Summer Guide: The Amateur’s Guide to Stargazing in Seattle

With clear skies above, constellations are waiting.

How can a ridiculously “busy” and overstimulated life be combated? Stand still, look up, and marvel at the night sky. It’s so easy to lose sight of how humankind fits into the bigger picture, the Earth just a tiny speck among billions of other objects. Here in the city, Seattle’s light pollution tends to mask the beauty that lies in that inky blackness above, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to see.

It’s easy to wax poetic about the night sky, because stargazing is a poetic thing. It’s a crime how little most know about the space we live in, and even worse, how little people take note of it. During the Northridge blackout in L.A. in ’94, local observatories and emergency response were inundated by calls from residents who could see a strange silvery cloud in the sky. Some were worried the cloud had caused the blackouts; turns out it was the Milky Way.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, summer’s clear skies provide ample opportunity to see the cosmos with very little expertise and only the most basic equipment. As a matter of fact, you can grab a decent set of binoculars at a yard sale or on Craigslist for $20–$30 and go gazing. But where offers the best possible view?

Rumor has it one of the best locations in the state to view space is near Neah Bay on Hobuck Public Beach in the Makah Indian Reservation. Directly to the south you could also camp out on Shi Shi Beach for a magnificent show, but those locations will take more than a couple hours to reach. For a great spot a little closer to home, check out Lake Goodwin in Marysville.

Street lights are the urban stargazer’s biggest problem. But there are still places within the city limits where basic constellations are visible, and on clear nights, the galaxy. The key is to find spots that naturally block the bright lights of the big city. The parking lot of the dog park in Magnuson is just such a spot; trees block lights on one side and the hill blocks them from the other.

The stargazer also benefits from diligence. Identifying all kinds of celestial bodies gets easier and easier the more sessions spent outside. A pro tip: If extended gazing is the plan, buy a blow-up raft with armrests. Now lying in a field or in the backyard all night searching the sky with binoculars won’t result in achy arms.

Enjoying the stars doesn’t have to be a solo experience; there are several groups to join, including the Seattle Astronomical Society, the Boeing Employees Astronomical Society, and the Friends of Galileo Astronomy Club, where well-versed enthusiasts can explain everything there is to know about gazing. If those groups seem a little intimidating, you can instead join “Nerds Night Out,” the members of which considers themselves “Seattle’s urban guerilla astronomers.”

There’s even an opportunity to combine music and astronomy on July 24–26 at Artist Home’s Timber Music Festival in Tolt-McDonald Park (another fabulous place for star-searching all summer long), where UW astronomy professor Dr. Oliver Frasier will lead a gazing event on the mainstage field. Long after the music has ended, the bands will cede the stage to the real stars: the stars.

mschuler@seattleweekly.com

 
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