A dark sky hike is a true experience

Dark Sky

Did you know that large parts of our world are suffering from light pollution? And that animals and human beings live a much healthier life when they experience a frequent dark night?

For billions of years, all life has relied on Earth’s predictable rhythm of day and night. It’s encoded in the DNA of all plants and animals. Plants and animals (and humans) depend on this balance between dark and light terms. They need it to govern life-sustaining behaviors such as reproduction, nourishment, sleep and protection from predators.

The invention of electric light in the end of the 19th century was a revolution. But it also radically disrupted the day and night cycle by lighting up the night.

The organisation IDA (International Dark-Sky Association) devotes itself to promote and encourage the founding of Dark Sky Parks. Such a dark park is “a land possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment”, as the website explains. The lighting protocol is based on the sensitivity of wildlife to artificial light at night, but also astronomers like it dark: they can study the stars better.

Dark sky facts

Did you know?

  • For nocturnal animals, the introduction of artificial light probably represents the most drastic change human beings have made to their environment.
  • Scientific evidence suggests that artificial light at night has negative and deadly effects on amphibians, birds, mammals, insects and plants.
  • Of all the animals on our planet, perhaps none are under more threat from light pollution than sea turtles. Read further if you want to learn more about this fact.
  • Research suggests that artificial light at night can negatively affect human health, increasing risks for obesity, depression, sleep disorders, diabetes, breast cancer and more.
  • Every year millions of migratory birds die colliding with needlessly illuminated buildings and towers.
  • To minimize the harmful effects of light pollution, lighting should only be on when needed, only light the area that needs it, be no brighter than necessary, minimize blue light emissions, be fully shielded (pointing downward)
  • For your own health: all packaging for new CFL and LED light bulbs provide color temperature information. Use low color temperature light sources for interior and exterior light. Their light is less harsh and less harmful to human health and the environment.

Visit a Dark Sky Park

There’s  about 40 Dark Sky Parks (DSP) at this moment. Famous Dark Sky Parks are Death Valley, the Grand Canyon in the United States, Galloway in Schotland and the Eifel in Germany.

A DSP is intensely dark, the darkness is protected thoroughly and there is an educational center that spreads the word about the necessity of darkness on our planet.

I went for a walk in Lauwersmeer National Park, a dark park in my own country The Netherlands, one of the most light polluted countries in the world.

Dark Sky hiking

Thet Netherlands always have been suffering from water floods, as it is a delta.

Before 1969, the Lauwerszee, a former inland sea, looked much like the Wadden Sea (Waddenzee). The tides exerted their powerful influence by forming gullies and channels. Salt and fresh water mingled continuously. After a disastrous storm surge of 1953 it was decided to completely seal off the Lauwerszee. It eventually became a lake, and the name changed to Lauwersmeer. This was a gigantic undertaking, finally completed in 1969.

In a relatively short period this area has been transformed into a beautiful natural environment. The lake and the alternating woods and fields provide superb resting terrain for migrating birds on their long journeys to the north or south. In recent years even sea eagles have been spotted here. The area supports an abundance of wildlife.

Dark Sky

Slowly the sun is going down.

Bats are flying above the trees. Spiders climb under an leaf next to their web.

Dark Sky

Forester Jaap Kloosterhuis takes groups on night excursions, which is already something unusual, because in The Netherlands you’re not allowed to enter a nature reserve between sunset and sunrise.

I thought it was an exciting experience, because it gave me a new feeling: being in the dark, outside, in an unknown wood, which is actually a tiny bit scary, but in a challenging way.

Jaap told us that human eyes have to get used to darkness. “Just give it some time and ten you will notice contours of paths and bushes. You see the stars to guide you and… you will notice your ears are working better.”

Listen to Jaap, when he tells about his nightly adventures (in Dutch).

Learn more about Dark Sky Parks in the world

See the website of the International Dark-Sky Association to read about the mission and goals and see where to find a dark place in your area. And learn more from these video’s:

dark sky folderInformation Dark-Sky Park Lauwersmeer

The area surrounding the Lauwersmeer has been known as Lauwersmeer National Park since 12 November 2003. You can explore the park in many ways; on foot, by bicycle, boat or canoe. There are a number of beaches at various places along the lake’s shore, ideal for enjoying the sun and swimming.

Stars: By night you can spot the stars of Cassiopea, Perseus, Ursa Major & Minor, the Pole Star and the Dolphin. On some days you might even be able to see the famous green Northern Light from the North Pole.

Walk: There’s guided walks from the Activiteitencentrum from Staatsbosbeheer (state forestry) and a leaflet (the Day and Night map) with a few short route suggestions. You might also go for the darkest bike tour of The Netherlands…

Eat and drink: in the harbour of Lauwersoog (for lunch: Meer Cafe and for dinner ‘t Ailand) and lunch at the sea food shop of Gaele Postma in Zoutkamp.

Sleep: Take your tent and go camping on nature campsite De Pomp in Nationaal Park Lauwersmeer. Here you can experience the tranquility of the area overlooking the water and wake you up with the bird singing and ravens and hares nosing around your tent. The campsite is three kilometers from the Frisian town Dokkumer Nieuwe Zijlen. Want some more luxury? Not far from here is B&B d’Olle Pastorie in Vierhuizen.

The other (quite nearby) Dark Sky Park in The Netherlands is De Boschplaat on the island Terschelling. There’s plans to make the whole Wadden Sea area a Dark Sky region.

Best time to visit a Dark-Sky Park

Summer nights are certainly not very dark, especially in northern places. There are often great dark skies from May to the end of July, but there’s not that many stars. Go for Autumn, Winter and early Spring for the best effect. Spring and autumn are best for seeing planets and constellations, the winter especially for sparkling star skies. The most appropriate period of the month is at midnight in the 1st or 3rd quarter of the moon. You’ll see the moon with its mountains and craters, but it does not block your view on the planets.

Dark-Sky Parks in England

  • Northumberland Dark Sky Park, England
    Since 2013, an area of ​​almost 1500 square kilometers has been officially protected from light pollution, the largest area of ​​Europe with this status plus with the title ‘top-level park’. On clear evenings you can see the Andromedevel and this little spot with the naked eye from the spotlight of our own Milky Way. Tip: The Sky Den Tree House in the middle of the park has a roof that can be rented.
  • Brecon Beacons Dark Sky Reserve, Wales
    A mountain range. Not only are you excellently protected from the light from the rugged valleys of southern Wales, the mountains also literally bring you closer to the stars.
  • Galloway Forest Park, Scotland
    777 square kilometers of secluded valleys, lakes and the highest mountains of southern Scotland. At the Galloway Forest Park there are almost no buildings and there is therefore virtually no artificial light that impedes your view of the sky. This dark sky reserve offers you views of Jupiter’s moors and the cliffs of our own moon.
  • Exmoor Dark Sky Reserve, Devon, England
    Not far from the inhabited world you will find a total deserted wilderness.

    Source: Visit Britain