Northern Lights by Dennis O'Hara

The American word “vacation” emphasizes what you’re vacating or leaving behind. The British word “holiday” (holy day) emphasizes what you’re moving towards.

When you are on vacation at East Bay Suites in Grand Marais you are getting away from your usual routine and moving towards the woods and waves. You are getting away from the bright lights of the big city and going to a place with access to some of the best views of stars in the country.

“Great views” sounds like marketing puffery, the kind of thing that’s impossible to measure. If you look up on a clear night here, you’ll be astounded—but that’s hardly proof. Some scientists have come up with better ways to measure how good or bad the views of the sky are.

David Lorenz has attempted to show the quality of the view in his Dark Sky Atlas. While the map is not perfect, Lorenz has used satellite imagery to produce a color-coded map of the entire world, showing how polluted the sky is with manmade lights.

The map can be found here. Different areas of the map are shaded with different colors. White is really bad where you can barely see any stars. Red and orange are a little better and green and blue are decent. There are a couple of shades of gray on the map, which represents the darkest skies on the scale.

Grand Marais, is shaded green and blue which is good, but it is very close to the great. Just a mile or two outside of the town the map is colored gray and the sky is great for viewing stars. If you want to stargaze in town, then look over the water. By not looking directly at the town’s light, from someplace like Artists Point, you can get a good view a few minutes’ walk from East Bay Suites.

“The Arrowhead region [which includes Grand Marais] has some very dark skies,” said Arrowhead Astronomical Society member Eric Norland.

Jandl-gunflint-stars1But for even better viewing drive up the shore a little bit. After the curves and the hills block out the modest lights of Grand Marais you can get great views of the stars. Look for one of the turnouts along the lake and look up with awe.
Since you are in the area, you might as well drive a little into Minnesota’s ultimate dark side. The Gunflint Trail is a 56 mile long two-lane highway that goes from Grand Marais deep into the wilderness. After a few miles on the Gunflint, you will see a few homes and only the occasional shop and retreat.

Anywhere along the Gunflint, the skies are very dark. It is probably a good idea to stake out your observing area before the sun is totally down. This way, you can find a nice clearing where the trees don’t block the sky.

But if you’ve come this far, perhaps you are willing to go a little further. About 8 miles from its end the Gunflint changes somewhat. The landscape becomes rockier and there are fewer trees. There is more sky to see and it just so happens this is where the sky is the darkest. This section is shaded the darkest shade of gray on Lorenz’s Dark Sky Atlas. His scale does not go any darker than this. The same shade is used for the middle of the ocean.

Bring a flashlight, because on a moonless night you might not be able to see the ground. Again, it would be best to come early enough to stake out a place to sit. Here, on a clear night, you will see about as many stars as you can see anywhere, without being on a tall mountain or in a dry desert. You have now vacated the light of mankind and can have a stargazing holiday.

Photography

Selections from the Gunflint Stars series by Dan Jandl. Used with permission.