Mostly what we try to share is the wonder of what is out there,” Williams says. Telescopes might be trained on Mars, Saturn, Jupiter, nebulas or globular clusters that he says “look like someone poured diamonds on a black piece of satin.”
Part of the astronomy push at Lassen and Whiskeytown is enlightening visitors about vanishing darkness. Humans once made their way through the night only by moonlight, and later relied on torches, candles and lanterns. Electricity now fills the night with light. As artificial light intrudes into natural darkness, stars appear smudged or disappear from sight.
There’s more at stake than loss of clarity for star viewing. Light pollution affects nocturnal animals, insects, bird migration and plant cycles, and can impact on our own sleep and health, Sweeney says. While North State communities don’t have as much light at night as urban areas, there is a significant difference between how many stars can be seen from a Redding backyard vs. Lassen Park locations, he notes.
Darkness is worth protecting, Sweeney says. “Throughout time and throughout different cultures that is one thing all humanity has shared – being able to look up at the night sky. There’s a connection we have with that sky.”
Dark Sky Festival, Aug. 1-3 at Lassen Volcanic National Park,
Whiskeytown National Recreation Area,
Shasta Astronomy Club, www.shastaastronomyclub.com