August 29, 2008, 16:00: Work is done for the next 3 days. It’s Labor Day Weekend and all indications are that it is going to be a perfect weather weekend here in Michigan. I had made plans to go up to Tomahawk Creek State Forest Campgrounds on Saturday for a night of “Dark Site Astronomy.” Since I was not going to be able to go the Black Forest Star Party this year and the Green Bank Star Quest was not that great this year. I thought a night at a “really dark” site would be the ticket.
Saturday, August 30, 2008, 09:00—10:00: I had breakfast with my wife, and then finished loading up my SUV. I was only going up for the one night as personal commitments at home prevented me from staying any longer. A quick check of the weather showed that I was in for ideal conditions; clear skies, low humidity and no wind. The jet stream was well north of Tomahawk Creek, which would mean very steady skies, and the low humidity would make for good transparency. I had prepared an observing list of 20 Arp galaxies and a couple of charts for 2 comets. I was bringing my laptop, an Arp Galaxies Observer’s guide, Uranometria 2000.0 (3 volume set) and the rest of my sky charts. I had my tent, cot, sleeping-bag, and camp chair all tossed in the SUV. I brought my 12.5” f/5.6 truss tube dob (Big Red), Johnsonian tracking platform, Catsperch observing chair, and my roll-top equipment / chart table. I had a change of clothes, some cold weather gear and a cooler of soft drinks, water, sandwiches and fried chicken. Just the bare essentials were packed neatly in my Saturn Vue.
Tomahawk Creek Flooding State Forest Campground is located just east off M-33 about 12 miles south of Onaway, MI. The campgrounds themselves are in three different locations and offer only the rustic camping. Only vault toilets, and potable water, no showers or electricity, so don’t forget to charge your batteries. The west campgrounds are located off Dam Rd. and are heavily wooded sites. The north campgrounds are currently closed for renovations and construction of additional sites and accessed from Spring Lake Rd. to Campsite Rd. and the sites are lightly wooded with a couple of sites that back up to a large open field. However, this open field slopes fairly sharply down to the eastern side of the dam. The east campgrounds are a little more open than the north sites and you access these sites from Spring Lake Rd. A couple of sites are very clear with three out of four horizons clear down to 10 degrees with the fourth horizon clear down to 30 degrees. There is a little issue with any of these sites, in that you could have neighbors who like big campfires or use very bright lanterns. Most of these issues can be resolved with a polite plea to shield the stay light and / or and invite to look through your scope.
There is one last area that works great for astronomy enthusiasts and it ended up being the place where I set up my camp site. Though it was not an officially designated site, it was perfect for my purposes. A large open field about 75 yards by 75 yards bordered by 15-20 foot tall trees with ample room for tents and scopes. The shorter trees border the northwest to southwest edges of the field, with the lake, dam and creek around the rest of the field, gives you all horizons down to 5 degrees or better. To get to this area you need to take a “two track” road east off of Dam Rd., it was probably an access road to service the dam. The road ends with a large “turn-around” and parking area (room for 5 cars to park) at the western edge of the field. There is a log barrier about 2 feet tall that prohibits driving onto the dam and field, but foot access and 2 wheel dollies to bring your equipment and camping supplies is easy.
Yasu and Yumi Inugi found Tomahawk Creek last year and raved about it, John Causland has been there also and wrote an article that mentions the wonderfully dark skies above (See “Observing Under Arizona’s Dark Sky & Only a 4 Hour Drive. Try It!” by John Causland, September, 2007). I went there expecting to be “WOWWED” by the skies and let me tell you, I wasn’t disappointed! The campgrounds are only 230 miles north of Ann Arbor or 3.5 hours averaging 65 mph and have some of the darkest skies I’ve ever had the pleasure to observe in. Tomahawk Creek is slightly darker than Cherry Springs State Park, PA (home of the Black Forest Star Party), they are much darker than River Valley RV Park just outside of Gladwin, MI (home of the Great Lakes Star Gaze), but not quite as dark as Camp Billie Joe in Kenton, OK (home of the Okie-Tex Star Party).
I highly recommend checking this place out, as I experienced one of the best observing sessions of my life! I was able to see details in almost ever object I put into the eyepiece that I never expected to see. Arp Peculiar Galaxies are notoriously comprised of extremely faint and subtle details like outer rings, disconnected arms, and bridges of very low surface brightness. These faint and fine details were (in almost every case) visible under the conditions and dark skies of Tomahawk Creek. I completed my list of 20 Arps and 2 comets and started chewing up some “eye candy”! I was able to see M33 easily “naked-eye” and the North American Nebula with a 2” UHC filter held in front of my eye. Multiple dark lanes in M31 and spiral structure in M110 that rivals M33, the Veil Nebula was enough to blow away even the most seasoned of observer, with Pickering’s triangle being as bright and detailed as I have ever seen. I was out until 3:00 am and was totally satisfied that I had done what I came here to do. I had expected to be pretty well soaked with dew being as close as I was to a large body of water, but surprisingly enough most of my equipment was dry or only a little damp. As I took the next 25 minutes or so to wipe off and pack away my equipment, I thought about staying one more night but I had commitments at home and there will be other chances to come and stay longer.
I have included a satellite picture of the area at the end of this article and added some labels so that you better understand the description of the area.
Bottom line: Watch the weather and if you see a weekend during the dark of the moon, pack up you car and head to Tomahawk Creek ... you won’t regret it!