Darkness as a tourist draw? Believe it

For many of us who grew up in small towns, the allure of the bright lights in big cities serve as an inexorable draw. We travel to those hotspots for business and on vacation, and take advantage of offerings our country-mouse hometowns might not provide.

On clear nights, the cloudy band of the Milky Way spans the night sky, photographed here from Cadillac Mountain during the Acadia Acadia Night Sky Festival on Sept. 15, 2012. (BDN file photo)

But city folks often strive to visit those special, quiet places that we sometimes take for granted. Places where things move slower. Places where nature is on display.

Places where, when the sun sets at the end of a busy day, it gets really, really dark.

Maine, as it turns out, is full of places like that. In fact, I’d bet that those of us who don’t live near the business districts of our towns and cities could — if we chose — head out onto our lawns on any summer night, lie on our backs, and enjoy a spectacular view of the night sky.

And though it’s one of those things that many of us take for granted, believe this: Many others cherish that darkness.

“That’s actually something that we’ve been looking at a lot,” Lucas St. Clair told a crowd at a BDN Dirigo Speaks event last month in response to a question about keeping the skies in Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument as dark as possible. “A few years ago, we thought, ‘We’ve got a pretty big landscape here. We should see if we qualify for being a dark sky location.’”

St. Clair, whose family donated more than 87,000 acres of northern Maine land that was designated a national monument a year ago, said he and others reached out to the International Dark-Sky Association, which works toward protecting places where traditional dark skies still exist. The group also certifies (after a two-year process) sites that qualify as officially dark.

“They sent us a form and said, ‘Probably the thing that takes the longest is you have to go around the entire property and you have to count every light bulb that you have,’” St. Clair recounted.

As it turned out, that count didn’t take as long as the IDA reps thought it might.

“I’m like, ‘That’s … six,’” St. Clair said, drawing widespread laughter.

Six. Lightbulbs. Period.

On a parcel of land that covers 87,000 acres.

Think about that for a minute.

The folks at the IDA did, and they quickly dispatched a team to investigate, St. Clair said. Turns out they didn’t believe that was possible.

St. Clair chuckles at the memory.  And he said they could have done even better, if they’d had to.

“[The light bulbs] are hooked up to a solar panel,” he said. “We can just turn the solar panel upside-down and it’s zero.”

And adjacent to the national monument is Baxter State Park, 200,000 acres where the night sky is truly special.

The message: Places where you can go outside at night, look upward, and still see the Big Dipper and thousands of stars are becoming increasingly rare. And people are coming to appreciate those spots.

“It’s really an interesting thing. I went out to Big Bend National Park [in Texas] a couple of years ago for a board meeting, and the local chamber of commerce talked about astro tourism,” St. Clair said. “It’s the fastest-growing tourism in Big Bend National Park. [That] place is so remote, but the stars are unbelievable. The only place I’ve seen stars like that are in the incredibly remote places like northern Maine.”

St. Clair said a simple glance at a map that shows the United States at night proves his point: Up there in northern Maine, it’s amazingly dark.

So what does that mean?

It means opportunity, St. Clair said.

“People will travel an unbelievably long distance to see the stars in the sky like that,” he said.

Later this summer, astro tourists will flock to the United States in order to witness a full solar eclipse over a thin swath of land that stretches from South Carolina to Oregon. St. Clair said some estimates call for $150 million in spending by those tourists, who will flock to places where the sky still gets dark at night.

“And you take it for granted,” he said. “If you grew up in Boston or New York or Cambridge or wherever, you just don’t see the starry skies like you do here in Maine.”

And he said places like Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument give people a chance to make sure that those dark places stay that way.

“We can’t really enhance it,” he said. “We can only screw it up.”

And that, he said, isn’t an option.
John Holyoke can be reached at jholyoke@bangordailynews.com or 990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke

John Holyoke

About John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. Today, he's the Outdoors editor for the BDN, a job that allows him to meet up with Maine outdoors enthusiasts in their natural habitat. The stories he gathers provide fodder for his columns, and this blog.