The Northern Michigan night sky offers up a perfect theme for a midsummer night’s stargazing party.
The glow of a billion stars above, the warmth of friends gathered on the beach to share the night. Add some binoculars and some tasty provisions, and you have the ingredients for a stellar gathering. Make it elegant or easy. Either way, you’ll never lack for conversation when you and your pals go on a heavenly treasure hunt for constellations and share tales from antiquity about how stars came to be.
Here’s our Northern Michigan star party guide: Perfect dates (hint: look for an early moon-set); food and drink to fit the occasion (Milky Way martini, anyone?); constellation maps (of course); and some of our favorite tales from the ancients. We especially liked the Native American explanation for the star cluster Pleiades—also called The Seven Sisters. They said the stars were wives banished by their husbands to the heavens because they had dreadful onion breath.
Featured in the August 2005 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Subscribe.
When to Host a Stargazing Party
August 11, after the moon sets at 10:49 p.m., to be precise. That’s when the Perseid Meteor Shower reaches its peak and is visible until morning twilight begins. Under very dark conditions you’ll be treated to 50 to 100 meteors an hour streaking across the sky. Can’t make that date? Not to worry, the meteors will be visible for a couple of weeks before and after their August 11 peak.
August is also the time to catch other celestial performances as well, like a good view of the Milky Way, because it’s visible just after sunset this month. Use a good pair of binoculars to scan for the rich area of star clusters and nebulae (clouds of gas) within the Milky Way. The bright stars of the summer triangle—Vega, Deneb and Altair, all part of their own constellations—also are visible directly overhead this month.
Before you set your date, know that the brightness of a full moon obscures the stars so it’s best to throw your party at least a week from that event.
Where to Host a Stargazing Party
Hold your party on a Great Lake beach, or any lake with a low horizon unblocked by trees. You’ll be hauling in all your party supplies, so make your party base as close to a (non-lighted) parking area as possible.
How to Host a Stargazing Party
Prepare all your food in advance so you won’t be cooking in the dark, and tie your menu together with a star and moon theme, or make a culinary connection to your favorite constellation legends. We consulted ancient Greek astronomers for our menu, which includes figs—a culinary temptress to the gods in some star legends.
Tote your supplies in a galvanized steel tub, tossing in a cloth napkin to use as a tablecloth. Flip the emptied tub over and use it as your serving table. Finally, ask your guests to bring their own pillows and blankets or sleeping bags so they’ll be warm and comfy on the beach as they kick back and study the night sky.
Stargazing Party Menu
Feta Parcels with Figs // Cretan Shrimp in Salty Lemon Dip // Pistachio Moon Melts // Starry Night Fruit Salad // Milky Way Martinis
Lemon Dip with Shrimp
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 4 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
- 1/4 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves, chopped or left whole
- 3/4 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano leaves or 1/4 teaspoon dried
- 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
- 1 pound medium to large raw shrimp, deveined and rinsed
- 2 tomatoes, each cut into 6 wedges
- 18 kalamata, cracked green or other good olives
- 1/3 cup salty lemon dip
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano leaves
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
- 2 teaspoons chopped capers
Whisk together and store covered in refrigerator.
To prepare shrimp: Place the wine, oil, garlic, parsley, oregano and lemon juice in saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the shrimp, reduce the heat and simmer, stirring, until the shrimp begin to turn pink, 1 1/2 to 3 minutes depending on size. Transfer the shrimp and the cooking liquid to a bowl and refrigerate, covered, until well chilled, up to several hours. When ready to serve, drain shrimp, arrange with tomato wedges and olives and drizzle dip overtop. Serves 6.
Feta Cheese Parcels with Figs
- 1 1/2 pounds feta cheese
- 1-2 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 tablespoons finely chopped savory or thyme
- 1 eight-ounce package phyllo pastry
- 24 dried figs or dates, halved
- 1 cup melted butter
- Scallion or leek strips, blanched (optional)
In a bowl, mash cheese and olive oil with a fork and season with herbs. Cut sheets of phyllo into 4-inch squares. Spoon 1 teaspoon of cheese mixture into the center of each, add a fig or date half, and draw the sides up to form a pouch. Press edges together with water to seal. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly brush each pouch with melted butter and bake for 10-15 minutes until crisp and golden. For a festive look, tie a blanched scallion or leek strip around each parcel. Makes 48 parcels.
Pistachio Moon Melts
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 1 cup butter, softened
- 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/4 cup cornstarch
- 1 tablespoon grated lemon peel
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1 1/4 cups dry roasted pistachios, toasted
- Powdered sugar
In large mixer bowl, combine sugar and butter. Beat at medium speed until creamy (1-2 minutes). Reduce speed to low: add all remaining ingredients except toasted pistachios and powdered sugar. Beat, scraping bowl often, until well mixed (about a minute). Coarsely chop pistachios to yield 1 cup: stir into dough. Shape dough into 3/4-inch balls: form into crescent moons. Place 1 inch apart on cookie sheets. Bake for 12 to 16 minutes or until set but not brown. Let stand 5 minutes: remove from cookie sheets. Roll in powdered sugar while still warm and again when cool. Makes 4 dozen cookies.
Starry Night Fruit Salad
- 1 cantaloupe, cut into bite-sized pieces
- 1/2 watermelon, cut into bite-sized pieces
- 1 quart blueberries
- 1 quart raspberries
- 3 limes
- 2 tablespoons crystallized ginger
Combine fruit and crystallized ginger. Top with fresh-squeezed lime juice.
Milky Way Martini
- 8 ounces vanilla vodka
- 8 ounces Godiva chocolate flavored liquor
- 4 ounces Bailey’s Irish Cream
- Hershey’s chocolate kisses (optional)
Combine two ounces vodka and chocolate liquor per glass. Stir. Serves 4.
Binoculars, Books and More
Celestion Giant Series Binoculars, at half the power of a small telescope, let you get close to the stars without hauling a pricey telescope to the beach. The 20-by-80 power binoculars retail for around $400 and come with a built-in tripod adapter and protective carrying case.
Slip the National Audubon Society Pocket Guide: Constellations into your binocular case or jacket pocket, and you’ll have star maps and short-and-sweet mythology summaries close at hand. Get the skinny on when and what you’ll see in the night sky and learn the best-known legend for each constellation. Bonus: good fun-facts about deep-sky objects.
The Stars: A New Way to See Them and Find the Constellations were written and illustrated by H.A. Rey—better known for his Curious George stories. The creator of that lovable but impish monkey gave sky tours in Central Park and had such an effective “stick-figure” method for showing shapes in constellations that these books penned in the mid-1950s remain bestsellers today.
Know which constellation you’d like to learn but not sure how or when its star cluster appears in the sky? Turn the wheel on the Glow in the Dark Starfinder with Zodiac Dial and you’ll see the stars and connecting lines. The flip side lets you dial up the date and time of your upcoming (or in progress) beach party and see the sky as it’s supposed to look overhead. The glow-in-the-dark feature keeps your star vision sharp.
The tiny photon micro-light, a favorite of NASA, the Secret Service and the military, is also high on the list for stargazers. The red beam lets you see up to 100 feet away so you won’t stumble over a driftwood log and lights up your star guides without wrecking your night vision. The micro-light is also water-resistant, and it holds your keys—important when partying on the sand.
Gear and book recommendations are from the stargazers at Enerdyne in Suttons Bay.
Astronomy Under Sail
You’ll feel like an ancient mariner who navigated by the stars when you set sail out of the Suttons Bay harbor at sunset and watch the heavens come to life. The excursion is called the “astronomy under sail” cruise, and it’s offered by the Inland Seas Education Association.
Launch your party with this tale that Larry Plamondon, a Native American from Traverse City, tells at the University of Michigan planetarium.
When the Anishnabe people started complaining that the Creator hadn’t made any beauty in the sky, the Creator went off to the swamp to pick some morningstar flowers no bigger than a fingernail that he would use to make stars. He began picking the flowers and putting them into his sack, all day from morning until late afternoon, until the seams were stretched tight and about to burst. Since the sky was not yet dark, he laid down to rest and fell fast asleep. A coyote came along, who, like all dogs, was looking for something to eat. He began talking to himself. “I bet there’s something good to eat in that sack, I bet you I could take the sack and eat just one bite and put it back.” Pretty soon, he tugged on that sack and it ripped open. All the morningstar flowers tumbled into the night sky.
Shortly afterward the Creator woke up, and what’s the first thing he saw? His flowers all scattered across the sky. The Creator said, “Who would ever make such a mess out of my sky? I had all those morningstar flowers and a long stick. I was going to place them just so and make designs of animals and flowers like you see on porcupine quill work and beadwork, and now look at this terrible mess.” The coyote walked forward with his head hung low. He was so sad, the creator secretly laughed. He knew the coyote was only a dog doing what dogs do. He said to the coyote, “look at this mess you made of my sky. Who’s going to clean up the mess?” The coyote began to howl. Even today, grandchildren of that coyote from so long ago still cry when they look at the mess their grandfather made. But the Creator decided to leave stars in the sky just as they are and let humans identify the pictures in the sky.
Bootes, the Herdsman
The tale: In mythology, Bootes is chasing the Great Bear, who is really his mother, Callisto. Callisto was one of Zeus’s many romances, and Zeus’s wife turned her into a bear for revenge. Years later when Bootes was hunting, he came upon the bear. Zeus decided he couldn’t let the boy kill his mother. So Zeus put them both in the sky, and now Bootes chases Callisto around and around, but never gets closer.
The directions: To find the constellation Bootes, first find the Big Dipper. Follow the handle of the dipper to Arcturus, the fourth brightest star in the night and one of the first to appear in the August sky. Arcturus is at the base of a “kite” with two short legs (see diagram), which makes up the constellation Bootes.
Lyra, the Harp
The tale: The Greek god Hermes (The Roman Mercury) invented the harp by stretching strings across a tortoise shell. Hermes gave the harp to his brother, the god Apollo, who in turn gave it to his son the fabled musician Orpheus.
The directions: To find Lyra, look for the star Vega, which is part of the bright summer triangle and nearly overhead at 11 p.m. Vega and a narrow parallelogram of stars to the south of it make up the constellation Lyra the harp.
Aquila, the Eagle
The tale: In Greek mythology the chief of the gods, Zeus (The Roman Jupiter), either sent an eagle or transformed himself into an eagle named Aquila and abducted the young lad Ganymede and took him to live on Mount Olympus, where he became the wine pourer for all of the gods.
The directions: The brightest star in Aquila is Altair, another summer triangle star, and is found in the southeast. Altair is in the head of Aquila, which appears to be flying northward through the Milky Way. Altair is only 16 light years away, nearly twice the size of the sun and spins once in 10 hours.
Cygnus, the Swan
The tale: The Swan is another guise of Zeus, the one he employed as he seduced the maiden Leda. Born of the union was Pollux, one of the twins of the constellation Gemini, seen in the winter.
The directions: Cygnus the swan is flying southward through the Milky Way with its wings and neck outstretched. The star Deneb, high in the east, is in the tail of Cygnus. Deneb appears to be the dimmest of the three Summer Triangle stars, but the star is a whopping 1,600 light years away. If it were as close as Altair, it would be as bright as the quarter moon.
Scorpius, the Scorpion
The tale: The most common tale for Scorpius is that this scorpion was sent to kill Orion, the great hunter, and he boasted he could kill every animal on earth. The scorpion succeeded, and both Orion and Scorpius were placed in the sky. Scorpius is a summer constellation and Orion appears in winter, always apart so the battle will never resume.
The directions: Look for this one early, because it may disappear off the horizon later in the night. When visible, the characteristic curve of the scorpion’s tail is hard to miss. The bright red star in its heart is Antares. The name means rival of Ares, the Roman name for the war god we know by the Greek name Mars—so named because its redness calls to mind the blood of war.
Our constellation information is courtesy of Bob Moler, host of the astronomy program “Ephemeris,” on Interlochen Public Radio and Dick Cookman, a retired asrtonomy professor and owner of Enerdyne in Suttons Bay.