Driftless Dark Skies

John Heasley

On the first day of September, I had a wonderful time hiking the trails of Kickapoo Valley Reserve well beyond midnight. I was on a mission with my Unihedron Sky Quality Meter to measure just how dark it was at nine sites. And I was guiding and assisting an astrophotographer friend who was creating images to be part of the new dark sky exhibit there and for our application to the International Dark-Sky Association to be designated as an International Dark Sky Park.

During twilight, we were wowed to see the planets of our solar system emerging. But as the skies darkened even more, we were awed by the sight of our Milky Way emerging and bending across the heavens. It is something I would love for you to see for yourself by walking in the dark this month.

You will want to pick a park or country road away from city and town lights. I love wandering and trying new paths but not at night. Pick a familiar trail that you’ve walked by daylight. Paved paths are good because you can turn off your light and not worry so much about uneven surfaces. If you need a little light, red or amber is best to give your eyes the best opportunity to adapt to the dark. Feel safe and have more fun by bringing along a companion or two — maybe one of your geeky friends who can help you identify the birds you’re hearing as well as other sounds of the night world. One of us stayed the night at a campsite and the other drove home. Give a little thought to what is best for you.

Sunset is around 6:45 p.m. at the start of October and around 6 p.m. at the end. It’s a great time to experience twilight. The sky is fully dark about 75 minutes after sunset, so 8:15 on Oct. 1 and 7:30 on Halloween. You can start even earlier in November, especially after Nov. 7 when we let our clocks go back to natural time. New Moon is Oct. 6, and you can see the Milky Way without moonlight interfering Oct. 1-10 and Oct. 23-31. A moonlight walk is also fun. The Full Hunter’s Moon is Oct. 19 and 20, and you can be soothed by the soft glow of moonlight in the middle of the month.

Don’t forget to celebrate International Observe the Moon Night on Oct. 16 when humans across the globe are encouraged to look up together and honor our connection with the moon through stories and images and art. That night, brilliant Venus will be near ruddy Antares in the western sky while the waning gibbous moon, Jupiter and Saturn will form a line across the southern sky. But whenever or wherever, I hope you are as revitalized as I was walking in the dark.

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador, with the IAU as a Dark Skies Ambassador, and with International Dark-Sky Association as an Advocate. For more information about stargazing in southwestern Wisconsin, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies.