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Night seems to fall first in the forest, where the trees swallow whatever's left of the daylight.

At the end of Owl's Court Lane, overlooking Muskoka's Lake of Bays, Peter Goering's cottage sits in just such a place, under fragrant towers of pine, hemlock, maple and oak.

It's a hard place to find in the dark, but if Mr. Goering invites you inside and leads you up, then up again to his small deck outside, there's plenty to see if you know where to look.

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"That's Vega," he says, pointing to the brightest star in what astronomers call the Summer Triangle, along with Deneb and Altair. They are but three among millions that drip from the sky on a clear night in cottage country.

In time, after eons, Vega will become the new North Star, he says. For the moment, and as the anniversary of the big blackout passes today, Mr. Goering will focus his eyes on what's there now, and his efforts on preserving the view for the rest of us.

In less than a decade, Mr. Goering has parlayed a part-time astronomy hobby into a passion for enlightening others about the value of darkness, as part of the burgeoning dark-sky movement.

Along the way, he has managed to win converts to the idea that turning lights off, or installing ones that don't pollute the night sky, is a good thing not only for stargazers like him, but for the physical and cultural health of all.

"It's quite extraordinary, what's happened," Mr. Goering, a 74-year-old retired architect from Toronto, said as he reclined in the small, loft-style study of his cottage.

"The thing sort of evolved on its own."

By the time he joined Toronto's Royal Astronomical Society in the 1970s, Mr. Goering had long enjoyed Muskoka's starry nights as a cottager.

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His parents bought and built on Lake of Bays in 1952.

His interest in the skies deepened through his work as an architect, which took him, for a time, to the Arctic to design housing for Inuit.

He spent long winter weeks during what the Inuit call "the great darkness," and then was awestruck by spring.

"I noticed everything was different," he said.

"The light's so powerful in the early spring, I had to wear two pairs of dark glasses."

In the early 1990s, he caught on to the importance of night-sky preservation when astronomers near Tucson, Ariz., claimed that the electric glow from the expanding city was obscuring their view of the cosmos.

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The term "light pollution" was born, and Mr. Goering joined the fledgling International Dark Sky Association.

"The whole idea was to get people to do something," he said, since researchers found that 35 per cent of the light from conventional street lamps shines upward, not only blocking the view, but wasting energy.

This gave dark-sky advocates a powerful economic argument to take to Tucson's municipal leaders, who learned that better-designed lights that confine their beams downward could save them money.

Since then, Mr. Goering and others around the world have been making the same case.

In cottage country, he won the support of the Muskoka Heritage Foundation, local councillors and the influential Muskoka Lakes Association cottagers group. In 1998, he seized an opportunity that would draw international media attention.

The Ontario government had gone to the public with its Lands for Life program, looking for ideas on how best to use undeveloped Crown land across the province. That's when Mr. Goering stepped forward.

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"I said that, because of light pollution, we may have to have a park where you can go and see the stars," he said.

"As soon as I said that, a whole bunch of people came up and said, 'What an interesting idea.' "

A year later, the Torrance Barrens Dark Sky Reserve was born, on 1,990 hectares of granite and greenery in south Muskoka, near Bala. The first of its kind in Canada and one of the few anywhere, it prompted calls from reporters around the world.

"It really took off," he said. "We had absolutely no idea that it was going to be of any interest."

The momentum kept Mr. Goering scanning the horizon for new angles, new perspectives on an issue that had clearly found a footing.

He learned about the disruptive effects of light pollution on the health of plants and people, and the cultural importance of darkness, particularly among aboriginal people.

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And last September, after 18 months of planning, he helped host an international Ecology of the Night symposium at the Leslie M. Frost Centre near Haliburton, which now has been closed.

The event came on the heels of the Aug. 14 blackout, which, disruptive as it was, rewarded millions of urban dwellers with a clear view of the stars, and an unforeseen side benefit: a close and calm camaraderie under cover of night.

"It was a wonderful experience," he said, recalling a party he and his wife attended with friends in Toronto that night. "Because there was some magic about it, that was the nice thing about it, because it wasn't a fearful thing."

Organizers hope to recapture some of that feeling at the Muskoka Star Party tonight, clear skies permitting. Events are planned for Torrance Barrens and two other Muskoka sites, while cottagers are being encouraged to turn off their lights and invite the neighbours over to scan the sky for shooting stars.

When he trains his eyes on the ground these days, Mr. Goering likes what he sees, especially in Muskoka, where a growing number of businesses, homeowners and cottagers are embracing the movement.

"There's beginning to be an awareness at the grassroots level," he says. "We're known for this, so we should build on it."

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areinhart@globeandmail.ca

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