Sat. Mar 2nd, 2024
Preserving International Dark Skies in Quetico and the Superior National Forest

Today’s post comes from Chris Stromberg, interim rural operations specialist for Quetico Provincial Park and coordinator of the Corazón del Continente Association.

Last July, four Ontario parks teams and US Forest Service rangers/park wardens went to the forest to observe new moon nights.

In addition to their usual duties of ensuring compliance, clearing transports, restoring campsites, and acting as park and forest ambassadors, they were collecting sky quality meter (SQM) readings during the darkest hours of the night.

Collaborative monitoring teams

Quetico Provincial Park prepared monitoring equipment for late July/early August during the new moon to obtain meter readings.

Quetico Park warden Dustin Jeffrey is shown recording sky quality meter data.Quetico Park Ranger Dustin Jeffrey is shown recording sky quality meter data

Quetico collaborated with our neighbors at La Verendrye Provincial Park and the Superior National Forest, and on July 29, Four teams were sent in different directions through the heart of the Quetico Wilderness and along the border routes of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) to obtain light meter readings for those three wilderness areas.

Get night sky readings

There is a small window of opportunity for the ideal conditions necessary for sky quality readings.

Staff member paddling to next location.

Weather, cloud cover and being in specific places at the right time can be difficult. Unlike taking readings in an urban environment, rangers had to paddle canoes all day, every day, before settling on specific sites. They were also worried about sleeping through their alarm clocks!

The weather was cooperating. Although it was stormy all day on July 29, the clouds began to dissipate before midnight and the sky cleared completely in the darkest hour of the night.

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Nights so dark forced us to whisper

Reflections of the Milky Way. Photo: @ethan.b.allen

One of the participating rangers said: “It was eerie to wake up and be outside the tent on such dark nights. It was so still and quiet that we felt compelled to whisper, even though it was unlikely there would be another caravan at our lake.”

Six readings were taken at each site along with wind speed, percentage of cloud cover and relative humidity. Photographs of the dark skies were also taken during each reading, although it was difficult to capture the stars without better equipment.

Just a few minutes and a shuttle away, dark sky photographer Ethan B. Allen was able to capture exactly what the rangers were seeing and much more with time-lapse photography. It was very exciting to discover this image. Thank you, Ethan, for photographing our exceptional night sky and sharing it with the world.

Nighttime Dark Sky Readings

Each night, the rangers taking the light readings had to arrive at their destination, set up camp, and, in the middle of the night, emerge from their tents to find clear, starry skies for excellent MCS readings.

People gathered around a campfire in the dark with the northern lights in the background

Those involved in the project have been very enthusiastic about the Heart of the Continent Dark Sky Initiative (HOCP) and it appears to be contagious for everyone involved. Park Director Rachael Fairfield said: “I felt very privileged to be a part of this project and had a blast!”

A long term commitment

There is still much work ahead for the parks and forests involved and for HOCP and it is a long-term commitment, but certainly valuable and significant.

Voyageurs National Park, Superior National Forest (BWCAW), Grand Portage National Monument, Northeast Minnesota DNR, La Verendrye Provincial Park, and Quetico Provincial Park are signatories to a Sister Sites Agreement that promotes international cooperative initiatives like this dark sky initiative.

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Northern lights in Quetico.

This agreement is a continuation of cooperation between parks on both sides of the border that has existed for more than 100 years since the Superior National Forest and Quetico Provincial Park were first protected in the early 20th century.

This continued cooperation between parks will help us work together to successfully submit individual IDA dark sky park applications and work toward the goal of a large dark sky area.

An international dark sky partnership

The Heart of the Continent Partnership group has discussed becoming a certified dark sky destination for many years.

boots on the coast at dawn

Quetico, La Verendrye and Pigeon River Provincial Parks in Ontario, along with Boundary Waters Canoe Are Wilderness (BWCAW) in the Superior National Forest and Voyageurs National Park partnered with the National Park Service’s Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division of the US taking steps to become dark sky reserves.

International Dark Sky Association Park Status

Bob DeGross, superintendent of Voyageurs National Park, said: “[Our park], along with other land management areas within the Heartland geotourism region, is seeking dark sky designation through the International Dark Sky Association. Together, the park, BWCAW and Quetico make up a large area with little to no light pollution impacts. In fact, it’s one of the largest regions in the US with some of the darkest skies.

“Earning this designation gives us the opportunity to be recognized and celebrate this resource that many, especially in urban areas, no longer have the ability to experience unhindered. Our natural dark skies provide the chance to experience the Northern Lights, view the Milky Way, and view meteor showers as people have done for millennia.

“In addition, maintaining this resource is beneficial for a variety of wildlife. “Excessive impacts from artificial light can alter the migration, vision, foraging and dispersal patterns of a wide range of wildlife, large and small, not to mention the impact on human sleep cycles.”

Logo of the Heart of the Continent group.The Heart of the Main Association works to inclusively build vibrant, resilient communities that value and protect public lands in northwestern Ontario and northeastern Minnesota.