That’s a question I’ve heard more than once. The suggested reasoning is why drive all day (or longer) and many hundreds of miles away to observe under dark skies when we have just as dark if not darker skies within our own state borders, even in Michigan’s lower peninsula? Now if you go to a star party just for the observing then I would be inclined to agree—you might as well stay in our own Michigan “backyard” and save a lot of time and money spent on gasoline. But for me there’s far more than just dark skies that make star parties an irresistible draw.
For the past several years, ever since Bobby and Joni first attended it in the year 2000, several of us have been making the trek to the annual Black Forest Star Party. The Black Forest Star Party is held at Cherry Springs State Park, in Potter County, Pennsylvania. It’s in a remote area north of Penn State University, in the Allegheny Mountains not far from the New York border. It’s about a 400-mile drive from Ann Arbor that can be comfortably done in about eight hours or so. It is usually held late August or early September, depending on the weekend closest to new moon. Attendance is restricted to 450-475 registrants. And guess what—just about every one of them is just as obsessed with astronomy as you are! You instantly have something in common. Moreover, there are telescopes galore, many commercially made, others home made. Have a question about one? I have never seen a scope owner who doesn’t like talking about one of his or her most prized possessions.
The same can be said about other star parties I’ve attended. In 1998, I went to the Texas Star Party, held at The Prude Ranch in Fort Davis, Texas, and last fall I attended the Okie-Tex Star Party, at Camp Billie-Joe, in Kenton, Oklahoma. Besides attracting hundreds of attendees, at these major events you may meet some folks you’re not too likely to meet otherwise. Like at Texas Star Party I was observing two scopes down from famed astrophotographers Tony and Daphne Hallas. At Okie-Tex last year, we met renowned visual observer Barbara Wilson, and we were camped right next to Jim Lawrence, a guy who has forgotten more about making binocular telescopes than the rest of us could ever hope to know. The view through his 12.5-inch binoculars was astounding!
Most star parties attract commercial vendors who sell everything from eyepiece caps to knit observing hats; surplus optics to the latest, hottest 100 degree eyepiece; used telescope parts to brand new, entire telescopes; red flashlights, laser pointers, books, observing chairs, shirts, virtually anything an amateur astronomer needs (or simply wants). Much of the time the sellers provide star party discounts that you can’t get otherwise, plus you don’t have to pay for shipping. Some telescope makers even deliver their finished scopes to their customers at star parties so that they can make several deliveries in one trip. I can’t think of any local observing sites where the vendors come to you.
Most star parties provide food well into the night, offering everything from burgers to coffee. At the Black Forest Star Party there’s the Incredible Edibles trailer that you can visit when you need a substantial snack and a caffeine fix to keep you going. At the Okie-Tex Star Party they have the Cosmic Café, which provides an impressive menu, plus a place to warm up. In addition, many star parties, such as Astrofest, Okie-Tex, and the Texas Star Party, offer catered meals you can pay for in advance so that you don’t have to live on camp food you bring yourself, which has the added benefit of freeing up cargo space for that new scope you’ll be bringing back home with you.
Most star parties schedule daytime talks during the actual event. This year at the Black Forest the keynote speaker was John Dobson, the namesake of the Dobsonian telescope mounting that revolutionized amateur telescope design about thirty years ago. At the 2006 Black Forest Star Party, Sue French gave a really nice talk on observing open star clusters. Or sometimes talks are presented by folks we know a little better, such as our own Mark Deprest. Most of the talks are educational and entertaining, and there’s usually something for everyone. (Hey, Mark, do I get any newsletter article credits for including your name?)
In addition, most of the time there are interesting nearby attractions that you can visit by day. The Black Forest Star Party is close to the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania, an 800-foot deep, forested canyon carved out by the Pine Creek. At this year’s Black Forest Star Party Mike Radwick and yours truly hiked down to the bottom and back. Okie-Tex has nearby Black Mesa, Capulin Volcano, and the Picture Canyon. The Texas Star Party’s venue is not far from McDonald Observatory, home of the University of Texas’s 82-inch, 107-inch, and 9.2-meter telescopes. The Texas Star Party organizers arrange for bus tours of the observatory from the ranch. Attending these and other star parties gives you opportunities to visit places you simply wouldn’t go to otherwise.
Most star parties issue each registered attendee a ticket to allow him or her to participate in a door prize drawing. Vendors will donate everything from astronomical prints to premium eyepieces to whole telescopes, and your registration fee buys you a chance to win one of these items. Often there are dozens of prizes given out. Black Forest takes it a step farther with what is called a Chinese raffle, where each prize has its own coffee can into which participants place their ticket. Attendees can then buy as many tickets as they wish, and choose only those prizes they want to take a chance on winning. Most every year at least one Lowbrow wins something, and some years we have multiple winners.
Seriously. If you only go to more-or-less local observing sites, then if bad weather strikes you are more than likely going to opt to stay home. But if you’ve already paid your money, and there’s a speaker you really want to listen to, or there’s a vendor you just have to visit, then you’re more likely to attend should the weather be iffy. And if the weather ends up being inclement then it forces you to interact with your fellow attendees. Who can forget the great time we had during the Invasion of the Lowbrows at the 2006 Black Forest Star Party? The star party was pretty much a wash-out. But we set up Scopehenge, observed Messiers through the keyholes in the clouds, traded stories, feasted on Jambalaya, and generally had a blast. We probably had more fun as a group at that star party than we ever did during those years when we had mostly clear nights.
This year’s Black Forest Star Party was kind of a mix weather-wise. Tuesday and Wednesday nights were clear, but Thursday was hazy, and Friday was lousy (we woke up to rain Saturday morning). We did some keyhole observing Thursday night but we had to get creative Friday night. As luck would have it, Yasu brought a dome-shaped camping shelter and his portable planetarium. So he gave us an excellent planetarium show—of both the northern and southern hemispheres! Plus we had some fun writing out some greetings for the rest of the folks back in Michigan. Again, we had a great time. If we had planned a weekend trip up north with similar weather, we would most likely have canceled and missed out.
Of course it wouldn’t be a star party if you didn’t spend time under the stars. Most of the time the well known star parties are held at observing sites with superbly dark skies when it is clear. Of the star parties I’ve been to, Okie-Tex skies are about as dark as you can get in the continental U.S., with the Texas Star Party being a close second. Cherry Springs skies may be slightly inferior to those in the northeast Lower Peninsula, but I can tell you that the best view I have ever had of M42, the Great Nebula in Orion, was on a particularly pristine night during the 2005 Black Forest event. The skies there are certainly excellent.
So why go to a star party? For me it’s a no-brainer, which suits me just fine. As for the rest of you who haven’t been to one, or haven’t in a long time—what are you waiting for? Get out there and join the fun! I guarantee you won’t regret it.