On a recent winter’s night one of our Refuge biologists out doing owl surveys in the Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area witnessed a convoy of cars heading down the icy road. These visitors weren’t headed to a special ice fishing trip or campout. They were headed to campgrounds and overlooks where, away from the lights of Peninsula towns, there was a spectacular view of the sky. That night it was the aurora borealis that drew a crowd to the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, but dark nights on public lands elsewhere attract visitors for the same reason: lack of light pollution.
The man-made light produced in our homes and businesses and along roads dims our view of planets and stars. Light pollution, or light trespass as the National Park Service defines a single source of light invading the night, can cause problems for wildlife, affecting migration, disturbing hatchling orientation and extending daylight-type conditions which in turn can disrupt natural hunting and nesting behaviors.
A short drive away from town, the skies darken and treetops edge the widening horizon, and the celestial view (which is a huge perk of living through dark Alaskan winters) comes into focus. Bundling up in snow gear and tucking hand warmers into our gloves, we can see constellations, galaxies and even satellites buzzing past. Great for wildlife and fantastic for humans, the dark skies found over the Refuge can and should be celebrated!
Stargazing requires no equipment, but adding a pair of binoculars or a telescope adds details that elicit major “oohs” and “aahs” from the viewer. The Kenai Refuge was recently gifted a spectacular telescope from a local family in memory of their brother, Alex, who loved astronomy. Many Alaskan back decks become home to telescopes during the winter. The Maklezow family deck was no different. A beautiful Celestron telescope was aimed heavenward until Mr. Maklezow fell ill. Now, instead of being packed into storage, the scope will be an oft-used feature in the Refuge Visitor Center. With its solar filter, this telescope is not relegated solely to winter darkness. Although looking at the sun can cause serious eye damage, the special filter makes it safe to observe solar activity year-round.
Gratefully, we don’t have to wait until summer to investigate the skies at the Refuge. The first Refuge Family Star Party, a celebration of Alaska’s winter sky and a chance for visitors of all ages to gather and explore all things celestial is scheduled for Friday, March 1st from 7:00 to 9:00 pm. Beginning outside with a look through the scope with local astronomers Andy Veh and Kathy East, we’ll delve into the details of visible star constellations and planets. Inside activity stations will include star crafts, science of the skies, and a cookie and cocoa warmup.
There are plenty of amazing celestial objects our visiting astronomers will train their scopes on at the event. Until then, try these simple directions to find a couple of the most recognizable constellations. First, the Big Dipper is huge in Alaska’s sky, so much that it features on our state flag. Find the Big Dipper in the northern sky. It has four stars that form a square, with four more stars to the left that form the dipper’s handle (only three are easily visible). Second, follow the two stars that form the outer edge of the dipper, called the pointer stars, up to the next moderately bright star. You have found Polaris, the North Star. This star is nearing the end of its life, making it unstable and pulsing like a beating heart every four days.
Polaris marks the end of the handle of another constellation, the Little Dipper. This constellation also has seven stars making up a bowl and handle, and it looks like it would pour water into the Big Dipper. Finally, on the opposite side of Polaris from the Big Dipper, try to pick out five stars that form Cassiopeia, a W-shaped constellation.
The brightest object in the sky tonight, causing some light pollution itself, is the moon. The second brightest is the planet Jupiter. A good pair of binoculars is enough to see this planet’s moons, but through a telescope like the one at the Star Party, each moon can be seen in detail and even identified.
So, did you find these celestial objects? Get a close-up look at them through our new telescope. We welcome you to explore the sky with our rangers and visiting astronomers next Friday, March 1st at the Refuge Visitor Center in Soldotna. A great winter activity for visitors of all ages, bring warm outdoor layers for telescope viewing but plan to have warm indoor fun no matter the weather. For more information, contact Rangers Leah or Michelle at the Refuge: 907-262-7021.
Leah Eskelin is a Visitor Services Park Ranger at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Like the Refuge on Facebook to stay connected with upcoming events, news and recreation updates: www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge.