I’m sitting on the rim of a vast canyon. Below me, unknown distance of dark abyss, to either side, still junipers and the dim outlines of boulders. But, from horizon to horizon, the night sky stretches across, and in it billions upon billions of stars. Dark space accented by the white pinpoints of light unfathomable distances away. Craning my neck I ask questions.
What Are we Looking At?
The first thing that many people always wonder about are the brightest objects. Where are planets versus a bright star? From there, we can build constellations. My guide on a recent trip talked about finding a star that I know, like the North Star, and using it as an “anchor star” to help find others. From there I can fill in my map of the stars. The Big Dipper, the Little Dipper, Cassiopeia, and Andromeda for example. Often times the first thing you will see is a planet. These are good to remember on your trip, but beware they will not be in the same place next summer! The brightest stars like Vega in the Summer Triangle are more reliable as an anchor.
The Stars and the River
These days our lives are guided by the light of our homes in the communities and cities we live in. Every night we are surrounded by a glow in our cities. One way to meaningfully engage with the night sky is to leave the comfort of society and head to the wild. There are places throughout the Colorado Plateau that are some of the darkest on the planet. They have been protected as official International Dark Sky Places, identified as the best spots to see the stars above. Going down the river or for a tour of a high mesa here in canyon country is an amazing way to experience the vast natural beauty of the night. From the Milky Way to the endless myth and story from the constellations, seeing the night from the river is a great place to experience it.
I Speak For the Stars!
Recently I spoke with Holiday Guide Tom Beckett. For the last three decades he has been learning about the stars and reconnecting to the night sky & currently sits on the Advisory Board of the Clark Planetarium. This spring he did solo nighttime run of Desolation Canyon. Why would he do this? He wants us to realize that we don’t need all the lights we think we do. Our bodies are adapted to thrive at night. He wanted to see the river through the rods in his eyes, the cells that let us see at night.
He also did the run to build the awareness that we do not spend enough time under the shimmering stars. Over his years as a guide, he has realized that, because of light pollution, many guests on his trips have never experienced a truly dark sky. He wants us to be in tune with both our bodies, as well as the stars above us. To do this, we have to embrace the dark.
To Tom the stars are more than just a pretty expanse above. They are a way to connect to ourselves, to the people around us, and to something greater than human existence. By placing ourselves in the universe, we realize we are not at the center of it. Understanding this builds humility and empathy. Tom believes that this allows us to communicate better and to be kinder in the small world we all share. He says the stars and the stories they provide inspire awe and wonder.
So, go out into the wild and don’t click that headlamp on. Let your eyes adapt to the night as it sets in around you. Be aware when the colors fade to grey and then look up. Notice what you see first, observe what you recognize and wonder about what you do not. Learn the stars, and stay curious about our place among them.
Jack Stauss moved to Salt Lake City in 2008 in pursuit of big mountains and wide open spaces. He has spent the last several years both enjoying and advocating for public lands and free flowing rivers. While he’s not typing on his keyboard, he will be backcountry skiing in the Wasatch or exploring Utah’s wild deserts. Read some of his environmental musings at email@example.com or follow him at @jackstauss on Instagram