Ambient Light

Last night was one of those nights you hope for when you’re a stargazer.  Brilliantly clear skies, with cold air providing sharp focus.  Just a quick glance at the sky showed old friends Orion, Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, and down low in the southern sky, Canis Major with the brilliant Sirius a beacon on the constellation.  Sadly, the neighborhood was lit up like a prison yard as several of the neighbors chose to leave their outdoor lights on.  Another celestial show foiled again by the neighbors…

I seek out the sky, and often walk looking up, sometimes started when I step off the pavement onto the shoulder of the road.  I once sailed from Norfolk, Virginia to Newburyport, Massachusetts, and eagerly watched the night sky when we were well offshore.  Cape Cod in winter offers some good viewing.  Any large body of water serves to subtract ambient light, simply because there usually aren’t lights shining there.  A favorite place in southern New Hampshire is Big Island Pond, where many a late night boat ride was spent marveling at the night sky.  Another spot I have fond memories of is the Robert Frost Farm in Derry.  Back in the late 1990’s I joined a couple of friends for a late night viewing of the Hale-Bopp comet in these Frost fields.  I think old Bob would have approved and joined us for a turn at the telescope had he been alive.  The next comet will be Halley’s Comet in 2062.  I would be 96 in 2062.  I hope I’m around to see it, and have my wits about me to recognize it.

In search of dark skies, I came across The International Dark Sky Association, which lists Mont-Mégantic (Québec) as the closest, and first-in-the-world, International Dark Sky Reserve.  I’ll confess I wasn’t aware of this distinction prior to today.  Mont-Mégantic is roughly a four hour drive, directly through the White Mountains of New Hampshire, past the Connecticut Lakes region and into Quebec.  This region is familiar country for me.  I’ve visited the area to see moose, canoe on First Connecticut Lake and see and hear loons.  It’s an area that stays in my memory even after a quarter century.  If I was going to pick a part of New England that would have the darkest skies, this corridor between Franconia Notch and Pittsburgh would be on the short list.  Shifting northeast into Maine, I’d pick the Hundred Mile Wilderness along the Appalachian Trail as a likely dark sky candidate, and of course the unnamed wilderness to the north.

Curious about where the darkest places in New England actually are, I came across this helpful site called Dark Sky Finder, (http://www.jshine.net/astronomy/dark_sky/index.php?lat=40.384212768155045&lng=-74.300537109375&zoom=8).  As this image shows, the darkest areas are in the north-easternmost corner of New Hampshire northeastward through a large swath of remote wilderness in Maine between Baxter State Park and the Allagash Wilderness Waterway that runs along the Canadian border.

It was an easy guess picking the wilderness of Maine as the darkest skies in the northeast.  My memories of hiking the Hundred Mile Wilderness aren’t filled with a lot of ambient light.  Another memory comes to me.  The first time I hiked the Appalachian Trail through Mahoosuc Notch I was in my early 20’s.  A bunch of us set up camp at the Speck Pond Campsite, had dinner and swapped stories from our day through the Notch.  After dinner we hiked halfway up the trail to Old Speck Mountain and settled in for star gazing.  There was a meteor shower that night and the clear dark skies gave us the perfect canvas for a stunning show.  That night is what I think about when I look to the skies.  I guess I’m still chasing stars.

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