A Trip To One Of The Darkest Places In The World
Most people in the United States can't see a full night sky that's not affected by light pollution. But, in a remote corner of Nevada, the Milky Way Galaxy shines bright enough at night to cast a shadow.
The area is known as Massacre Rim and it was recently designated as a Dark Sky Sanctuary.
Jen Rovanpera is an archaeologist with the Bureau of Land Management. Today, she's driving along the Surprise Valley-Barrel Springs Back Country Byway, a tongue-twister of a road that makes a 90-mile loop throughout northwestern Nevada and northeastern California.
"The mountains over to my left is Oregon," she said. "We're about six miles away from the Oregon border."
It's rugged terrain in this part of Nevada. Gravel roads are the best you can hope for out here, and even those can be rough.
Rovanpera pulls off along the byway to a vista point overlooking a lush, green rangeland within the high desert, a place called Mosquito Lake.
"If you look past the lake to that ridge in the background, that's the Massacre Rim."
Rovanpera points to a plateau situated in the distance that stretches across much of the horizon. It's been rainy here recently, so we won't be taking any trips to the interior of the site, which Rovanpera says isn't necessary.
"It's an immense area of darkness," she said. "The sanctuary is just a small fraction of that area, so here standing over the Mosquito Lake area is a wonderful place, Surprise Valley, it's a huge area. And, all of it is exceptionally dark."
Only ten dark sky sanctuaries exist in the world, four in the U.S. and three of them in the Mountain West. At nearly 102,000 acres, Massacre Rim is the largest in the country.
Adam Dalton is with the International Dark Skies Association, the non-profit behind the designation.
"Dark sky sanctuaries are often times, some of the darkest and most remote places on the planet," he said.
According to a 2016 study in the journal Science Advances, more than 80 percent of people around the world live under light-polluted skies. That goes up to 99 percent of people in the United States and Europe.
Pat Bruce works for Friends of Nevada Wilderness, a nonprofit organization that works to preserve wilderness areas throughout the state.
"I think this is the last of the 'Wild West,'" he said.
Bruce pulls out a light pollution map of the United States, to show just how hard it is to find truly dark places in this country.
"You pretty much cut the country in half. Everything to the east is really impacted by light, and everything to the west, you can see those little pockets of darkness," he said.
Getting to this particular pocket of darkness takes a little planning. Bruce encourages visitors to stick to some of the outlying roads and to bring extra food, water and supplies, in case anything goes wrong.
On my way to the site, I pass dozens of prime cattle grazing land, full of sagebrush and juniper. Several times, I'm forced to show down and wait for a cow to cross the road ahead of me. It's sunset and I've got just enough time to set up camp.
A few wispy clouds hang in the atmosphere, as I get into my tent to wait for the night sky to fully form. When I step back outside, it's nearly midnight.
Looking up, I'm blown away by the amount of stars visible on this nearly moonless night. The dust from the Milky Way stretches across the horizon. To me, it doesn't even look real.
The other thing that strikes me is the sheer remoteness of the experience. In this space, at this time, I'm utterly alone. I haven't seen another human being for hours and there's no civilization within sight. There's no electronics, no cell service, just the stars. A few coyotes and songbirds visit in the distance, but it feels like it's just me.
Aside from some ranches and an old ghost town, the nearest city is Cedarville, California. That sits about 35 miles west and has a population of just 500 people, according to the 2010 Census. And that number is steadily decreasing.
Janet Irene is the owner of the Country Hearth Restaurant in town, where she spends her mornings baking fresh breads and making jams and salsas from scratch. Irene supports the designation and the economic benefits visitors could bring to the area.
"I believe that it's going to be a big help for our small, struggling community," Irene said.
Still, she's concerned about people leaving behind garbage, starting fires, or getting lost and putting a strain on the small town's emergency services. But on the positive side, she wants people to experience what she can every night.
"It's so exciting to know that there's something else up there, other than what we see every day here," she said. "And you can actually see some small part of it."
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.
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Copyright 2020 KUNR Public Radio. To see more, visit KUNR Public Radio.