Starry, starry night: U.P.'s second annual Dark Sky Festival embraces the night skies

Astro tourism has become big business, luring stargazers, astronomy admirers, photographers and others to dark skies. They're looking for spectacular skies but also a deeper connection to the night. 

With its vast dark skies, the Upper Peninsula has become part of that growing trend of nature-based tourism, where travelers show up to view the beauty of the night sky and perhaps catch glimpses of celestial objects. 

The recent 2024 Upper Peninsula Dark Sky Festival plays a small but growing role in astro tourism. The most recent festival, held this month at the Keweenaw Dark Sky Park at the Keweenaw Mountain Lodge and other locales, drew a significant number of people for ecology hikes, sky viewing and presentations. 

The photographer's jeep parked at the top of the Cliff mine.
Last year's inaugural festival was two nights. This year's was extended to three nights, which, organizers said, provided a better chance for clear skies for stargazing. The program featured focused on the impacts of light pollution and the
intrinsic value of dark skies, while also diving into subjects ranging from northern lights lore to the techniques behind capturing stunning night sky images.

Indoor programs were held at the Keweenaw Mountain Lodge, the home of the U.P.'s Dark Sky Park.The festival enjoyed clear skies on the first night, which allowed participants to enjoy three different night excursions; a hike on a Dark Sky Walking Path with Andrew Johnson, the astronomer from Headlands Park; a hands-on training for night sky photography with Nate Bett and Tom Oliver; and a telescope experience with Dave Falkner, who is a NASA Ambassador. 

"The Keweenaw Peninsula is home to some of the darkest and clearest skies in the country, making it an ideal spot for astrophotography," says Joel Marotti, a photographer who chronicled the festival for UPword. "As a photographer who frequently visits this area, I'm continually impressed by the quality of the night sky. Each evening offers new opportunities to capture stunning celestial scenes, highlighting why this region is a top choice for photographers and stargazers alike."

In 2023 there were six presentations. In 2024, there were nine presentations. This year's festival also featured unique side activities, like a tour of the Calumet Air Force Station by Open Skies Project, and a “History on the Rocks” event about the Keweenaw at Mariner North.

"The more presentations in 2024 allowed the festival to have a broader educational scope," says Chris Guibert, outdoor activities lead at Keweenaw Mountain Lodge who helps spearhead the festival. "Increasing the number of people attending the event is not the goal. Creating a great experience for the people attending is what we strive for. We do not plan on increasing the number of tickets for sale in 2025."

Moonset at Copper Harbor.
The dates for next year have already been set and will coincide with Dark Sky International's Dark Sky Week. The 2025 Upper Peninsula Dark Sky Festival will be held on April 24-26. 

Guibert says festival is important to the U.P. because it creates awareness about the benefits of having dark skies and offers information about the impacts of unnecessary light pollution.

"The U.P. is fortunate to have large, undeveloped areas that provide natural darkness," he says. "However, many people are still unaware of the negative impacts that unnecessary light pollution creates. As the human population in the U.P. continues to grow, it is important to provide educational opportunities for individuals to learn what they can do to minimize light pollution. This will lead to a healthier natural environment for plants, animals and humans."

An example of Michiganders increasing awareness of dark skies, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued a proclamation for 2024 Dark Sky Week -- something she has done multiple years in a row. Eagle Harbor Township made a proclamation about Dark Skies as well. 

A pathway at Keweenaw Mountain Lodge. About the site of the festival: The Keweenaw Mountain Lodge is a historic wilderness resort at the top of the Keweenaw, focused on outdoor activities, rustic worldly food and education. The resort has been a fixture in the Keweenaw since breaking ground on the project in 1934 as part of a WPA program. The four-season resort consists of log cabins, a lodge, dining services, access to mountain biking, running, and hiking trails and a 9-hole golf course.

The Lodge is the headquarters for the Keweenaw Dark Sky Park, among only a handful of such parks in Michigan. The others are located in the lower peninsula.

Joel Marotti is one of the photographers behind Borealis Media, where the focus is on creating vibrant visual stories for travel and tourism, highlighting the natural beauty and historical intrigue of destinations with an emphasis on astrophotography and landscapes. A frequent contributor to UPword, Marotti's work with Michigan State Parks showcases the serene allure of these natural havens, aiming to spark a profound appreciation for the outdoors in every viewer.
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