Dazzling night at Dark Sky Reserve

Julia Duin

THE WASHINGTON POST – Just before midnight at the Galena summit in central Idaho’s remote Blaine County, the stars are putting on a show. Orion stretches across the heavens, with the blue-white Rigel as its brightest jewel. The constellation Cassiopeia glows as a sideways W. To the right of Orion in Taurus, the Hyades star cluster burns gold.

Enveloping it all is the Milky Way, a blaze of light among the flaming stars over the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve. It stretches into parts of four counties – Elmore, Blaine, Boise and Custer – and its remote locale is bringing in the tourists.

A few months ago, Blaine County had one of the highest COVID-19 rates in the world. Thanks to skiers from around the globe flocking to its world-famous Sun Valley Ski Resort, its rates outstripped even New York and Italy. Celebrities with homes in the area stayed away; hotels and ski lifts closed, and the local hospital partly shut down because half of its doctors were infected.

Since then, Idaho reopened quickly, compared with other states. A study released in June revealed that 23 per cent of Blaine County’s adult population has antibodies to the virus.

The state’s tourism boards have come up with ways to create a socially distanced paradise in Idaho’s plentiful wilderness areas for vacation-starved travellers. The Sun Valley tourism board now sports a new slogan, ‘Mindfulness in the mountains’. The website for McCall, a rural community 120 about 200 miles to the west of Sun Valley, adopted ‘Protect your mountain playground’ as a slogan, and is using the hashtags #recreateresponsibly and #spreadlovenotcovid.

A view of the Milky Way over the dock at Redfish Lake. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

“We want to welcome people back, but we want to be in protect mode,” said Laurie McConnell, who does marketing for Visit Idaho. “Small towns don’t have large hospital or first-responder capacity. It’s getting people to be respectful of what they are travelling to.”

The Sawtooth National Recreation Area, which encompasses 756,000 acres just north of Sun Valley, opened 29 picnic areas and campgrounds on June 5. For the people filling campgrounds and remote lodges, the main attraction is the Dark Sky Reserve, said to have the best stargazing in the country.

There are only 16 such reserves in the world, and Idaho’s, established in late 2017, is one of only two in North America. A group of local activists and residents spent several years creating the Idaho reserve along the specifications of the Arizona-based International Dark Sky Association. For example, cities in the reserve had to switch street lighting to lamps that direct light toward the ground rather than toward the sky, where it causes light pollution. Stargazing is best during parts of the month when moonlight is minimal. Other sought-after times are during meteor showers.

For those who like to see the stars but prefer not to camp, there are lodging options in Sun Valley and the neighbouring cities. Marketing Director for Visit Sun Valley Ray Gadd said the town’s restaurants and hotels are all open but that most venues are asking guests to keep six feet between them and other sightseers. The owners of Redfish Lake Lodge, one of the area’s most popular destinations, said business is doing well. “We’ve had cancellations, but they’ve been filled up by local folks,” said Manager for Guest Relations Austin Clegg. He said they planned to have “star floats”, star watching parties on the lodge’s pontoon boats around the time of the new moons, which are on July 20 and August 19.

Matt Benjamin, a Boulder, Colorado, astronomer who helped create the Central Idaho Dark Sky reserve, has spoken at these star floats in the past. “Where I see the Dark Sky Reserve providing some added benefit to researchers is in the amateur astronomy field,” he said. “This group of capable and motivated people are responsible for a surprising number of comet and asteroid discoveries.”

Although the funds are not available for a planetarium, Boise State University is introducing a mobile observatory to the reserve in the near future. Until then, bring a telescope, and go low-tech with an iPhone app that, by simply pointing the phone toward the night sky, unlocks the beauty of the cosmos.