By Torney Van Acker
Special to the Rappahannock News
Over 50 people made it under the dry pavilion at the Rappahannock County Park just before the skies opened up in typical Rappahannock fashion. A clear night sky would have been the preferred option for celebrating the Park’s designation as a Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). Regardless of the weather, the festivities went on as planned and a good time was had by all.
The IDA notified the Park of its designation as a Silver Tier Dark Sky Park on February 21, almost a year to the day from when the application process began. The Park is the third in Virginia and the third county park in the nation to achieve this honor. Saturday, May 4, was selected as the celebration date so as to have warmer weather and to fall near a new moon when the skies would be the darkest for observations.
The festivities began around 7:30 p.m. with opening remarks and welcome by Mike Del Grosso, Chair of the Rappahannock County Recreational Facilities Association (RCRFA) and Rick Kohler, President of the Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection (RLEP). The application for a dark sky park designation was a joint effort by the RCRFA and RLEP. Laura Greenleaf, Virginia chapter co-leader of the IDA, traveled from Richmond to deliver a congratulatory statement from the IDA. Torney Van Acker, Vice-Chair of the RCRFA, gave a brief overview of the “Dark Sky Park Journey” and publicly thanked those who wrote letters of support for the application and others who made the award possible. Torney was sporting a star-studded tie worn over his Fodderstack 10k tee-shirt. Rick Kohler presented the tie to Torney as a surprise in recognition for his efforts with the application.
The party continued with remarks by Washington Mayor Fred Catlin, who shared what the designation for the Park meant for the adjacent town of Washington and how the youth in the county would benefit. Piedmont District Supervisor Christine Smith pointed out how much the Park meant to her and her friends growing up in the county, reminiscing on special moments spent there. Once the speeches were finished, the “Saving Dark Skies” cake was cut and bubbly apple cider was distributed for a toast led by Torney, Mike and Rick.
The highlight of the evening was the formal signature of a Memorandum of Agreement between the RCRFA and the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club (NOVAC). This agreement sets forth the terms of preferential use of the Park for astronomical observations by its members. Chris Kagy, NOVAC President and Mike Del Grosso, penned their signatures on two copies of the agreement.
Despite the inclement weather that prevented actual observations, NOVAC’s Milt Roney came prepared with an animated presentation of the types of celestial objects that could have been seen. At one point he projected an image of the star-studded night sky and asked the youth in the audience to point out the Big Dipper. Seven-year old Joshua Jeantet from Falls Church raced to the front to correctly identify the constellation. After Milt’s presentation concluded, many in the audience stayed on to indulge in a wide array of refreshments while NOVAC’s Ralph Marple demonstrated how to use his 14-inch reflector telescope. Several of Joyce Harman’s photographs of starry night scenes around Rappahannock County were on display at the front of the pavilion.
The Park’s next dark sky event is scheduled for June 15. The moon will be full and Joyce Harman will bring her spotting scope with a smartphone adapter so visitors can go home with a spectacular image of the moon on their phone. While marking your calendars, remember that on July 13, Greg Redfern, NASA’s Solar System Ambassador, will return to Rappahannock County High School to give a special presentation of the 50th anniversary of the first manned lunar landing with Apollo 11.