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Star Bright

Your dark sky lives here

Published in the June 2022 Issue Published online: Jun 30, 2022 Discover Idaho Falls, Discover Idaho Falls: Parks and Recreation, East Idaho Outdoors, Family Fun Guide Kris Millgate
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IT’S DARK, NO STREET LIGHTS. IT’S COLD, I CAN SEE MY BREATH BY HEADLAMP. I’m on a trail bordering Sawtooth National Recreation Area near Sun Valley. Even at night with limited sight, I can feel the vast wild around me. I’m looking straight ahead when eyes looking back at me reflect off the glow on my forehead. It’s an owl. I turn off my light as the bird lifts. I look for its wings in the sky then see something even more unique above my head. Glitter. A slow moving mass with a shimmering tail. 

I stop walking and stare. It’s not a shooting star. It’s lasting too long. It’s not a satellite. Those move, but don’t have sparkle tails. It’s a comet. My first comet ever. The Great American total solar eclipse of 2017 was remarkable, but the whole country was watching with me. This comet, Leonard, is more remarkable because I’m not in a crowd when I see it. It’s my own sighting and it’s nearly impossible to see unless you’re where I am. A Dark Sky Reserve. 

WHAT ARE DARK SKY DESIGNATIONS For Leonard, I was lucky enough to be looking up at the right time while also in the right place, the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve. It’s the nation’s first, and only, designated reserve. There are 19 Dark Sky Reserves worldwide.  Reserves are the top tier designation by the International Dark-Sky Association. Reserves are massive and include private and public lands offering exceptional nocturnal environments that are already protected for their natural resource value. Idaho’s rare reserve, designated in 2017, hangs over 906,000 acres including Sawtooth National Recreation Area which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. 

Reserves have a core zone with a supportive buffer surrounding the protected core. Sun Valley is part of the supportive buffer for the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve. So is Ketchum, which is officially designated a Dark Sky Community.

Other dark sky designations cover smaller areas and include parks. Park designation requires location staff to offer dark sky programming for the public. Craters of the Moon National Monument, near Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve, is a Dark Sky Park. The Idaho Falls Astronomical Society has host - ed star parties at Craters for three decades. That definitely counts as dark sky programming.

Campgrounds and subdivisions are awarded designations too. They earn community, like Ketchum, or place designations. Outdoor lighting must be con - sidered, development design is also a factor as is residential education. 

WHY DO DARK SKIES MATTER Just like undeveloped land mat - ters with the fast encroaching pace of humanity, dark sky matters too. It means there are still places on our planet dominated by a black ink canvas pocked with bright white specks at night rather than the overwhelming, man-made light pollution found most everywhere else.

That’s particularly true for sanc - tuaries. Dark Sky Sanctuaries are not sizeable like Reserves, but they are still significant. They hold high value because these areas are so undeveloped, they’re hard to get to. They’re light on light and light on traffic. They promote long-term conservation and they’re isolated therefore limiting access and also limiting the public education component. No need to provide dark sky programming for the public if most of the public doesn’t visit. 

Idaho doesn’t have any official dark sky sanctuaries, but Minnesota does. Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness near the U.S.-Canada border is a Dark Sky Sanctuary. Makes sense since access is by paddle rather than power. 

Farther away and even harder to get to is Stewart Island/Rakiura in the southern tip of New Zealand. It’s also a Dark Sky Sanctuary. It’s the country’s third largest island, but only 350 people live there. 

Worldwide, there are 15 Dark Sky Sanctuaries. Most of them are in the U.S., unlike reserves. Of the 19, there’s only one in the U.S. The one I met Leonard in. The Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve.

I walked the trail again the morning after my comet sighting. I wanted to be sure there wasn’t a random reflection from powerline, snow plow or plane where Leonard had been. None of that revealed at sunrise. The slow-sliding, sparkling streak from the night before displayed higher than the Sawtooth Mountain Range and well away from the airport with no powerlines or plows in sight. Leonard indeed. Thank you Dark Sky. 

• Outdoor journalist Kris Millgate is based in Idaho where she runs trail and chases trout. Sometimes she even catches them when she doesn’t have a camera, or a kid, on her back. My Place Among Fish, the sequel to her first book, My Place Among Men, is available now. See more of her work at www.tightlinemedia.com.

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