The incredibly starry sky of the Katahdin region has long been celebrated, and now it’s being recognized internationally.
Maine’s Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument has been recognized as the first International Dark Sky Sanctuary on the East Coast by the International Dark Sky Association, becoming the 12th such designation in the world.
“This designation is the culmination of a long-term effort by a dedicated group of people and is an exciting event in the short history of the monument,” Katahdin Woods and Waters Superintendent Tim Hudson said Friday.
The International Dark Sky Association established the International Dark Sky Places Program in 2001 to encourage the protection of natural dark night skies around the globe.
“There are not many places in the world that are designated like this,” Hudson said. “And some of them are way out there — like the Pitcairn Islands. Rainbow Bridge National Monument is the only other one in the [National] Park Service, and that’s down in remote southwestern Utah.”
Becoming designated as a Dark Sky Sanctuary by the association involves a rigorous application process. First and foremost, the night sky seen from the property must meet a certain standard. Luminance of the night sky is measured by an instrument called a sky quality meter, and must be “routinely equal to or darker than 21.5 magnitudes per square arcsecond in the visual band.” In other words, the location must be very dark.
Applicants must also demonstrate robust community support for dark sky protection, commit to quality outdoor lighting that doesn’t cause light pollution and provide nighttime public access to the property — among other requirements.
“It took a number of years and a number of people working on this to get the readings and show how dark our sky is,” Hudson said, adding that the effort was started by Elliotsville Plantation Inc. and has involved Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters and volunteers from around the state.
Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument was established August 24, 2016, to protect the natural and cultural landscape just east of Baxter State Park, where the East Branch of the Penobscot River and its tributaries run freely. In this wilderness area, the stars are bright and numerous. Constellations are clear, and the band of the Milky Way galaxy can easily be distinguished on a clear night. The area even sees occasional displays of the aurora borealis.
“Experiencing the night skies here will take you back in time to the night skies first experienced by the Wabanaki 11,000 years ago and the many people who have followed in their footsteps since, including John James Audubon, Henry David Thoreau, Theodore Roosevelt and others,” Hudson said.
Hudson believes that the Dark Sky Sanctuary designation has the potential to attract more visitors to the region. In fact, it’s widely believed that astrotourism — tourism that involves the night sky and astronomy — is gaining popularity.
Throughout the national monument planning process — which is still ongoing — the region’s dark sky has always been considered as an important natural resource worth protecting, Hudson said. This designation doesn’t change much in terms of planning, though it may influence future decisions about outdoor lighting, signage and the development of camping and gathering areas.
“For instance, we may want to place some benches away from a campfire area so people can sit and look at the stars away from the light,” Hudson said.
The monument’s Dark Sky Sanctuary designation will be celebrated during the 7th annual Stars Over Katahdin event, scheduled for Sept. 12. This event, hosted by the Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters, provides visitors an opportunity to learn about the monument’s dark skies while stargazing with astronomers at an overlook in the national monument.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a virtual version of the event is also being prepared in case an in-person gathering is not advisable at the scheduled time.
“We won’t cancel it, but we may innovate how it’s celebrated,” said Andy Bossie, executive director of Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters. “If need be, we will bring the night sky to people.”
In 2019, Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters released the first edition of the “Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument Dark Sky Guide.” A new edition of the guide is now available online, and print versions of this second edition will soon be available by request.
“The celebration of dark skies in the region has been going on long before the monument was created,” Bossie said. “This designation has been a long time coming. We’re really proud of it.”
Aislinn Sarnacki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Facebook: facebook.com/1minhikegirl, Twitter: @1minhikegirl, and Instagram: @actoutdoors. Her guidebooks “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine,” “Maine Hikes Off the Beaten Path” and “Dog-Friendly Hikes in Maine” are available at local bookstores and wherever books are sold.