The sun was just beginning to slide down, casting the clouds in hot pinks and pulsing oranges as we made our way along the country roads that lead out to Observatory Park in Montville Township. The roadways got darker and darker, and the street lights farther and farther apart, as we followed the route.
I thought I’d be prepared for the darkness. I had heard about dark sky parks years ago but never had a chance to visit one. To receive the dark sky park designation, parks need to adhere to a strict set of rules from the International Dark-Sky Association to keep light pollution to a minimum. There are only a smattering of dark sky parks across the U.S. and the world – and Ohio happens to have one of them about 20 minutes north of Burton.
Despite Observatory Park’s remote location, a trail of cars ahead of us showed the way along Clay Road. My kids noticed that the street lights were tinged red as we drove into the parking lot. The observatory and the lights along the sidewalks, too, had red lights, making it easier to see the real show – the stars above.
We decided to go to the park for the Perseid meteor shower – a peak time to see little bits of a comet streak across the night sky. The park makes it an event by encouraging people to bring tents and stay through the night for the best meteor gazing.
Tents were already spread across the 1,100-acre park and the atmosphere felt festive with campers mixed in with just-arrivals, like us. We set up our chairs and then went to join the line for one of two telescopes set up. I noticed a dad in front of me was wearing smiley-faced pajama pants – his preschool-aged daughter had fuzzy footie pajamas and gave out a gasp when she spotted Jupiter through the telescope viewer.
After I had my turn at the smaller telescope, I made my way to the larger one for a chance to see Saturn’s rings — you had to climb a ladder to get to the viewer. A park guide explained that we should really come back the following weekend, August 19th, when they would be opening up the newer, larger, Nassau scope. The massive telescope, which will be part of the newly restored Nassau Astronomical Station, will be one of the largest of its kind in the state.
Once I had seen a close-up peep of the stars, I was ready for the larger view. We quickly abandoned the chairs in favor of the large blankets we brought. We noticed more seasoned stargazers had brought cots and we made a mental note to do the same next time.
My kids – all teenagers – acted like it was Christmas Eve as we waited for the star show to begin. We were told we could start seeing meteors at around 10:50 p.m. My 16 year-old asked about every 2 minutes whether it was time yet.
She didn’t need to ask though, once the meteors started falling the whole crowd collectively noticed. It was like watching a fireworks display together – with a crowd of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ that followed each meteor’s path across the sky. They were so quick we would miss one and then catch another in a different part of the sky.
We didn’t stay for the whole meteor show which stretched into the wee hours of the morning. But my kids were anxious to make plans to return — even if there weren’t any meteors, but simply the stars above.
If you go, I suggest looking up events at the park for the time you plan on visiting. Observatory Park holds regular events to help amateur stargazers (and more advanced ones), learn about the stars and use their onsite telescopes. To find out what is happening at the park visit www.geaugaparkdistrict.org, then “Find a Program/Event”, select Astronomy under “Choose an Interest.” Park details can be found at www.geaugaparkdistrict.org/parks/observatorypark.shtml.
You might also want to plan your visit to have some time before the sun goes down – within the park there’s an Planetary Trail, with displays on the solar system as you go. Sadly, I could only make out a few of the trail markings as I made my way in the dark. I found dark sky etiquette was no flashlights or cell phone lights – either cover your flashlight with a red-tinted filter or many come with a red option to keep the light to a minimum. I found my eyes adjusted to the darkness after awhile. That said, you may want to download a constellation app to make it easy to identify the shapes in the stars (just keep your screen obscured until the app pops up).
Final note? Watch out for horse buggies on your way home. Along the winding country roads we encountered a couple of Amish buggies with flashing taillights to alert us that we were sharing the roadway.
For more information on your next starry adventure, Find it here at Ohio.org.