Chasing Northern Lights

Jim, Jobie, and I arrived in Petoskey, MI Saturday afternoon. After spending a few hours hooking up and organizing the bus, we went into town and picked up a few things we’d forgotten to pack, had an early dinner at JR’s Hometown Grill and Pub, and drove to the shore to watch the sun set over Little Traverse Bay.

Sunset Park, Petoskey, MI

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) predicted likely Aurora Borealis activity Sunday night into Monday morning as far south as Indiana. A Google search revealed the best place in this area for sky watching is the Headlands International Dark Sky Park, so we drove to the park and found the amphitheater, near the observatory, where we’d later gather with several hundred other people to wait for a glimpse of the lights.

Sunset at Headlands International Dark Sky Park, Michigan

At 9:00 PM, we sat on the amphitheater’s stone seats, the setting sun glittering on Lake Michigan in the background. A park guide pointed out Jupiter and Saturn, pin lights to the naked eye, but powerful telescopes provided by Michigan State University revealed detailed portraits of Jupiter orbited by four moons and Saturn wrapped in rings. Once darkness fell, the guide announced that no cell phones or white lights would be permitted, encouraging us all to protect the darkness together. Savvy night watchers, which we decidedly are not, carried red lights in the form of flashlights, bracelets, or headbands.

Headlands International Dark Sky Park, crowd gathering to watch for Aurora Borealis

As darkness blanketed the park, hundreds of people, most wearing sweatshirts, jackets, blankets, flowed in, and we laughed that the thermostat inside our apartment is set lower than the outside temperature in the park. By midnight, when the wind whipped in off Lake Michigan, we were woefully unprepared in our shorts and tee-shirts; we zipped into sweatshirts, and I regretted not bringing a blanket. When the stone steps absorbed the cold, we took shelter against the observatory building.

While we waited for a glimpse of celestial magic, the guide pointed out various stars and repeated the ancient stories passed along through mythology and Native American folk tales as well as traditional nursery rhymes. The crowd enthusiastically complied when she asked us to say in unison, “Hey diddle, diddle, the cat and the fiddle, the cow jumped over the moon,” as she identified the constellations and stars for which the rhyme was written.

NOAA had initially projected Aurora would most likely appear between 11:00 PM and 2:00 AM EDST. At 1:30 AM, cold, hungry, sleepy, and with an hour’s drive ahead on curvy, poorly marked, unlit, rural roads, we reluctantly gave up our quest and drove back to the bus, watching northward all the way so we wouldn’t miss the lights should they materialize. I fell asleep regretting that we’d prematurely given up on what might have been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Yesterday morning, I was relieved to read that Aurora Borealis’ only continental US appearance was in the skies of North Dakota about 4:00 AM. We’ll be here for five more weeks, thirty-five more chances to chase the elusive Northern Lights.


About cherylwrightwatkins

Writer, VCFA grad, retired air traffic controller, traveler
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