Meteor showers provide stunning displays

John Pepin

“On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair.” — Don Henley/Glenn Frey

It seems like it was a lifetime ago, when I used to spend a good deal of time exploring the fascinating nighttime world of the Devil’s Punchbowl area, a geologic attraction situated not far from California’s infamous San Andreas Fault.

When people asked what there was to see at this natural area, I used to joke that I didn’t know. I got to the punchbowl too late — all there was left at the bottom of the 300-foot-deep canyon was orange and lemon wedges.

In fact, there are plenty of interesting rock formations to enjoy, with San Gabriel Mountains rising to more than 8,000 feet surrounding the punchbowl.

The creation of these formations is a story steeped in geologic history, involving sands settling through water to form layers of sandstone, which were later tilted, squeezed and lifted by the movement of seismic faults.

Here, along the pitch-dark blacktopped roads that led beyond the punchbowl to places like Big Rock Springs, Littlerock, St. Andrews Priory and Pallet Creek, the desert would come alive with wildlife, once the scorching summer sun went down.

My buddy and I would drive out there to look for western diamondback rattlers, striped racers and other snakes that would slink across these roads, warming themselves on the pavement that held some of the heat it had soaked up all day long.

There were big, black tarantulas, ghostly-white barn owls and much more, beautiful creatures existing in the world alive under the cloak of night. There were also California junipers, Joshua trees and chaparral.

However, the biggest attraction beyond all this was the night sky.

On moonlit nights, you could turn off your headlights on these lonely byways and see the stunning desert landscape bathed in bluish white moonglow. When my boys were very young, I’d take them out there and let them sit on my lap and steer my truck.

As my youngest reported upon our return, “I drived in the desert.”

But the greatest thrill for me was an unexpected occasion. We had gone out there on an early August ride.

Heading north along the Punchbowl Road, a long-tailed meteor suddenly shot across the sky like a rocket — so bright, so dazzling and then — gone.

Quickly, another followed like a messenger from heaven, soaring, spitting and spinning to who knows where. I pulled the truck over to the side of the road, got out and sat on the hood, with my back against the windshield.

The spectacular display didn’t stop while we were there.

I had known the constellations here, not far from Big Sky Drive, were the brightest I’d seen. This was the desert side of the mountains, beyond the obscuring mega-glow of the lights of Los Angeles, but I had never experienced anything like this fabulous meteor shower.

It was so intense, bright and almost continuous. This would be my first focused experience with the peak of the Perseid meteor shower, which occurs in variable intensity each year as Earth passes through the dust and debris of Comet Swift-Tuttle.

At its highest levels, the meteor shower can sling 150 to 200 meteors an hour across the night sky at a speed of 37 miles per second. The display begins July 17 and intensifies as it nears its peak, which will be tomorrow night into Sunday morning.

Van Riper State Park in Marquette County and Fort Wilkins State Historic Park in Keweenaw County will offer “Meteors & S’mores” events Saturday — 8 to 11:45 p.m. at Fort Wilkins and 9:30 to 10:30 p.m. at Van Riper.

Having just returned from a few days’ stay at Fort Wilkins, I can say the stargazing there is phenomenal. The later into the night and early morning, the better.

The Milky Way is spilled from one end of the sky to the other, leaving you with a feeling — looking up at the shimmering constellations — that this is the first time you’ve ever seen the night sky.

Brockway Mountain is nearby, offering broad, unobstructed and sweeping views of the Keweenaw Peninsula and Lake Superior beyond.

You can bring a blanket and lie on the beach at Van Riper, along the sandy shoreline of Lake Michigamme. Past meteor showers here have been productive and the view over the lake and above is good.

Anywhere with wide open spaces and darkness, away from city lights, is a great place to view the Perseids meteor shower, which is named for the constellation Perseus where the meteors radiate from.

In the U.P., it’s not surprising that weather is often the one intangible that often clouds the view of some of the best astronomical events, including meteor showers.

Meanwhile, back at the Devil’s Punchbowl, that night would be my stunning introduction to the incredible displays possible during meteor showers.

I’ve never seen a meteor shower like that since. Maybe, I never will again, but I’m certainly going to keep trying, looking up, hoping — wishing on the falling stars.

Editor’s note: John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula.