The days leading up to the winter solstice may induce dread in people who dislike long nights of darkness. But in northern Minnesota’s Cook County, it’s a new cause for celebration.

Tourism marketers are launching the Arrowhead’s first Dark Sky Festival on Dec. 14 and 15. Organizers are touting it as a chance to draw people to the North Shore for place-based learning and fun.

They started to promote the area’s dark skies a couple of years ago after realizing it was an asset that most of the country doesn’t enjoy. Maps of light pollution show the Arrowhead region among the darkest areas in the country, especially east of the Mississippi River. Plus, northern Minnesota has been ranked by various groups as one of the best places to see northern lights in the Lower 48.

It makes Cook County a great place for people to learn about the history and value of dark skies, said Joel Halvorson, a faculty administrator with the Physics & Astronomy Department at the University of Minnesota Duluth, which is bringing a portable planetarium to the festival.

“When you’re in a place like that and you bring the tools to bear on the learning experience, it just has, I feel, a more profound effect,” Halvorson said.

The festival starts at 5 p.m. Dec. 14 at Voyageur Brewing Co., where the traveling planetarium’s GeoDome will be set up in the brewing area. Halvorson will talk about the cosmos, dark matter and the 50th anniversary of the Earthrise photo, an image of the Earth from space in 1968. If the weather is clear, people can use telescopes set up outside to look at planets and stars during the Geminids meteor shower.

On Dec. 15, the GeoDome will open again after a 5 p.m. talk by Travis Novitsky and Bryan Hansel, two photographers who roam northern Minnesota to shoot night sky images. They’ll share their photographs and give tips for capturing stars and northern lights at North House Folk School.

After their presentation, James Rock, planetarium program director at UMD, will talk about the night sky’s significance in indigenous cultures.

A wonder shared around the world

Before artificial light brightened the world, the night sky was everyone’s evening entertainment, and the stars and planets held spiritual meaning, Halvorson said.

“We’re only separated by that experience by a few generations,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what portion of the planet your family hails from. We all have that in common.”

Kjersti Vick, Visit Cook County’s marketing manager, said tourism officials have seen an uptick in interest in night-sky viewing the past few years; one family planned a trip around using a new telescope, and a map of good northern lights viewing points is being downloaded more by potential tourists.

Organizers decided to hold the Dark Sky Festival in mid-December because it’s a time of year when there’s “more room for growth in tourism” in the area, Vick said, and because the long nights of darkness provide ample opportunity for star gazing.

While the cold will make it more difficult to stand outside, “you have more nighttime that you’re awake for,” Vick said. “It’s a great opportunity for families to come out and see the stars with their kids ... without having to mess up their sleep schedules.”

Not all events will involve serious learning, though. The Wunderbar Eatery & Glampground in Grand Marais will host a stars and space movie marathon starting at 9 p.m. Dec. 15. People are welcome to wear pajamas to watch some classics, including “Twilight Zone: The Movie,” Vick said.

“We wanted that beautiful marriage between education and something that is fun and playful and easily digestible by the public,” she said.