Local

In Washington, you can find some of the best stargazing in the world

Mount Shuksan is reflected in Picture Lake at Heather Meadows, with the Milky Way visible to the right, in this long exposure photograph Aug. 26, 2014.
Mount Shuksan is reflected in Picture Lake at Heather Meadows, with the Milky Way visible to the right, in this long exposure photograph Aug. 26, 2014. The Bellingham Herald file

When twilight deepens to lavender, and the owls begin to talk, that is the time to go out, to revel in one of nature’s finest displays: a truly dark night sky.

Couldn’t make it to the Aug. 21 solar eclipse? Not to worry. The splendor of the night sky still awaits.

Washington is blessed with some of the last truly dark night skies, now rare in much of the developed world. On the Olympic Coast, and in the north-central tier of Washington, tucked up against the Canadian border, wonder awaits.

As untold thousands crammed highways last week heading home from the one-shot wonder of a total eclipse of the sun, the show was just starting in Eden Valley, a tucked-away realm of forests and meadows that lives up to its name in a remote stretch of the Okanogan highlands, at the Canadian border.

More than a third of humanity live under night skies too light-polluted to see the galaxy, scientists revealed in the newest atlas of the night sky, published last year.

As the night fell and coolness steeped the air, juvenile owls, calling their mother, hooted in the deepening dark.

Bats flitted by on urgent errands. A night bird called unseen from the forest and crickets chanted. Then softly, quietly, one by one, on a moonless night velvety-dark as a jewelers’ box, nature’s other diamonds began to sparkle.

Textured, dimensional, the glittering galaxy of the Milky Way slowly revealed itself, a reminder of the vastness beyond our small, fragile planet.

What a lucky thing, for across the world few people any longer can enjoy the gift of seeing the Milky Way. More than a third of humanity, including 60 percent of Europeans and nearly 80 percent of North Americans, live under night skies too light-polluted to see the galaxy, scientists revealed in the newest atlas of the night sky, published last year.

The most light-polluted place in the world is Singapore, the scientists found, with skies so bright at night the human eye never adjusts to night vision.

Light pollution is one of the most pervasive forms of environmental degradations, leaking for miles from urban centers.

But in Washington, the opportunity to pull up a lawn chair and a sleeping bag and just watch the heavens roll by still beckons.

There is something in the soul that reacts to the cosmos, we can ask all those questions that are the bigger questions.

David Ingram, vice president of the Seattle Astronomical Society.

To take the time to watch as the stars come on, first just a few, then more and more, paying full attention, is an essential experience, notes David Ingram, vice president of the Seattle Astronomical Society.

Also a chapter leader with Dark Skies Northwest and a representative for the International Dark-Sky Association, he is an evangelist for the power and wonder of the night sky experience.

“What is it about the soul of man that when he is removed from the stars he seems to suffer?” Ingram said. “There is something in the soul that reacts to the cosmos, we can ask all those questions that are the bigger questions.”

He joined the eclipse seekers and loved it, to be sure. But the night sky is the wonder that fires his imagination, day-to-day. “My message is the night sky is open every clear night.”

He has spent years as a volunteer showing people of all ages and from all cultures what is often their first look at the stars and planets through a telescope.

Their first word is nearly always the same, Ingram said, no matter who is looking: “Wow.”

Close-to-home views can be wondrous, too; one of his local favorites is at Sun Top fire lookout at Greenwater in the Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest, with its 360-degree views.

Even the star parties the astronomical association holds right here in the Seattle area, as close by as Green Lake and Covington, open eyes to celestial splendor, with free access to telescopes and binoculars.

Ingram particularly enjoys introducing first-timers to the stars, especially children. The first thing he does is encourage people to do that rare thing: take their time.

“That light has taken 14 million years to get to your retina,” Ingram said. “Take all the time you need. Look at the dimensions, look for the colors and the textures.

“Take a long look.”

  Comments