Postcard from paradise: In the inky dark, a glimmer of starshine – and tourism

Greetings From Straits of Mackinac postcard

Life-size cutouts of notable astronomers, like Claudius Ptolemy, greet visitors as they drive into The Headlands, a dark-sky park at the tip of the Lower Peninsula. (Bridge photo by John Russell)

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Michigan’s northern tourist regions offer dozens of enticements, but one of its most alluring only comes out after the twilight has surrendered to full darkness. How many visitors have stepped outside the ring of a beach fire, looked up and gasped at their first sight of the Milky Way? Which is one reason to visit The Headlands, Emmet County’s 550-acre park at the very tip of the lower peninsula on the Straits of Mackinac. Since 2011, it has been an International Dark Sky Park, the ninth in the world to be so designated by the International Dark-Sky Association, based in Tucson, Ariz..

It took a 75-page application and a two-year proving process, said Mary Adams, program director for the Headlands. The quality of the darkness was observed, and the county had to get on board with its own lighting ordinance. The International Dark-Sky Association seeks to balance man’s primitive need to light his immediate environment with the benefits of looking to the heavens and seeing what our ancestors may have seen, long before the invention of mercury-vapor lamps and LEDs. “As an experience for human beings, natural darkness is being lost,” Adams said. “Every culture around the world has star lore. When we’re cut off from seeing and knowing this, we’re cut off from our history.”

She’s as likely to work with Native American legends of the stars as she is with telescopes and binoculars, “although that’s certainly part of it.” But the legends come in handy with visitors when the clouds roll in. Besides regular programming throughout the year and an undeveloped beachfront to enjoy during the daytime, the Headlands offers a three-story guest house that sleeps 22, making it a popular destination for families and other groups. Ask if Memorial Day weekend is still available, and she replies, “Maybe in 2016.”

The park is free and has no gatekeeper, so the county put down a traffic counter in July 2014, and took it up in October. Using the same metric the Mackinac Bridge uses, they estimate 30,000 visitors came through. “I know they were using local businesses, local hotels, local restaurants,” said Adams. “We know people are coming specifically to use the park. We can’t say specifically how much people spent, but we can make a projection. But we’re still working on that.”

– Nancy Derringer

NEXT POSTCARD: How a git-’er-done spirit helps one rural school district →

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