Michigan's newest Dark Sky Park in Cass County ready to open after COVID-19 delay

At long last, on the evenings of June 19 and 20 Cass County’s Dr. T.K. Lawless Park in Vandalia will be open for stargazing until 2 a.m. the following morning.

The unveiling of Michigan’s newest designated International Dark Sky Park took more than simply wishing on a star.

Development of the new viewing park first took two and a half years of dedication and hard work; then, just weeks away from a planned April opening, a global pandemic shut down all public gatherings.

Michigan’s lifting of stay-at-home orders last week came just in time for viewing summer stars.

So at last, this weekend, the park’s hours will be extended past the usual sunset closing and visitors will see what true darkness can reveal.

If the weather is clear, viewers will be able to gasp at shooting stars or drink in the majesty of the Milky Way by naked eye. Through binoculars or telescopes, stargazers may be able to see planets and more distant galaxies as well.

“The expanse of the night sky is mind-boggling to me,” says Cass County Parks Board member Robert Parrish. “And we are just looking at the northern hemisphere.

“It’s a mathematical probability that the universe is teeming with life—and how would we know?”

Preserving darkness

Dr. T.K. Lawless Park, nine miles east of Cassopolis on Monkey Run Street, has been the site of the annual spring event of the Michiana Astronomical Society for seven years. But its new designation by the International Dark-Sky Association makes the park one of only two dark sky parks in the state of Michigan and the only one in southern Michigan. (Headlands International Dark Sky Park is in Mackinaw City.)
Earning the International Dark Sky designation requires meticulous preparation, education, modification, and diligence, Cass County Parks Director Scott Wyman says.

It was a labor of love for Parrish, who oversaw completion of the 60-page application.

Parrish says outdoor lighting in the 820-acre nature park had to be fully shielded and documented to measure 3000 Kelvins or less—a temperature that doesn’t allow light to bounce into the air, polluting the darkness as it scatters.

Following that accomplishment, readings of the night sky were cataloged to show proof that Dr. T.K. Lawless Park meets the standards set by the International Dark-Sky Association.

“We also gave many presentations about how to help negate light pollution,” Parrish says, to help the public understand the value of darkness.

Parrish says that in the United States, 60 percent of the population has never even seen the Milky Way in the night sky. ”It is awe-inspiring,” he says. “In a truly dark spot, you’ll be amazed at what you can see.”
The Orion Nebula south of the constellation Orion appears as a glowing cloud in the Milky Way galaxy.

The next closest galaxy, Andromeda, looks like a tiny white cloud, Parrish says.

The unit of distance used to measure the expanses of space is a light-year, the distance light travels in one Earth year—about 6 trillion miles.

The Andromeda Galaxy is 2.5 million light-years away.

The light from such distant objects in space takes time to reach us, so the light we see of distant stars is actually as they appeared years ago.
“We are all made of star stuff,” Parrish says. “When you look at the stars, you are looking back at our heritage.”

His father’s legacy

Parrish first learned to love the stars from his father, the late Andrew Parrish, who told his son tales of the night skies he saw from aircraft carriers during his service in the U.S. Navy.

“Back in the day, pilots would navigate by night skies, and he taught me,” Parrish says. “I was hooked and have been ever since.”

His efforts to preserve darkness in Cass County will allow stargazers a chance to experience that level of darkness and star clarity without traveling to the middle of the ocean.

Although those experiences will initially be limited to special events and scheduled weekends, the plan for Dr. T.K. Lawless Park is to have 24-hour access every day of the year within the next year or so, Parks Director Wyman says.

Currently, daily park hours are still sunrise to sunset, Wyman says, with a calendar of extended hours during the darkest, moonless weekends each month (see below).

Limited tent camping is available during special events such as the Star Party and details for extended camping opportunities are soon to be finalized.

“Through the parks, we have always been able to say that we are stewards of the land,” Wyman says, “but I’m very proud to say that now, we are stewards of the land and the sky.”

Rules for night visitors

Until further notice, all visitors to the park will be asked to observe personal distance restrictions, common to public places in Michigan.

In addition, though, there are additional rules for night visitors to avoid infringing on other visitors’ enjoyment of the stars.
Even brief exposure to light, such as from car headlights or an unshielded flashlight, can disrupt park users’ night vision, Parrish says, so visitors will be expected to adhere to Dark Sky etiquette rules, such keeping cell phones tucked away. Car dome lights should be switched off before opening the doors, and parking lights used instead of headlights.

Red flashlights that protect night vision are inexpensive and available online, Parrish says, or people can cover the lenses of their flashlights with red fabric or paint them with red fingernail polish.

Reminders of dark sky etiquette will be posted on signage throughout the park, Wyman says.

Because the park’s outdoor lighting is Dark Sky certified some security lighting will remain in use.

Dr. Lawless Park International Dark Sky Park nighttime schedule

June 2020 – June 19 and June 20 until 2 a.m. the following morning.
July 2020 – Every weekend in July for Michigan Dark Sky Awareness Month. Open until 2 a.m.
Aug. 2020 – Aug. 11 and Aug. 12 Perseid Meteor Shower. Open to 1 a.m.
Aug. 2020 – Aug. 21 and Aug. 22 until 2 a.m.
Sept. 2020 – Sept. 18 and Sept.19 until 2 a.m.
Oct. 2020 – Oct. 16 and Oct. 17 until midnight.
Nov. 2020 – Nov. 13 and Nov. 14 until midnight.
Dec. 2020 – Dec. 18 and Dec. 19 until midnight.

For more information, please visit here.

The International Dark-Sky Association works to protect the night skies for present and future generations by educating people about the adverse effects of artificial lighting. Learn more about the IDA here.
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Read more articles by Rosemary Parker.

Rosemary Parker has worked as a writer and editor for more than 40 years, most of that time in Southwest Michigan.