An epic place to view our night skies

Dan Roper lives on the west side of the Cascades in southern Oregon and loves to spend time in Oregon’s high desert. Among his favorite places are the Owyhee Canyonlands, Summer Lake, and anywhere with nearby hiking trails, a good campsite, and a dark sky.

Dan Roper.When I think of desert landscapes I think of contrasting colors - red rock, green plants, and blue sky. I think of the emptiness and quiet that desert landscapes possess - ideal for contemplating this sometimes crazy world we live in. I think of rivers and streams that flow through canyon bottoms - the heart of desert environments. And I think of dark, starry skies - the kind that fill you with awe and make time seem irrelevant.
When I am lucky enough to spend time in the high desert, I try to stay up late enough to watch the sky grow dark and the first stars appear. Depending on what adventures the day had in store, this can be more difficult than it sounds, especially on those long summer days. But in those moments when I find myself surrounded by darkness, gazing up at a million stars, the Milky Way stretching from one horizon to the other, I remember what an awe-inspiring experience it truly is.

This time each year, hundreds of Leonid meteors will streak across the night sky, as our planet passes through an area of debris left behind by the Tempel-Tuttle Comet. The Leonids emerge or radiate from the constellation Leo (hence the name), found just below the Big Dipper in the night sky. One can view about 20 meteors an hour at the peak of this meteor shower, although I never keep track.

Camping in the Owyhee. Photo: Sean BagshawThis year, the meteor shower’s peak is the night of Thursday, November 17, and the early morning hours of Friday, November 18. And I couldn’t imagine a better place to see it than Oregon’s Owyhee Canyonlands. In the Owyhee one can encounter some of the darkest night skies we have left in the entire country. It’s no wonder some have dubbed the Owyhee “The Last Darkness.”
There are those who never get a chance to see night skies like this. They’re increasingly rare because the places we inhabit, and many we don’t, are filled with artificial light, light that robs us the opportunity. As our population continues to grow and human activities like mining and oil and gas development creep ever closer to the Owyhee’s doorstep, I worry about a world without the wonder of dark nights. If it is lost in the Owyhee, where will it still be found?
I believe there are many reasons for permanently protecting Oregon’s Owyhee country, and preserving a place so free of light pollution is chief among them. I believe future generations deserve to experience the beauty of a truly dark and starry night sky … the kind still found in the Owyhee.