it was in the deep heart of a smoggy august when my cousin lori and i headed up the north shore and back to central minnesota to hit up 18 state parks over a 3-day weekend. wildfires in canada brought smoke across the sky, turning it from the deep azure of late summertime to a pale white with an anemic sun that tried to burn its way through the cover.
we had spent the previous day stopping at mille lacs kathio, banning, and jay cooke state parks. we were ready for the shore part of the trip.
the smog made for surreal looking landscapes along the lake; while we meandered our way up the shore, it was hard to discern where the lake ended and the sky began, and the craggy rock outcrops stood out in sharp relief.
of course we made all the stops: a mid-morning snack at betty’s pies (me the blackberry peach; lori the maple walnut), a stop at gooseberry before the crowded madness of mid-afternoon, and the ensuing parks along the highway as we headed northeast.
of all the itineraries during my summer of state parks, this was by far the easiest trip but also the most park intensive. the only park that was out of the way was george crosby manitou, and that was just a short jaunt off hwy 61. the rest of the parks along the north shore were just a pull-off hwy 61 into a parking lot, and that made for an easy trip. as we headed more northerly, the parks grew less crowded, the shore more gentle, and the drive a little easier.
prior to this, i hadn’t been past grand marais, and even then it had been 20 years since i’d been that far up the shore. while the smog persisted, lori and i persisted up the coast, and it turned out to be one of the more breathtaking drives i’d take during the summer visiting the entirety of the state. the cragginess was gone, replaced by easy slopes and tall hills filled with pines. the closer we got to the border, the more beautiful the landscape became. we stopped at grand portage national monument, and while we were too late to check out the visitors’ center, we stopped to take in the views of the bay. the smog had dissipated a little throughout the day, and standing at the edge of minnesota staring at the big lake into its canada and michigan parts, one could only try to imagine canoeing across the water for weeks and finally seeing this bay as a destination, a reprieve.
our stay that night was at judge cr magney state park, the most northeasterly state park with a campground. i had done a lot of research before choosing a weekend to stay at this park, making sure we were visiting during a time when the moon was the least visible. the past few years i’d dabbled in astrophotography, and i was on a mission to see the milky way in as much glory as i could.
after reading the book “the end of dark” by native paul bogard, i had become more aware of how lighted we are in the more populated areas. i knew that my trips to the state parks might bring me opportunities for night sky viewing, and i had done my best to create the best conditions. while i plotted according to moonrises and new vs. full, i never foresaw the smog. another thing i hadn’t known about during my plans was the perseids showers, which were to peak that evening. i held out hope that the smog would be pretty minimal and the perseids pretty great.
on the way back to judge cr magney park, lori and i stopped at small beach on the side of the road which turned out to be an ideal spot for some star watching. the beach was comprised of small pebbles and swung around to the southeast, creating a small bay. the water was almost calm, and small waves lapped at the shore. it was still hard to separate the water from the sky at a distance, but if the sky remained clear, we’d be able to see some stars that night.
we set up camp. judge cr magney is a small campground with very few campers; the majority of visitors to the park that evening used tents or small pull-behind pop-ups. after our tent was up, lori and i went for a quick walk around the park, then decided it was too late in the day to check out devil’s kettle falls. instead, we picked up a bundle of firewood and had a fire while cooking supper on our campstove. i set up my hammock between two trees. we organized the camp box and made sure the wet towels we had thrown in the box that morning were set out to dry. after a day of driving and stopping, hiking and sightseeing, it was nice to do menial tasks with feet on the ground.
meanwhile, we had to wait for the sun to reach past astronomical twilight and into dark night, which is when the sun is 18º below the horizon. that was about 10:30 p.m. so while it appeared the sun was set, we needed to wait a bit longer. lori took a nap in the hammock. i sat in my camp chair by the fire’s embers and read a book by my headlamp. at 10:30, i whisper-shouted to lori across our site, and her head popped up from the hammock. time to go.
i was excited about seeing the stars in their full glory. lori was just along for the ride, and i have a feeling if she’d been a tiny bit more tired, she may have stayed in the tent. as it was, she dragged her sleeping bag along with her into the car. i made sure i had all my camera gear.
it’s an eery thing, starting your car in the middle of the night in the middle of a silent campground. it felt sacrilegious, especially when i turned on the headlights. i quickly turned them to parking lights until we were out of the campground loop.
not even a mile down the road, we pulled into the small beach parking lot. and as soon as i stepped out of the car, i could see it: the milky way.
most people need to let their eyes acclimate to see stars beyond the few bright ones in our skies near metro areas. it takes up to 3 hours before humans’ eyes are fully opened for night vision in full dark conditions. but we were far from any metro, or any a small town, so even with our closed pupils, the stars spread across the sky, pinpricks of white in dark.
a ball of fiery red lay low on the horizon; i don’t think i have ever seen mars so red or so clearly. i can only imagine what the night would have been like if it’d been completely smog free. if the water had been calm, we’d’ve seen the reflection on the water.
i with my camera equipment and lori with her sleeping bag, we set up camp on the pebbly shore. i did my best with my photos, moving around to get different shots of the stars, the milky way, and by chance, perseids shooting across the sky in long swipes. after 45 minutes of trying different settings and various positions (i am amateur at best), i set aside the camera and sat on the beach alongside lori and watched the stars and meteors burning up in the atmosphere.
close to midnight, i was spent from the long day along the shore, and i suggested we go back to camp before i fell asleep on the beach. at this point, i was unsure of how lori was faring with the amount of time we’d spent on the beach, and i felt a little guilty forcing her out for stargzaing. but it turns out that she was reluctant to return to camp and said she’d stay out there all night if she could. i turned back to the sky and we watched for a while longer.
when watching stars like this, at some point, you lose yourself in the sky. you get lost in the stars. you forget that you are solidly held to the ground with gravity, and part of you senses that, given release, you’d float into the galaxy – become one with the spots of light. the wide sky takes up your entire vision and the primal part of your brain says “hold on!” lest you become one with the stardust. but of course we are all stardust. we forget that we are one with the stars.