The best part of any river trip is, of course, the river. But there’s another distinct advantage: many of the best rivers run a course through rugged wilderness, where the light pollution from cities might as well be in outer space. Clear skies mean river trips are some of the best backcountry adventures for stargazing, regardless of whether you’re looking closely for the first time or bringing along a high-powered pair of binoculars.
Not exactly sure what you’re looking for up there? This beginner’s guide to the night sky includes five stellar sights you can spot with your naked eye, plus interesting nuggets of info that will make you sound like a pro (and seriously impress your friends) on your next stargazing adventure.
Beginner’s Guide to the Night Sky
1) Venus & Mercury
Several of the planets in our solar system can be spotted with the naked eye, and there’s no better place than the relatively unpolluted skies over a river to catch them. Venus, named for the Roman goddess of love and beauty, is the easiest planet to locate—it’s the second-brightest object in the dark sky, outshined only by the moon. By late spring, Venus begins to creep above the west-northwest horizon just after sunset, and it gradually brightens as the season wears on. Once you’ve spotted Venus, you can use it to locate Earth’s nearest neighbor, Mercury, just down and to its right.
2) The Milky Way
Technically, anytime you look up at the night sky, you’re seeing the Milky Way—it’s the galaxy that contains our solar system, so the stars and planets we see at night are all part of it. When people talk about seeing the Milky Way, they’re typically referring to its Galactic Center, which is just as cool as it sounds: the rotational core of the galaxy, which is surrounded by gas, dust, and stars. This makes for a dramatic-looking belt of space objects, and it’s best spotted in the Northern Hemisphere between March and September (in other words, prime season for rafting many of the best rivers in the world). You don’t need any special astronomical skills to spot it, just clear weather, minimal light pollution, and ideally a new moon.
3) Meteor Showers
It can be tricky to spot stationary objects, but meteor showers take the guesswork out of stargazing—if the thing you’re looking at is streaming across the night sky, you’re in the right place. Meteor showers look like an astronomical wonder, but in space terms, they’re quite common. Every day, around 30 tons of debris (dust particles, rocks, pieces of ice) enter the Earth’s atmosphere, often at speeds of more than 20,000 miles per hour, which causes them to burn up. When the Earth hurtles through a dust field from asteroids or comets, we get more intense meteor showers, like the ones we see every year. You might be lucky enough to spot a “shooting star” anytime, but on a raft trip in July or August, you can spot the Perseids, and late-season (October) trips have a shot at seeing the Orionids.
4) Summer Constellations
River folks are known for swapping great stories, often with a flair for the dramatic. For that reason, constellations are an essential part of any raft trip: the stories behind the configurations of stars in the night sky are by turns epic, tragic, and deeply romantic. In other words, perfect for telling around a campfire. Ursa Major, referenced in works dating back to Homer’s time—and, in Greek mythology, a lover of Zeus’ transformed into a bear by his jealous wife—can be spotted using its asterism (astronomy-speak for a prominent group of stars), the easy-to-find Big Dipper. There’s also Cassiopeia, a prominent “W” shape comprised of eight named stars, whose namesake is a vain mythological queen punished by one of Poseidon’s sea monsters.
Not everything we see in space got there on its own—humans have made leaps and bounds when it comes to launching technology into space, and with a little luck and preparation, we can often spot them without telescopes or binoculars. The best known satellite is the International Space Station, launched in 1998, which is about the size of a football field. Its solar panels are so reflective that they can be seen from just about anywhere on the planet, particularly on a dark night in a zone free of light pollution. The best time to spot any satellite is when the sun is just a few degrees below the horizon, so dusk and dawn are your best bets.