In an ever-brighter world, tourists travel north for truly dark skies

A man's face is reflected in the light of a camera LCD against a starry sky
Landscape photographer Travis Novitsky frames a photograph of the Little Spirit Cedar tree, known as "Manido Gizhigans" in Ojibwe, on Nov. 30. The tree, located on the Grand Portage Indian Reservation on the North Shore of Lake Superior, is a sacred site and can only be visited with the accompaniment of a tribal member.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

On the Grand Portage reservation, on the tip of Minnesota's Arrowhead, Travis Novitsky likes to walk to a place where a gnarled, centuries-old tree grows seemingly straight out of the rock, perched on the Lake Superior shoreline.

It’s known as Manido Gizhigans, “which is Ojibwe for 'Little spirit cedar tree,’” explained Novitksy.

It’s also called the Witch Tree. It’s a sacred place, where visitors must be accompanied by a Grand Portage band member.

A man's face is reflected in the light of a camera LCD against a starry sky
A close-up of Travis Novitsky as he frames a photograph of the Little Spirit Cedar tree. Novitsky says it's new to see more people interested in the craft but he is happy to show the way.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“It's a great spot just to sit and take in what's going on around you,” Novitsky said, and one of his favorite places to pursue his passion — photographing the night sky.

It's only about 7 p.m., but it's already intensely dark as Novitsky sets up his tripod and camera. Every few moments a quarter moon and a blanket of stars emerge from behind fleeting clouds.

"Sitting on the shoreline of a lake, seeing the stars reflected in the water, is an experience unlike anything else,” said Novitsky.

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“Throughout day-to-day life, which can be pretty hectic sometimes, it can be hard to kind of quiet your mind,” he said. “And coming out to these places, whether I'm taking photos or not, is just that way for me to kind of slow down, take a breath, just be in that moment and appreciate it. You know, just you and the sky, you and the stars.”

And increasingly, more people are venturing to the North Shore to share in that experience, at a time when dark skies elsewhere in Minnesota and around the country are diminishing.

A silhoutte of a man walking at night with a headlamp
Landscape photographer Travis Novitsky hikes through fresh snow on his way to photograph the North Shore of Lake Superior.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Tourism officials in Cook County are trying to take advantage of that increased interest from so-called “astrotourists.” About five years ago they published an online map of good places for visitors to view the Northern Lights, along with nighttime photography tips.

And they launched the Dark Sky Festival — held near the darkest time of year — after the busy summer tourism season, but before winter activities are in full swing.

This year it includes presentations by a NASA official, other talks, night sky walks and telescope viewings. There are also screenings of a new documentary co-produced by Novitsky called “Northern Lights, Starry Skies.”

A woman speaks in an office
Visit Cook County marketing and public relations director Kjersti Vick chats with MPR News reporter Dan Kraker during an interview in Grand Marais, Minn. on Nov. 30. She said that the time of the year that is the darkest really is a treat for night sky watchers.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“It’s a celebration of that dark period of year, when you have extended hours of looking at the night sky,” said Kjersti Vick with Visit Cook County.

Vick first realized the enormous appeal of the region's dark skies when she was sitting around a campfire a few years ago with some out-of-town friends, when they suddenly grew very quiet.

"They were all just staring at the sky,” Vick recalled. “And they're like, ‘are there always this many stars in the sky?’ And it was kind of eye opening for me, for somebody who grew up in this area and always saw this many stars in the sky, that not everybody gets to experience this.”

Light pollution

Scientists estimate 99 percent of the continental U.S. and Europe now experiences some kind of light pollution. Nearly 80 percent of North Americans can't see the Milky Way where they live.

And it’s getting worse, said Caroline Torkildson, a dark skies advocate in Cook County and board member of Starry Skies North, a statewide chapter of the International Dark Skies Association.

“So these dark places are more and more special. And when I go out, and I look at the dark skies, I just have this sense of wonder, that we don't want to lose this,” she said.

That makes places like northeastern Minnesota an increasingly appealing destination for dark sky tourists, especially in the winter, when dark descends early, and the dry air creates clear conditions for star gazing.

“There's nothing like a 10-below night with the Milky Way up above you, and just sitting there soaking in everything you can see when your eyes are totally adjusted. It's pretty phenomenal,” said John Fredrikson, co-owner of Gunflint Lodge and Outfitters, which offers presentations on the Northern Lights and guided nighttime hikes for guests.

He said interest has grown since the Boundary Waters Canoe Area was recently designated an International Dark Sky Sanctuary — one of only 16 in the world.

A twisted White Cedar tree is framed against a starry sky
The Spirit Tree, known as "Manido Gizhigans" in Ojibwe, is seen on Lake Superior’s North Shore on the Grand Portage Indian Reservation on Wednesday on Nov. 30.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Nearby, Voyageurs National Park and Quetico Provincial Park have also been recognized by the International Dark Skies Association for their protected dark spaces.

Together, they make up one of the darkest regions in the lower 48 states east of the Mississippi River, and a hotspot for “Aurora hunters” in search of the Northern Lights.

“It’s something that people are perpetually chasing,” said Visit Cook County’s Vick, who compared seeing the Northern Lights to spotting a moose. You know they’re out there, but sometimes they can be hard to spot.

“But when you see it for the first time, it's like, ‘oh my gosh, this just happened in front of my eyes.’ It's incredible. And so it is something that is on bucket lists for a good reason. It’s magical and amazing.”

Dark sky tourism also received a boost during the pandemic, when people sought out vacations outdoors, said Valerie Stimac Bailey, author of “Dark Skies: A Practical Guide to Astrotourism.

"Astrotourism actually benefited because there is no better activity for getting out and getting away from people than stargazing,” she said. “And so there was a ton of increased interest in finding stargazing spots and going to national parks for night sky activities."

More photos, more tourists

Photographer Travis Novitsky sees that increased interest firsthand along the North Shore. There are nights he'll pull up to a favorite spot that he used to have all to himself. Now, there might be another half dozen cars there.

A man gestures at a hanging photograph in a hallway
Landscape photographer Travis Novitsky describes one of his favorite photos of the aurora borealis hanging in his home on the Grand Portage Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota on on Nov. 30.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

And he struggles with that. He knows some of those people are probably there because of him, and all the photographs he's taken over the years of the night sky, and the Northern Lights.

"The more people that come to experience that makes it harder to continue to get the same experiences that I'm used to, and why I love it."

But he’s an astrotourist himself, he acknowledges. He travels regularly to the American southwest, a hotspot for dark skies devotees.

He said while it can sometimes be frustrating to lose that solitude, he said it’s also rewarding to share these spaces with other people.

“Because I know that those folks are there because they want to experience a piece of what I experience. That amazement, that wonder and that appreciation.”

A lighthouse is framed below a pink cloudy sky
The Grand Marais Lighthouse is seen at sunset on Nov. 30.
Ben Hovland | MPR News