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Starry nights at Natural Bridge

Starry nights at Natural Bridge

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NATURAL BRIDGE — Zachary Hubbard and Dylan Harper loaded up a wagon ride to the stars.

“I see Cassiopeia out there,” Harper said, pointing toward the constellation in the northern sky, as 16 people climbed into a large hay wagon pulled by a Ford pick-up truck.

Hubbard and Harper are park rangers at Natural Bridge State Park, which was recently dedicated as an International Dark Sky Park. In early October, they guided the wagonload of visitors on one of the first official star-gazing events sponsored by the park since the dedication.

As dusk darkened into nighttime, folks rode over a grassy path to Jefferson Point, an open field on high ground just south of the park and the famous bridge that gives the place its name. Clouds started rolling in during late afternoon, threatening to obscure the stargazing. But plenty of twinkling stars pierced the moonless sky.

Harper unloaded a telescope the size of a small water tank, and people gazed skyward, their eyes adjusting to the enclosing darkness.

The visitors peaked through the telescope and looked through binoculars loaned by the two rangers. Hubbard and Harper pointed out Jupiter and Saturn in the south.

“We’ve got rings!” Harper announced as he fixed the telescope on Saturn, its rings fuzzily viewable.

A few feet away, Donna Combs of Kannapolis, North Carolina, and her granddaughter Christine Musgrave stood awed by the sights as they saw bright shining Venus through binoculars.

“This is unreal,” said Combs, who had signed up for the wagon ride just a couple of hours earlier, not realizing how full the night sky would appear.

“I’m petrified of the dark, but I love this.”

A true starry night

Natural Bridge was a privately owned, longtime tourist attraction before it became a state park in 2016. Not long after, park manager Jim Jones sought dark-sky designation for the Rockbridge County landmark.

Earlier this year, the park was selected to be the fifth Dark Sky Park in Virginia, joining Staunton River, James River and Sky Meadows state parks, and Rappahannock County Park.

The park’s designation as a dark-sky spot comes from the International Dark-Sky Association, an Arizona-based organization that brings awareness to the effects nighttime lights have on the night sky, on nature and on people. Because much of the world is illuminated by artificial lighting, most people — especially in urban areas — don’t get to view a true starry night.

According to the Dark-Sky Association’s website:

“Until recently, for all of human history, our ancestors experienced a sky brimming with stars — a night sky that inspired science, religion, philosophy, art and literature, including some of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets. The natural night sky is our common and universal heritage, yet it’s rapidly becoming unknown to the newest generations.”

Light pollution not only obscures the night sky, the group says, but also can have negative impacts on ecosystems.

“The night affects all of us,” Hubbard, the park’s chief ranger for visitor experience, told the wagon riders.

“It affects our health … and it affects animals’ health. Owls need darkness to hunt, for eating, for socializing and mating.”

The International Dark-Sky Association said that 80% of the world’s population lives under a “light-polluted night sky.” The association says that nighttime lights not only have negative effects on wildlife ecosystems, but also can waste energy and money, and be a factor in climate change.

Events such as the wagon ride at Natural Bridge are held so that people can see what they’re missing up there after dark.

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Actually, Natural Bridge’s sky is more darkish than pitch dark. Hubbard pointed out a faint glow over the northeastern horizon.

“Those are the lights of Glasgow” he said, calling the light “skyglow.” Glasgow is hardly an urban center, but even the hamlet’s nighttime lights were easily visible.

Hubbard pointed southeast toward skyglow from Lynchburg rising above a mountain. To the southwest, Roanoke skyglowed in the distance.

“Personally, I’d prefer a completely dark sky,” he said.

The famous bridge itself is not part of the stargazing area. A small parking area on Virginia 760, just off U.S. 11, adjoins the Skyline Trail, where most of the nighttime tours begin. Harper, who minored in Astronomy at East Tennessee State University, designed the viewing programs for nights when the moon is full and also for the moonless nights when more stars are visible.

He said that by becoming a Dark Sky Park, staff at Natural Bridge can perform outreach with neighboring communities about how to reduce nighttime light pollution.

Hubbard and Harper used the event to educate people about the stars, most of which are larger than our own sun.

“A lot of the stars we see are giants,” Harper explained to a family whose members passed binoculars around.

Some of the nighttime lights were tiny, however. And they were not in the sky.

Visible in the grass were hundreds of shining glowworms, small luminous creatures that resemble fireflies. On this particular night, visitors could look up or down to see shimmering lights.

Off in the distance, a pair of screech owls called to one another in the darkness.

“I told you owls liked the night,” Hubbard said.

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