Survived the Black Forest Star Party? To some extent, the expression does apply. So read on and I will describe my first Black Forest Star Party in a daily log or dairy style.
What; the price of gas has actually dropped before I am going on a long trip? You know how that goes, so I filled up today before it changes. For a couple of weeks I have been slowly condensing my stuff to take on the trip, and I started loading my van last night.
So today I finished except for my travel and clothes bags, and checked the items off my packing list. Dave Snyder is riding out with me, so I picked him up so we could both visit our banks, and get lunch at the Chinese Buffet. Dave and I visited the bookstore at the end of the shopping center and bought a Pennsylvania road map and one of those very detailed gazetteers. I dropped Dave off and returned home. Nothing to do now but wait, and try not to stay up too late.
I awoke about 6:30 am and brewed some coffee. I loaded my travel bag in the van, ran down my checklist one more time, and secured the house. After my shower, and the caffeine doing its thing, I was feeling ready to go. Just before I walked out the door, a light rain began. Now let’s not let that be an omen, or was it? I have struggled to permanently repair a leak I have in the back area of my van, so I made sure my “Lowbrow Funnel” was in place. Amazing what one can do with a tarp and a bucket. I got ahead of the rain as I drove to Dave’s condo, but of course it started again as soon as I lifted the rear hatch. We loaded Dave’s stuff, and we had liftoff at the 7:45 am mark.
It rained all the way down to Toledo. Traffic started to back up just south of the Ohio border due to some construction ahead. I diverted onto Alexis Road with the intent to drive straight across the north end of Toledo, and get on I-75 southbound. The flaw in the plan was that the southbound entrance was closed due to construction. So we had to go north on I-75 back to Michigan. Now this trip is headed the wrong direction, literally. So we get turned around a few miles later and re-enter the state of Ohio. Before we can get from I-75 to southbound I-280, we are diverted into downtown Toledo due to new bridge construction. We were very happy to finally see the Ohio Turnpike and get headed eastbound. As I suspected from checking radar this morning, we got ahead of the rain. However if we stopped for a pit stop for ten minutes, it would start to catch back up with us.
The miles seemed to pass quickly, and the next thing we know, Dave and I are seeing the Pennsylvania border. The scenery continued to get better as we headed into the Allegheny Mountains. Once off the expressway, the trip took on a much different nature. Time seemed to stretch out, the miles went by slower, but the scenery made me not mind too much.
We arrived at Cherry Springs State Park at 4:30 pm. Alas, I have arrived at the location I have heard so much about the last few years, and I was really happy to finally see it. It was not too difficult to locate “Camp Lowbrow,” and our assortment of “invaders from Michigan.” I wasted little time in getting my tent and scopes set up. Dave had the luxury of borrowing a tent from Mark Deprest, which was already set up for him. I had about an hour or so to relax before the sun started to set.
Though there was much humidity in the air, the sky was clearing up. Could it be that we will be observing on my first night there? True it was, and it got very dark. My Telrad dewed very shortly after sunset, so I plugged in a dew heater. The transparency was never good, but varied over the sky and changed over time. The great rift of the Milky Way was very apparent, and the area around Cygnus was magnificent. I started with my 12” Orion Intelliscope Dobsonian by picking off the eye candy objects in Scorpius and Sagittarius. Most of the objects were somewhat subdued due to the amount of water vapor in the air. The atmosphere was better up around M11, and the Wild Duck cluster was a beautiful site in my 17mm Nagler. This was one of the best views of this cluster I have ever seen. That reminded me of the best view I ever had of the Veil Nebula, which occurred at the old SMURFS site west of Alpena, Michigan. So, I had to check out the Veil. The view did not compare well, but I had to consider the sky condition I was working with. I found M13 to be particularly impressive, and even more so the little galaxy that resides next to it. This was one of the best views I have experienced with that galaxy, and it was very easy to spot. I got a mediocre view of M27, but M71, which is in the same general vicinity, was very nice. I moved over to M57, T-Lyra, and did some sweeping along the Cygnus and Aquila milky way. About then the sky seriously deteriorated, and about 2.5 hours or so into our night, we were pretty much done in by clouds. I folded around 2 am.
I awoke around 7:30 am. I noticed the air was very saturated as I walked to the bathroom and then to the food tent to get some coffee. I just sat down at a covered picnic table, and the rain began. It quickly turned from moderate to very hard rain, which continued for nearly an hour. I waited it out and returned to camp to find some more soggy Lowbrows had arisen. I discovered some water in my new tent, which did not please me at all. At least my van does not have a sunroof that could have been left open, but Doug Scobel was not so fortunate. I will not get into the horrible details. I did check on the performance of the “Lowbrow Funnel” and was pleased with the job it was doing. Too bad that I needed it.
I got something to eat at the 24 hour food tent and visited the vendor tents. I bought a pocket sky atlas, and allowed Howie Glatter to take a donation in exchange for a barlowed laser collimator. A large 40 mm eyepiece caught my eye at the Burgess table, but I did not let instinct take over, for now.
I returned to Camp Lowbrow and asked if anyone was interested in visiting Pine Creek Canyon which is about 30 to 45 minutes east of Cherry Springs. The only taker was Dave, so we promptly got in my van and took off. The last part of the trip was somewhat frustrating because we discovered that distance is measured and printed on road signs in some way which we could not identify. We also found that road signs could be a fair distance from the object or turn that it displays, or it could be right at the object or turn. If you miss a turn in this country it could be several miles later before you can get turned around. This is wild and mountainous country, and roads are narrow, constantly turning, and going up or down hill. But once there Dave and I were very impressed with the canyon. It is called the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania, and it lives up to its name. We took several pictures along a walkway that if stepped off, will let you fall almost straight down about 700 feet. Fortunately we refrained from doing that. I definitely want to explore this area some more on a future trip, and take the trail to the bottom of the canyon, where a waterfall resides.
Dave and I returned to Camp Lowbrow shortly before Mark Deprest’s presentation of his famous Jambalaya. I tried and thoroughly enjoyed both versions that Mark prepared, and I thank him very much for a fine supper. Soon the sun would set under mostly cloudy skies, but I said “mostly” cloudy. We actually started some keyhole astronomy, compliments of Yasu’s fine shooting down of Messier objects with his 70 mm binoculars. He was a man possessed, and we defiantly observed despite the conditions. I think I was the first to notice some faint flashing activity to the north, and eventually someone confirmed that I was not hallucinating. It was lightening, and it was getting worse. The evening continued with us still taking advantage of sucker holes. I even fired up my Orion 80 ED refractor for about 20 minutes. Eventually our lightening observations overpowered our astronomical observations, and then it got worse. Our hosts, the Central Pennsylvania Observers, announced on the PA system that a tornado was confirmed in the county to our immediate west, and it was headed our direction. Now things were getting exciting. Many that know me know that I have a talent for sharing space with funnel clouds. Many people were leaving the site in their cars. A couple of club members wondered if we should leave, but I pointed out that we probably had less chance of encountering the tornado by staying in one location. So we continued to get blinded by ground strikes, which were now all around us. Just when it looked like we were going to get seriously spanked by Mother Nature, things started to calm down. One storm passed to our north, another to the south, but we remained dry. I think I retired around 1 am.
I emerged from my tent to greet the finest view of the Lagoon Nebula I have ever seen. It’s as if I were actually in it; or could it just be fog? Yep, it was fog. Some fellow Lowbrows confirmed it. I got some experience driving in the mountains in the fog as Dave and I headed for another state park south of us where pay showers were available. I believe there were some fine vistas to behold along the way, but with the fog it was like staring into a white sea. The fog turned to a light mist in areas on the return trip, as it was until some time in the afternoon. Finally things began to dry out a little, but the forecast for the night looked dismal.
I ran into Nate Murphy at the vender tents and discovered that he was about to pick up the TMB Paragon 40mm 2” eyepiece that he has so patiently been waiting for. Oh darn, it happened to be the eyepiece that caught my eye the day before, and Mr. Burgess had a couple more in stock. I am pleased to report that I have since tried it in my 12” F/4.9 reflector, and my 80 mm F/7.5 refractor, and I am very impressed. Too bad that test did not occur the night after I bought it. We congregated at the presentation area to hear Mark’s talk, which of course he performed in his usual excellent fashion. The keynote speaker was Sue French, and she did an excellent job. Other than having some trouble with the laptop remote control, she was very smooth. Her talk title was “Obscure Sights for Black Forest Nights,” which she changed to “Obscured” sights to match the weather prediction. I got a few minutes to talk to her before her presentation and of course asked her to contact us if she was ever in Michigan. Dave and I also spoke with her for a while after her talk and of course bought her book which she autographed. If you get an impression of her personality from the way she writes, it is most likely very accurate. She sounds and acts just like she writes.
The Lowbrows had great success at the door prize drawing! Mark won a Coronado PST (perhaps the grand prize), Doug won a Meade Deep Sky Imager Pro, and Yasu won a Moonlight Newtonian focuser. Way to go guys, but darn it Mark; I put a lot of tickets in that Coronado can! Before and right after the drawing several Lowbrows pulled camp and headed home, leaving only half of us (10 or 11) still there by Sunday morning. As it turns out that may have been a wise decision on the part of the escapees. It never cleared at all Saturday night, but eventually some Lowbrows did see stars. We took Yasu and Yumi’s planetarium to a covered pavilion and watched stars on the inside of the roof. It was far better than standing in the misty rain that had started once again. At times the mist was so thick that it was very hard to see anything in front of you, with or without a light. In fact, at one point I even had a short conversation with Mike Radwick, until I discovered that Mike was really our electrical outlet post, which upon further observation did not resemble Mike much at all. Unfortunately there were witnesses to that event, so you can imagine the comments I heard. We finished the evening talking around a candle under Yasu and Yumi’s canopy.
Yes! I awoke before 6:00 am to light rain and wind. Gosh, how I hate pulling camp wet. Though the rain stopped just after I walked outside, I had a feeling that waiting around for things to dry out a bit was probably futile. So Dave and I packed up, and just after I adjusted the “Lowbrow Funnel,” the real rain started! Yasu, Yumi, Dave, and I were trapped under their canopy just a few feet from my van as the rain came down in torrents. Eventually it let up and Dave and I said farewell to Yasu and Yumi, who were now the only Lowbrows left on the scene. Jason decided to caravan behind us for the return trip. It rained continuously through Pennsylvania, only the intensity varied. Due to yet another very short notice road sign, Jason and I almost tangled cars in an attempt to avoid getting run over by a truck at the entrance to I-80. It rained through at least half of Ohio, only lighter. Dave, Jason and I stopped and talked at some length a couple of times, so the trip back was extended. Somewhere along the turnpike I declared to Dave that I was dropping him off, and continuing on to the southwest desert, unless he wanted me just to make the left turn with him. I had really had it with the rain! I got home just before dark and started unloading. I was really exhausted!
Was It Worth It? From an astronomy point of view, it was a near complete disaster. The worst weather for this star party in its history and camping in the rain can be quite unpleasant. Did the influx of rookie Lowbrows jinx it? I discovered that this was Sue French’s first BFSP also, so I though it would be convenient to blame her. Am I sorry I went? Absolutely not! Any time spent with our club members is time well spent. The scenery in the area and much of the trip there is very beautiful, and I was very impressed with the “Grand Canyon.” I met some new people, and spent time with some that I got to know a little better. There was no cell phone, no TV, no E-mail; even a radio station was not easy to obtain. I needed to drop off the grid for a while, and this trip certainly fulfilled that. It was at times very relaxing, yet at others very stressful. But it was a different reality, and I needed that. Will I return? You bet! Probably next year. The best way to answer an incomplete mission is to do it again. Learn from the experience and do it better next time. In this case however, I mostly need a better performance from the weather gods.
The photos on this page were taken by Dave Snyder, Yasuharu Inugi, Doug Scobel and Nathan Murphy. All were taken during the 2006 Black Forest Star Party.
More Photos from the Black Forest Star Party.