Beneath an inky black sky glittering with stars, my son Quinn and I cuddled down on a blanket, digging our toes into white sand so soft it felt like sugar. We were camping on the beach of Nebraska's Merritt Reservoir. The remote location makes it a perfect spot for stargazing. It's said the stars shine so bright in Merritt's pitch-black sky that the Milky Way casts a shadow. When you stare into a sky like that, you wonder if Henry David Thoreau was onto something when he said, "I have been looking through the stars to see if I couldn't see God behind them."
At the time, I was woefully unprepared to stargaze with my child. It was without a doubt a special moment, but pointing out the Big Dipper, I must confess, pretty much exhausted my knowledge of the cosmos. It's not that hard to brush up a bit to enhance your astro-gazing experience. After my daughter's preschool class studied the constellations, she taught me how to find Orion. Here are some tips for successful stargazing.
Practice the dark arts: The best time for stargazing is on a clear, cloudless night during the new moon (the phase when the moon is completely dark). You also want to be miles from the glow of city lights. By design, campsites are located away from light-emitting urban centers, making a camping trip the perfect time to scan the heavens.
Use binoculars: Binoculars are a great tool for budding astronomers. For starters, you probably already have a pair. Binoculars are easy to hold, require no assembly, provide a nice wide view of the skies, and are less expensive than telescopes. Use binoculars to scan Orion's scabbard for the Orion Nebula, a giant cloud of gas where stars are born.
Wish upon a star: Look for shooting stars, known to astronomers as meteors, which are really bits of space detritus, like rocks and ice, that burn up as they enter the Earth's atmosphere.
Know before you go: Before the sun sets, study the constellations with your kids and tell them the stories behind the pictures in the sky. "A Child's Introduction to the Night Sky" by Michael Driscoll has a glow-in-the-dark star finder, illustrated pictures of constellations, and accompanying stories. It's more fun to find Orion when you've seen the dots connected on paper and heard the hunter's mythology. Orion was forever having girl trouble -- Artemis, Merope, Pleione. As retribution for one offense or another against goddess or nymph (depends on the story), a scorpion stings Orion, who ultimately succumbs to its poisonous venom. Regaling kids with tales of ancient mythology can make the constellations come to life.
Start big: The Big Dipper, which appears in the constellation Ursa Major, or Big Bear, is one of the easiest to spot in the summer sky. Nearby is Ursa Minor, also called Little Bear or the Little Dipper. The end of the Little Dipper's handle is Polaris, the North Star. So, if you are facing the North Star, you know you are facing north.
Look for planets: Often called the morning or evening star, Venus can be spotted on the western horizon shortly after sunset, or the eastern horizon shortly before sunrise. It's the brightest orb of light in the sky. Mars is also easiest to spot just after sunset. The red planet is identifiable by its rust-colored glow. And Saturn is a golden pinpoint of light you can see with the naked eye. Planets, however, can be difficult to spot. Orbiting the Earth on their own prescribed paths, planets appear to roam among the constellations throughout the year. And at times they are obscured by the sun. One way to confirm you've spotted a planet and not a star is to watch for flickering light. Planets don't twinkle the way stars do.
Map it out: The night sky looks different depending on the season. Use star charts to know what to look for in winter, spring, summer, and fall. Orion can be seen in the winter sky; the Hunter constellation sets in spring, as Scorpius (not coincidentally, the source of Orion's demise) rises on the horizon of the night sky. At www.kidsastronomy.com, you can print out a star map for the month of your trip to help you locate constellations and planets. The interactive sky map at www.skyandtelescope.com allows you to view star maps for specific dates and hours of viewing.
Gaze high-tech: Download iPhone apps like Star Walk, Pocket Universe, and SkySafari. These mobile tools use your phone's Global Positioning System (GPS) to bring up the night sky and label the view. Tap on a star, and the constellation appears on the screen. A dim red light lets you preserve your night vision. These apps also keep you posted on what's happening in the sky on any given night. If you own a Droid phone, try Google Sky Map, which uses the phone's compass and GPS to pinpoint your location. Point the phone at the sky, and it will identify the view in real time.
Spot big brother: As you gaze skyward, you might notice a star that appears to move slowly but determinedly across the sky. It could be an alien spacecraft, but more likely it's a satellite. Hundreds of satellites orbit the Earth, including the International Space Station (ISS), which is so large it shines brighter than Venus. Before you leave on a camping trip, plug the zip code where you'll be camping into www.spaceweather.com/flybys to see times and directions for viewing different satellites, including the ISS.
Wildlife watching: There is a wonderful sense of discovery in seeing a deer pad right through your campsite. You don't get the same thrill when you walk on a paved path at the zoo, peering into small cages while munching on Dippin' Dots. Seeing creatures in the wild helps connect kids to the natural world. It gives them a context for understanding and appreciating animal life.
Of course, the nature of nature is that animals won't always be conveniently nearby. So pack binoculars to see a bald eagle soaring high overhead or a mountain goat scrambling up a rock face across the valley. Have an animal guidebook on hand to identify local species and learn about the animals you're seeing.
Many state and national parks provide animal checklists for kids, which make a fun game out of wildlife spotting. Kids are easily gratified by checking items off a list. In fact, some will go to great lengths to complete the task. During our Yellowstone trip, the animal checklist included the usual -- bear, bison, deer, squirrel -- but also the elusive wolf. One morning, Aidan woke up and insisted he'd seen a wolf out the window of the Old Faithful Lodge in the middle of the night. Despite the protests from his siblings, he checked "wolf" off his list.
Excerpted from "The Down and Dirty Guide to Camping With Kids," by Helen Olsson, (c) 2012. Published by arrangement with Roost Books, an imprint of Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston. www.RoostBooks.com.