The Boundary Waters – Dark Sky Sanctuary

Art & Science By Peter M. Leschak

Photo by Will Schultz

We are always near wilderness. Simply look up on a clear night and you are peering into an utterly wild realm that borders on unimaginable. For instance, you can see the Andromeda Galaxy with your unaided eye, and it’s 2.5 million light years away, meaning you are viewing it as it was 2.5 million years ago. That’s how long its light traveled to reach us. But here’s the catch: the night sky must be truly dark, and such a priceless natural resource is increasingly rare. I call the dark sky a “natural resource” because darkness benefits humans and like other natural resources, we have taken darkness for granted. Now, we are in danger of losing it  According to the International Dark-Sky Association, only about 1% of Americans can experience a “natural night” from where they live. The rest are more or less isolated by a haze of artificial light.

When “light pollution” was first raised as an issue it seemed an effete crusade. Couldn’t see the Milky Way from downtown or out in the ‘burbs? So what? Maybe you could catch it on Star Trek or Nova. Besides, all that artificial light wasn’t toxic, it wasn’t hurting anyone, was it?

Actually, it is.

In 2009, the American Medical Association, not renowned for sensationalism, concluded that unshielded street lights are a “public health hazard.” Research on “light at night” (LAN) tags it as a cause of sleep disorders linked to disruption of circadian rhythms. In that role, LAN contributes to hypertension, diabetes, obesity, cardiac problems, and attention-deficit disorder. It also enhances air pollution. In 2010, a scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) presented data that suggests sky-glow from artificial lights “reduces a naturally occurring nitrate radical that helps cleanse the atmosphere of exhaust and ozone.” A brighter night sky is a filthier sky.

The unnatural “twilight” created by the electric mist of our lamps also has a demonstrated negative impact on wildlife by affecting feeding patterns, migratory navigation, and mating habits of everything from birds to insects. Recent observations show that even trees may be damaged.

Canoe in the BWCA with Milky Way visible in the sky.
Photo: Bryan Hansel “The sky was so crisp the other night when I took this that it was hard to believe there was an atmosphere.”

What is so curious about light pollution is its mindlessness. As much as we wish to, say, clean up the emissions from fossil fuel power plants, few doubt the necessity of the electricity they produce – there is a method to the madness, a trade-off. Not so with indiscriminate outdoor lighting. Think your “security” light keeps you safer? A report to Congress in 1997 indicated “there is no conclusive correlation between lighting and crime.” When I was a child, I insisted on sleeping with a lamp lit in the room, but finally consented to darkness when a friend pointed out that the light allowed the Bogeyman to see me. Statistics testify that the majority of property crimes occur during daylight, or inside lighted buildings.

And why do we brightly illuminate streets and highways that are already in the path of our headlights? The International Dark-Sky Association estimates we squander $3 billion annually in the United States on unnecessary and/ or inefficient outdoor lighting, amounting to 58,000 gigawatts of energy that produces 15 million tons of carbon dioxide, significantly contributing to the global climate crisis.

In 2020, the International Dark-Sky Association designated the BWCAW as a Dark Sky Sanctuary, one of twelve such locations in the world and only four in the United States. At 1.1 million acres it’s the largest. This speaks, of course, to its remoteness and to its protected status. Its natural sky is a rare and spectacular feature that isn’t emphasized enough.

On a clear night in the Boundary Waters, only a very remote mountain peak will offer you a better view of the universe. You may experience astronomical happiness: joy in the presence of beauty; awe-stricken wonder at sheer magnitude; witness to the fact that the forest, water, rocks, wildlife, and yourself are composed of elements that originated in the core of a star billions of years ago. It’s a way to discover a sense of place in the solar system and our galaxy. More than in any other outdoor encounter, it is an intense realization that “I am here and I know it” – a profound statement about the nature of reality. 

Nothing in the history of the human species has kindled more intellectual curiosity and philosophical passion than looking at the stars.

To fully partake of the gift you need the sanctuary – refuge, haven, shelter – of a dark night sky. And if you are in the Boundary Waters, listening to a loon or wolf song while gazing out into the cosmos….well, passion is the right word.

Comments (1)

Lana Green

3 months ago

Magnificent article! Thanks so very much!!
I have paddled the BWCAW for many years and so did my father before me and so has my son after me!
Blessings for your amazing and needed article.
We dare not lose this global treasure!
I’m a climate activist and proud to be one!
Lana K Green-Ludden

Continue Reading

Emily Ford in front of a red tent in the BWCA
| People | Recreation

Emily Ford | Lessons from the Winter Trail

Adventurer Emily Ford and her dog, Diggins, team up for an inspiring Boundary Waters adventure through harsh, winter conditions to…