An astrophotographer dozes among his equipment at Cherry Springs State Park in Pennsylvania after shooting deep-sky objects all night. (Photo: BayJournal.com)

No sooner had the sun set than a mass of white, like exploding clouds, rose over the evergreen trees. They weren’t clouds, of course, but stars, gas and space dust that collectively appear as translucent white to our eyes. Think 400 billion stars or so, according to reporting by BayJournal.com, the website for the Chesapeake Bay Journal in Mayo, Md.

Even though temperatures had fallen into the 20s, about 100 people, many of them families, made their way into the Night Sky Public Viewing Area, fashioned from the old unpaved runway. They sat in portable chairs cocooned in blankets or lay flat on the ground wrapped in sleeping bags. All had their eyes toward the sky.

Shouts of glee perforated the chilly night air. “I just saw one!” a woman squealed at the sight of a meteor. “Oh, look at the Big Dipper!” said another. I looked and the dipper was upside down, seemingly pouring stars into the night sky. I had never seen the constellation so enormous.

“In most cases, they’ve seen the moon and a bright star or two and that’s it. They see the Milky Way and go crazy,” said Curt Weinhold, a photographer from nearby Coudersport who gives dark-sky photography lessons.

The only artificial light came from the occasional glow of a red-filtered flashlight or lantern. White light is banned in the field because it can compromise a person’s night vision for up to 15 minutes. Great mounds of dirt have been placed beside the parking lot to keep headlights from spoiling the star party. Even the bulbs in the restroom are red.

One knot of stargazers represented about 18 members of a Philadelphia outdoors group called It’s Better Outdoors. “This makes you realize how small we are and how big the universe is,” a woman from the group said, briefly interrupting her focus on the sky. “We’re just a speck of time.”

For much of its existence, Cherry Springs was one of the least-used state parks in Pennsylvania. It had no trails, few trees and only a primitive campground.

“Beyond the Woodsmen Show, which draws 6,000 to 8,000 people in August, it was not an exciting place to be,” said park manager Scott Morgan.

Then, one weekend in the mid-1990s, former park manager Chip Harrison was driving home from visiting his mother and spied someone with weird equipment camping in one of the fields.

The man said he was looking for a dark sky so his telescope could view otherwise hidden wonders. Intrigued, Harrison met again with the man, who produced a light pollution map showing a dark blob in northcentral Pennsylvania. Cherry Springs was right in the middle.

Harrison, who had been seeking a way to bring more people to the area, took the stargazing ball and ran with it.

See the complete BayJournal.com report here.