Dark Skies in the BWCAW

Written by: Caitlynn LaSota

Life in the modern world is one of loud noises, pervasive smells, and bright lights. Exhausting, right? While this pace of life is coveted by some, it can be hard to find space to think with all the background chatter. The elements of nature only act as barriers to the ease of city life. Taking the time to appreciate the wind, or the stars, or the birds, in the presence of all of these other stimuli just isn’t a priority. In spite of all of this, it is important to allow yourself to be immersed in the true wild.

The Gunflint Lodge, located in Cook County, MN is a great place to escape from the constant drone of society. The skies here are some of the darkest in the world; in fact, the BWCAW is the largest of 15 certified International Dark Skies Sanctuaries. Join us at the Gunflint Lodge for some of the best star gazing you’ll experience in your life, as well as a chance to view the auroras. While you’re up here, make sure to participate in the Cook County Dark Skies festival!    dark sky with milky way

Cook County Dark Skies Festival

Located in Grand Marais and up the Gunflint Trail, Cook County hosts an annual Dark Skies Festival. This year, it will take place December 8th through the 10th.  This festival, created to raise awareness and dedication towards Cook County’s dark skies, includes many opportunities for both education and fun. One event, the “Night Sky Walk and Telescope Viewing,” includes a short walk at Pincushion Mountain and opportunities to view constellations over the great Lake Superior. Other opportunities can be found online.

Light Pollution and the Human Brain

Human beings have had quite the impact on the world. The sea, the sky, and the soil have all been altered and polluted by anything from agricultural runoff to capitalisms’ best friend, plastic. One type of pollution that has been getting more attention in recent years is light pollution.

Light pollution is essentially the presence of excessive artificial light. One of the main concerns with light pollution is the phenomenon known as “sky glow” or the brightening of the night sky. This may sound like a pretty attraction, but in reality, sky glow works to inhibit our view of the true night sky. If you’ve spent time in cities, you know that looking up on a clear night rewards you with only the occasional star as opposed to the millions we know are out there. Light pollution does more than upset astronomers, however. We now know that there are many impacts on the human brain as well.

Both darkness and light are very important for our bodily function. People living above the arctic circle can attest that constant darkness, as well as constant sunlight, can have a whole host of effects on the body, mind, and spirit. In the modern world, light pollution has seen that people everywhere, not just in the far reaches of the North, are being impacted by lack of darkness all year around. According to National Geographic, 80% of the world population is living under the glow. In America and Europe, that percentage rises to an astounding 99% of people stuck under a bright night sky. This is concerning for several reasons, most of all due to its impact on our sleep.

Living under sky glow negatively impacts our circadian rhythms, or our internal clock that tells us when to sleep and when to wake. In particular, the production of our sleep hormone, melatonin, is inhibited by excessive light. This can cause sleep deprivation, fatigue, headaches, stress, anxiety, and other ailments that stem from these symptoms. Blue light in particular, such as that from phones, computers, and LEDs, wreaks havoc on melatonin production. Long-term impacts of this type of exposure include an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, depression, sleep disorders, and even some forms of cancer.

The Ecology of Dark Skies

Light pollution affects more than just us humans. Animals, plants, and the environment also feel the impact of increased night light.


After millions of years following the same 24-hour schedule, the natural world is struggling to adapt to the increased lighting that they are now exposed to. Nocturnal species, for example, have a reduced hunting period. Hunting and foraging practices themselves are also impacted by the presence of light; if you’ve ever had a flashlight shined in your eyes, you know that it can take a minute to adjust to the naturally dark environment again. Animals are having the same experience, especially in populated areas that border the wilderness.

More so than just foraging and hunting, many nocturnal animals depend on the moon and stars for navigation. Migrating birds, for example, are often disoriented by artificial lights. This leads them to miss ideal conditions for anything from mating to foraging in their destination, and often leads to collisions with building windows. Some birds also get trapped by the circle of lights that surround cities and can’t leave again until the next day.

Sea turtle hatchlings also depend on the moon and stars. When they hatch, they move away from the dark shores and towards the illumination of the sky against the sea. When there are lights in the area, it leads turtles away from the shore to their peril.

sunset with tree silhouetteDiurnal (active during the day) and crepuscular (active during dusk and dawn) species, on the other hand, have extended hunting and foraging hours, and can navigate better for longer periods of time. Some examples of diurnal species would be moose, deer, and some types of birds. Crepuscular animals include foxes, bobcats, and pine martens. Increased light is an advantage to these creatures, but ecology is a fragile thing. The short term advantage bright skies provide for these species will soon be outweighed by the disturbed balance of predator, prey, and the environment. Already, bug and bird populations are shrinking worldwide. This is a result of many compounding things including increased predation, the navigational issues mentioned earlier, and other battles society fights with the wild.



More so than just animals, plants are also impacted by this long-held schedule of light and dark. Increased light allows leaves to grow larger than they would naturally. This leaves them vulnerable to more air and water pollution than they would otherwise. Trees also tend to keep their leaves longer in the presence of artificial light. When trees still have leaves in winter storms, it’s more likely that they’ll lose branches and other valuable resources needed to get them through the winter.

Interestingly, incandescents and other warm lights are the most damaging to plants while blue lighting has less of an impact. As you’ll remember, the reverse is true for humans and animals. However, plants also depend on their pollinators. This means that while blue light doesn’t harm the tree directly, it still has a net negative impact due to reduced chances of pollination.

Darkness in the North Woods

Here at the Lodge, we have a lot of animals and plants that depend on our dark skies. Flying squirrels, lynx, wolves, and many other species of animals are primarily active at night. They depend on the darkness for their hunting strategies, and many have dark-adapted vision. Here more than in the city, darkness is important to maintain. Because the surrounding environment is so dark, light carries more weight than it would in a well-lit area. This is why red lights are good to use when walking in the dark in the northwoods!

Dark Skies Package at the Gunflint Lodge

In conjunction with Cook County’s Dark Skies festival and in partnership with NASA, we at the Gunflint Lodge will be hosting a Dark Skies dinner with a Special Presentation, dinner with a special menu in front of the fireplace, and guided night hike. Your three-night stay will offer plenty of opportunity to enjoy the sunset over Gunflint Lake, watch the sunrise over the High Cliffs, photograph nocturnal animals, and even do some exploring during the day as well!

The Dark Skies Package includes:

  • Three nights’ accommodations in a lakeside fireplace cabin
  • Presentations hosted by NASA
  • All meals from check-in Thursday night through breakfast Sunday morning, including a special menu dinner Thursday night, December 8
  • Guided Naturalist activities, including a night skies presentation and a guided night hike

Helpful Tips to Safely Explore After Dark

While exploring the dark wild is an exciting experience, it is best to be safe while doing it! Here are some tips to experience the Northwoods winter without any trouble.

dark, starry, sky over frozen lake

  • Use red flashlights! These special lights are less damaging to your night vision, meaning you have a better idea of your peripherals. They also don’t spook away the wildlife.
  • Wear reflective clothing! Just as it is important for you to see, it is just as important to be seen by others. Hunters, drivers, and other explorers will be out and about.
  • Stay on marked trails. This is particularly important in an unfamiliar area. Things look different at night, and given the low temperatures, it is better to be safe.
  • Let someone know where you are going and when you expect to be back. This way, if something happens, you can expect rapid assistance.
  • For viewing the auroras, look to the north! Also, check out spaceweather.com for updates on when to expect the lights.
  • Looking for some dark skies close to home? Check out this light pollution map to find a dark area near you.
  • Dress for the weather. Winter has arrived early this year and has brought over a foot of snow with it, so take care to stay warm and dry!