Dark Sky Week: from the first lighthouse beacon to the starry skies of today and beyond

Milky Way over Devils Island - Joe Garza

April 1, 2024

Michigan Island Lighthouse 1913 - NPS photo

Michigan Island Lighthouse – 1913 – NPS photo

The first brilliant beam pierced the ink black skies over the Apostle Islands like a lightning bolt. The year was 1856, when the first keeper lighted the lamp atop the original Michigan Island lighthouse for the first time.

In the years that followed, keepers lit a constellation of new lights on Long, Raspberry, Outer, Sand, Devils and Michigan Islands.

All of the light stations built in the late 1800s and early 1900s were designed to help mariners navigate their way around the Apostle Islands while avoiding dangerous shoals in the dark of night. They also forever changed the night sky, where the brightest lights had for millennia been the moon and the stars.

Fast forward to 2009, when photographer Mark Weller and a small team traveled to Outer Island with a singular goal in mind: to capture the first photograph of its kind — a spectacular image of the Milky Way rising above the towering, historic Outer Island lighthouse. If successful, prints would be sold to benefit Friends of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and the park.

Arriving at this location, hoping to make the image of a lifetime, was no small feat. Early astrophotography required transporting and setting up lots of elaborate and heavy equipment. The plan involved attaching a camera onto a motorized telescope mount capable of tracking the stars as they moved through the sky. The elaborate set-up enabled the longer exposure necessary to capture the night sky in great detail, but only if the settings and the sky conditions were perfect.

To improve their odds of success, Weller and a colleague had worked for several years on perfecting their technique, at the at the home of Martin Hanson, deep in the Chequamegon National Forest.

Hanson had played a key behind-the-scenes role in Senator Gaylord Nelson’s effort to establish the national lakeshore. Hanson later helped found Friends of the Apostle Islands.

Martin Hanson - Mark Weller photo

Martin Hanson

After years of trial and error, including switching from a film camera to digital camera, the work on Hanson’s property finally paid off in 2008. As thanks for Hanson’s hospitality and friendship, Weller presented him with this beautiful print of the Milky Way over the trees his own backyard.

Hanson passed away unexpectedly a short time later.  After he passed, the team decided to dedicate the Outer Island project to his memory, with proceeds going to Friends of the Apostle Islands in his name.

The team now knew they had the right equipment and the skills, but the weather would need to cooperate.

Milky Way over Martin Hanson's backyard

Milky Way over Martin Hanson’s backyard

After traveling 30 miles from shore, the team docked at Outer Island. They lugged their gear from the dock up the long cement staircase, then set up on the lighthouse grounds and waited for night to fall. They had timed the shoot to happen during the new moon, when the skies are their darkest. They also needed a cloudless sky and low humidity. And for two nights in late June of 2009, the weather and the stars aligned. “I felt lucky. Lucky to be in that spot, at night, with perfect conditions,” Weller says. “I felt that Martin was kind of guiding the project a little bit.”

The resulting image, titled “The Lights of Outer Island” was a tracked four-minute exposures of the Milky Way and combined an untracked image of the lighthouse, illuminated by flashlights. ” Like any artist, when it all comes together, it’s a real rush,” Weller says.

Original Lights of Outer Island - Mark Weller

The Lights of Outer Island

Later that summer, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar visited the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore as a guest of Wisconsin Congressman David Obey. To commemorate the visit, Obey presented print number one to Salazar, who displayed it in the Secretary’s suite in the Department of the Interior in Washington, DC.

Rep Dave Obey and St. Sen Bob Jauch present print to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar

Rep. Dave Obey and State Sen. Bob Jauch present print #1 to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar

Media attention from that event helped drive sales of 100 prints at $500 a piece, to benefit Friends and the park. Weller says, “in some ways it was a deep honor and an incredible experience. It was wonderful.”

The success of that first image led to a series of fine art fundraising prints by Weller and an evolving team of photographers, with help and encouragement from the National Park Service and from Friends. That series, produced over a decade, includes the Milky Way over the lighthouses in the park where the Milky Way lines up, including the old Michigan Island light, the first beacon to pierce the night sky. The works generated thousands of dollars for Friends as well as awareness of the beauty of the park at night. 

The Devils Island Lighthouse and Milky Way-Apostle Islands Print of the Year 2012

Lights of Devils Island

Sand Island Lighthouse with Milky Way-Apostle Islands Print of the Year 2010

Lights of Sand Island

Raspberry Island Lighthouse with Milky Way-Apostle Islands Print of the Year 2011

Lights of Raspberry Island

Michigan Island Lighthouse and Milky Way

Lights of Michigan Island

Now, 15 years after Weller and his team made that first, iconic image, he reflects on the first time he experienced the star-filled skies above Outer Island. “I had never seen skies like that. It was not lost on me that we were looking at sky that people a hundred years ago… a thousand years ago… would see.” Weller thinks back to the mariners who navigated Lake Superior by the stars before the first lighthouses helped to guide them through stormy seas. “That line from the hymn Amazing Grace echos in my mind immediately. ‘I once was lost but now I am found.'”

Eighty percent of people who live in North American cannot see the Milky Way because of light pollution where they live. Of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Weller says, “Here is a location where you can not only see it. You can celebrate it.”

The skies over the Apostle Islands are still among the darkest in Wisconsin. The park is a great place to enjoy and photograph the stars. For many visitors, simply experiencing the starry skies while camping is its own reward. If you want to photograph them, current digital cameras and even cell phones are capable of capturing beautiful images. Star tracking systems that used to fill a car can now fit in a small case or backpack.

And yet, for all of the beauty, there is a threat on the horizon. Light pollution from mainland communities is clearly visible even from the most-remote islands.

Apostle Islands light pollution map
A star-filled sky over the Outer Island dock - Jon Okerstrom photo

Outer Island dock looking south to the mainland – light from shoreline communities is clearly visible on the horizon

That’s why Friends of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore is launching the Starry Skies Initiative, an effort to help the park and neighboring communities to do their parts to protect the beautiful night sky, and to explore helping the national lakeshore obtain dark sky park status. Weller says protecting the night sky doesn’t need to be particularly expensive. “It’s more about attitude and education and making better choices about outdoor lighting.”

International Dark Sky Week runs April 2nd to April 8th, 2024, celebrating the beauty and importance of the natural night sky. This year, North America will experience a total solar eclipse on April 8th, offering extra moments of darkness to enjoy. You can learn more about our Starry Skies Initiative and how you can get involved on our website.

Apostle Islands Starry Skies Initiative logo featuring silhouette of Honeymoon Rock and a starlit dark sky

Night sky photographs accompanying this story by Mark Weller, Joe Garza and Jon Okerstrom.
Story by Jon Okerstrom

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