The orange setting sun glimmered through the trees behind the pavilion at Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park last Saturday.
But instead of directing exiting visitors back out to Golden Hill Road, Ranger Mike Fray instead welcomed the new arrivals carrying blankets, chairs and water bottles, and pointed toward the freshly lit fire ring where rangers Joanna Trojanowski and Collin Higgins waited to greet them.
While a few grownups had brought youngsters, a variety of ages were represented, eager to embark on the park's inaugural “After Dark Night Sky” adventure.
The free program featured a unique way to explore a key element in Harriet Tubman's history, how the stars helped guide her and those she returned to rescue to freedom and safety, often under cover of night.
While daylight still lingered, but with the fireplace providing welcome warmth, attendees heard Ranger Joanna describe the formative first 27 years of Tubman's life, enslaved in Dorchester County.
The park, she explained, was located within the landscape she knew well, in the middle between where she was born and Brodass Farms, where she labored.
"If Ms. Tubman were here today, she would recognize this spot," she said.
When her owner died and left his widow with debts to pay, Tubman caught wind of the idea that she might be sold further South, lending added urgency to the need to escape, Trojanowski explained.
As slaves weren't taught to read, written tools like maps wouldn't help locate the path to freedom, even if available. But under cover of night the stars could, and did, provide a vital means of celestial navigation, she said. The North Star, also called Polaris, could be spotted by first locating the Big Dipper constellation, known by slaves as the Drinking Gourd, then looking for the brightest star in the nearby Little Dipper.
Relying on the stars helped Tubman lead 70 passengers on 13 missions to freedom along the proverbial route of the Underground Railroad, she added.
Waiting for nightfall and hoping for a break in the cloud cover, participants were invited to make their own constellation viewing boxes before making a s'mores snack by the fire.
When darkness descended, clouds continued to block the hoped-for overhead constellation search. But Ranger Collin came prepared with a backup plan, a screen displaying numerous constellations and stars via the Sky Guide App.
Higgins recommended the free app, available to download on Google Play, as a go-to resource for finding your way amid the masses of stars making up the night sky.
Following up on Ranger Joanna's focus on the North Star, Higgins delved into Polaris' characteristics and importance, noting that unlike other stars that travel throughout the sky overnight, it remains in a fixed position, located close to the North Pole.
But he debunked the commonly held notion that it is the brightest star in the sky, citing its official ranking as the 48th brightest some 433 light years away. He also detailed numerous other notably luminous stars, planets and constellations.
The program came to a close with each ranger sharing a fireside story from Greek mythology based on a variety of constellations, as another round of s'mores was enjoyed.
Ranger Joanna, the Park After Dark program coordinator, is looking forward to hosting another event in the spring, when warmer temperatures and clearer skies might prevail. But those attending seemed to not mind the chill or the clouds.