With more than 500 acres of land protected from any source of artificial light, the Headlands International Dark Sky Park, in Emmet County, has become a beacon for amateur astronomers. We expect that reputation will only grow when the park debuts its new Waterfront Event Center and Observatory with a 20-inch telescope on June 22. But program director Mary Stewart Adams doesn’t want you to think astronomy is all the park is for—or even what a dark sky park is fundamentally about. For her, it’s a way of rediscovering what the dark can teach us about who we are—and our place in the world.

You’re Invited! June 22, 2017, Grand Opening of the Waterfront Event Center and Observatory. Join us from 2 to 6 p.m. for guest speakers, tours, light refreshments and the view!

So you seem to take a pretty philosophical view of the dark sky park concept. Can you flesh that out for us?

I mean, technically, my mission is not to protect the night sky. It’s to protect the human imagination, using the night sky as the arena where we do that. What stirs when we’re in the dark is the imagination. If you find yourself unprepared in a dark environment, often it can stir fear because the imagination runs wild. Or think about sitting in a dark room, and you light a candle—at the edge where that candlelight starts to fade, that’s where the imagination starts to dance and play. If you look at the statistics, almost two-thirds of residents in the United States live where they can’t see most of the stars at night. I think as you develop more of an awareness of our impact on our environment, you become more sensitive to the fact that you’re not experiencing the dark, that you’re not in the quiet. We are very adaptable, but once people start to become aware of that, then you realize we’re surrounded by this over-lit, overbuilt, overdone environment all the time.

So do you have any tips for first-time visitors to the park?

Well, the park is open all the time, and I would recommend if you’ve not been there, don’t wait until it’s dark—because it gets really dark! If you’re coming to see the night sky, I suggest you come within a half an hour of sunset, and then be in that twilight time where you know the stars are present, but they’re not showing themselves yet. Then you can see the brightest objects appear and watch the rest of the night sky fill in. It’s an amazing experience.

And we’re assuming phones are a no-no.

What I like to tell people is ‘use a map, don’t use an app’—because there’s nothing more discouraging than going to a protected wilderness environment and tapping on a device to figure out what you’re looking at. It’s not about the light that’s coming from your phone. It’s about the technology in the environment. It’s better to not know what you’re looking at than to have to pull out a phone to have an experience. That’s what we’re losing.

Headlands International Dark Sky Park and Waterfront Event Center is located at 15675 Headlands Rd., Mackinaw City.

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Photo(s) by Dave Weidner