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Finding light in the dark

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The night can be a wondrous thing. Especially when the nighttime sky is unfiltered with artificial light.

I have written many times about dark skies and the glory that they can hold. From designated dark sky locations, such as the Grand Canyon National Park where any hint of artificial light is designed to be limited and obscured from tainting the sky above, to places that come close to achieving the dark-sky status.

Why do I enjoy dark skies and sharing stories on it? Because those natural star-emblazoned locales are our last connection to the way the world used to be, when outdoors skills meant not only a way of life, but survival.

So much depends on being able to see the heavens. Sure, when reading stars we often think of old sailors looking through strange contraptions marking different points on a map in order to find their way across the landless ocean blue. The science itself is actually pretty amazing, as they would locate stars and determine their location in reference to the horizon to not only tell their direction, but also a primitive GPS system that would tell them exactly where they are located from their destination.

Of course, ancient civilizations were mesmerized by the stars as well. The stars were as good a source for telling the time of year and day as the sunrise and sunset.

We don’t get to see the stars as a sailor in the middle of the Atlantic or as an old tribe in the plains does or did. Light pollution has taken that away from us, not only in large metropolitan cities, but even in mid-sized cities and small towns.

This time of year, as the weather warms and the mosquitoes lay claim to the thick, humid air, something magical, or mystical, or whatever synonym you would like to use begins to happen.

A swath of stars and gases, coloring a band beginning at the horizon at sunset, begins to creep in a rotating pattern along our sky. The galaxy we live in, our home base in the vast universe, shows itself. Looking like a band of opaque white, the Milky Way derives a suitable name.

Many believe it is a myth. Not the galaxy itself, but the vision of it. It can only be seen with high end NASA visioning equipment, or special filters. Not so. You just need the right skies.

Do you know where you can find those type of skies relatively close? One of our favorite destinations during the summer, the beach. After all, standing on sandy shores means half the sky is over the Atlantic Ocean where there is no city street lights or tall buildings. Maybe a trolley or two searching for sea life to sell to restaurants, but the light from those do not reach the upper atmosphere.

This set me off on a goal. I wanted to photograph the newly rising Milky Way at one of my favorite coastal locales, Bodie Island Lighthouse. With a new moon, it meant the light pollution from the second brightest object in the sky would not be an issue (the brightest object in the sky is the sun of course).

So, I did. Two cameras, my van, a hammock, and myself. Nothing special about the equipment other than knowing how to set my exposures manually. In fact, I set the camera to take the shot with an open shutter of 25 seconds, to capture the light I would need and to catch the flash of the lighthouse.

Seeing the sky as ships would have seen them two to three centuries ago. Seeing the sky as Virginia Dare, the first English-born person in the United States, may have one island over in Manteo. 

It is a humbling experience, one that places you in this universe, this galaxy, this solar system, this world. An experience that is within reach at this time of year.

Bill Howard is an avid bowhunter and outdoorsman. He teaches hunter education (IHEA) and bowhunter education (IBEP) in North Carolina. He is a member of North Carolina Bowhunters Association and Pope & Young, and is an official measurer for both.

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