If you want to wish upon a falling star, there are several key periods every year you can do so, especially late July through almost the end of August. Every year around then, the Perseids meteor shower graces the night’s northern sky, captivating stargazers, astronomy enthusiasts and falling star wishers around the world. Named after the Perseus constellation they appear to radiate from, this celestial spectacle offers a remarkable opportunity to witness nature’s own dazzling light show, especially at Harriet Tubman State Park’s Park After Dark program.
The swift streaks of light that dart across our northern skies from their namesake constellation from late July through most of August are best viewed in rural areas, where the skies are darkest. Thus, in mid-August, we headed to Harriet Tubman State Park, with bug spray, snacks and comfortable chairs to enjoy the Perseids. We also enjoyed using several night-sky apps to help identify stars and constellations , including Go Night Watch and Stellarium — our very own planetarium in our hands!
A Little Astronomy Lesson
Meteors are created when meteroids — tiny cometary fragments, bits of metal and stone — become incandescent as they plumet through the Earth’s atmosphere. Most meteors last only for fractions of a second. And that’s because most of these cometary crumbles are no larger than a pea or small pebble.
Discovered in mid-July 1862 by Americans Lewis Swift and Horace Tuttle, the beautiful, newly observed comet captured sky-watchers attention, high in the northern sky. During the last week of August that year, the Swift-Tuttle Comet was at its best, shining brightly and displaying a long bright tail.
Astronomers soon realized the Swift-Tuttle Comet’s orbit was similar to the orbit of the Perseid meteors. An Italian astronomer theorized that the comet discarded tiny fragments that produce the Perseids as it swept through the inner solar system.
Although the comet wasn’t discovered until the mid1800s, humans have observed the Perseids since 36 CE. As Earth passes through the debris left behind by the Swift-Tuttle comet, observers are treated to a breathtaking display of shooting stars streaking across the heavens.
Harriet Tubman and the Night Sky
Many former slaves, including Harriet Tubman, used the celestial gourd, or dipper, to guide them on their journey north. In fact, many slave narratives and songs refer to the Big Dipper and the North Star. But Tubman also would have been familiar with the Perseids and other annual meteor showers. The Perseids, of course, signaling the beginning of the end of summer. Unlike for most of us, for whom it’s a rarity to see the Milky Way and even more than a few of the brightest stars and planets, Tubman would have know the seasons of the night sky.
Notably, Harriet Tubman once mentioned the Leonids, an annual meteror shower that tends to arrive in October. In November 1833, she described the Leonids as “the night the stars fell.”
Prior to the Civil War, Harriet Tubman, the best known conductor of the Underground Railroad, roused many enslaved people in Maryland to seek freedom in the north. Traveling under cover of night often offered the best chances of escaping. However, most freedom seekers did not have maps or compasses to guide them. Without these tools, a freedom seeker’s ability to successfully navigate to a safe house, railroad station or through the woods was a matter of life or death.
What to Expect at Park After Dark
We arrived before dark to set up and make ourselves comfortable, offering ourselves as a bountiful buffet for the plentiful blood-sucking insects in the park. The sunset was beautiful, and that was almost as good as seeing meteors.
During the program, the rangers offer a variety of kid-friendly, fun activities, from space bingo to making s’mores around a roaring camp fire. They offered crafts and a night-walk through the Legacy Garden. None of this is mandatory: we just sat watching and enjoying the night sky.
They also offered a Park After Dark bucket list, which included:
- Find the North Star
- Observe a constellation
- See a shooting star (meteor)
- Look at the Milky Way
- See a satellite zoom across the sky
- Find a plane as it travels through the darkness
- Locate a planet in the night sky
- Take a night walk through the Legacy Garden
- Hear a nocturnal animal, such as an owl
- Enjoy the warmth of a campfire
We found the North Star, despite light clouds, especially toward the north. With the help of the night sky apps, we found multiple constellations, and despite the light clouds and light pollution from nearby Cambridge and the park itself, we identified the Milky Way. We also identified stars Vega and Arcturus and probably Saturn. In addition, we saw multiple meteors, one lasting for several seconds.
We also saw innumerable planes, blinking as they traveled above us, and much much smaller, almost requiring concentration to see, we noticed tiny (to us) satellites zooming amongst the stars.
We weren’t lucky enough to hear the hoot of an owl or the yips or screams of a red fox. But we did hear the low throbbing of a bull frog.
Know Before You Go
Please bring your own blanket or chair to view the Perseids comfortable. In fact, we brought both, including a small pillow to make lying on the ground more pleasant. And absolutely, bring bug spray! We made a bit of a party of it, enjoying snacks while we watched the night spectacular.
The Harriet Tubman Visitor Center and State Park is a combined Federal and Maryland state park. The 17-acre Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park and Visitor Center allows you to experience Tubman’s world through exhibits that explain Tubman’s childhood in the region around the Choptank River and her legacy as a leader, liberator, humanitarian and American hero.
The park, which sits on the trailhead for the 125‐mile Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway (an All American Road) also provides an orientation to Tubman and Underground Railroad heritage sites and programs within the county and region. The park and the adjacent Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge visitor centers are physically and intellectually linked to one another through programming, multi-use trails and roads.
Did you miss the Perseids in August? Don’t worry! The Leonids occur in November!
Getting there: 4068 Golden Hill Road Church Creek, MD
Hours: The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center is open 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Tuesday – Sunday. Check the state park website below for upcoming Park After Dark programs.
Websites: Harriet Tubman Visitor Center and Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park
Interested in visiting the sites important to other Black and African American heroes? Be sure to read about these daytrip destinations:
- Booker T Washington National Monument
- Bucktown General Store (Harriet Tubman)
- Frederick Douglass Driving Tour
- Frederick Douglass House
- Harriet Tubman gravesite
- Harriet Tubman National Historic Park
- Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center
- Josiah Henson Museum
- Sojourner Truth Driving Tour
- Sojourner Truth Interpretive Hike
- William Still / Underground Railroad