By now most of you reading this know about the observating site that Yasu and Yumi discovered a few years ago up in the northeast “corner” of the Lower Peninsula. It’s a campground by the name of Tomahawk Lake State Forest Campground, and it just happens to be located at Tomahawk Lake. What a coincidence! It’s in Presque Isle County, just north of its border with Montmorency County, about fifteen miles north of Atlanta. It’s about a three and a half hour drive from the Ann Arbor area. Yasu and Yumi and other Lowbrows have observed up there and reported it to be a truly dark site, comparable to if not better than Cherry Springs State Park, home of the Black Forest Star Party, in Pennsylvania.
For some time now I’ve wanted to check it out, but I’ve never been able to pull it off. Mark Deprest and I were talking about going this spring, and though I couldn’t make it (again) he went up by himself on a moonless weekend in May. After he came back with his glowing reports (or maybe I should say “not glowing” reports as there is virtually no artificial skyglow up there) I just had to go.
The weather didn’t cooperate in June, but it promised to be splendid the weekend of July 9-10, so we made our plans. Mark went ahead of me on Friday, but I couldn’t pull away until Saturday. I arrived late that afternoon, and pulled into the camp site where Mark was set up complete with his tent and our Lowbrow banner hung prominently and proudly between two trees. I was surprised to see John Causland and Dave Snyder at his site as well. John and Dave were visiting a couple (Mike and Diane) from the area that several Lowbrows had befriended a couple years ago. Mike and Diane have a farm about seven or eight miles west of Atlanta, with the same awesome skies as the state campground, and John and Dave were doing some observing at their place. They came to Mark’s campsite for a daytime visit. After I set up my tent, I waited for the sun to get a little lower before setting up my scope (My 13-inch Dob Papa Smurf) next to Blondie, Mark’s 18-inch Dob, in a fairly large open area right next to our camp site.
Now big scopes attract attention, which leads me to the subject of this story. Saturday evening during twilight, after the scope covers came off, we started getting some curious visitors. We met one couple, John and Faye, from Wyandotte. They were touring the Traverse City area, but camped at Tomahawk because it’s much less crowded and the surroundings much less built up. They asked what the price of admission was and Mark said nothing, but then I exclaimed “Hey, Mark, not so fast.” We got a good chuckle out of that, but that’s not all we got. (More about that later.) We showed them Venus, Mars, and Saturn. Then another family stopped by, a mom and several small to middlin’ kids. We showed them the planets too. One girl, I’d say she was maybe 10 or 11 years old, was duly impressed with Saturn. She told us confidently that Saturn has 63 moons. She was certain because she did a research assignment on it in school. Hmmm, we thought, here’s a youngster with some astronomical potential!
We told everyone to come back after it got really dark, and we’d show them some more cool stuff. Near the end of twilight (which was nearly midnight) it was first John and Faye, bearing a nice batch of freshly picked and tasty Traverse City cherries. They made for a nice midnight snack. While John and Faye were both really impressed with what they saw in the eyepiece (perhaps the Captain Morgan they were sipping enhanced the already spectacular views), John, an engineer, was just as interested in looking at the construction of our scopes. We could see the wheels turning in his head; I think there could very well be a scope in his future. They left after munching on some eye candy while we munched on cherries. After it became truly dark, back comes the little girl who was so knowledgeable about Saturn, along with her dad and older brother. We found out her name is Gracie. Now Mark is always eager to show people the constellations, so he wasted no time giving them the tour. When he got to Corona Borealis I piped in that I thought it looks like a scoop of ice cream that fell off the cone (actually Bootes) right next to it. But Mark called it “Gracie’s Smile.” She got a kick out of that. After the constellations, we started showing them some big and chunky showpieces like we would at our open houses back home.
So what in the world is “Gracie’s Bear?” You may be thinking it’s either Ursa Major or Ursa Minor, but that would be too obvious. No, we discovered it that night. I was showing the family the double cluster, which is one of my favorite objects to show people. It is simply beautiful in virtually any telescope. Whenever I show it to folks I always point out the little ice cream cone in the middle of the western cluster (NGC 869). When Gracie got up to the eyepiece I asked her if she saw it (I must have had a hankering for ice cream that night, because I was seeing it everywhere.) She said yes she did see it. Then she said “I see a bear. Did you see the bear?” I had to admit to her that I had never seen a bear in the double cluster. But she said “Yes, I see a bear. I see his eyes, his nose, and his mouth. Are you sure you’ve never seen him?” Gracie turned the eyepiece back over to me. She tried to explain where and how to find the bear. “Is it big? Is it small? Is it in the same cluster as the one with the ice cream cone?” I inquired. “It’s kind of big, and it’s in the other cluster” she replied. “Sorry, I don’t see a bear” I admitted again. By now Mark had heard all the commotion, so he started looking for it in his scope too. But alas he didn’t see the bear either. Gracie went back to the eyepiece. “I see a bear. He has a freckle too! I can’t believe you can’t see him!” I tried. Mark tried. Her brother tried. No bear. A half hour went by with Gracie explaining what her bear looked like, and Mark using his scope, and Gracie’s family members and I taking turns trying to see her bear in mine. Finally, I was starting to see the bear. Yeah, those two stars and that little triangle of stars look like a pair of eyes and a nose. And another little triangle of stars looks like they could be his mouth. Yeah, that does kind of look like a bear! The more I looked the more I saw a bear’s face. After a little more scrutiny I could see a pattern of stars that formed the outline of his head, with two large ears. Mark must have been going through the same process as I, because almost at the same time both he and I said “I see it, Gracie, I see your bear!” Once we saw it the bear was unmistakable. It’s the face of a little teddy bear. There is even an extra star on his face that Gracie saw as a freckle. Gracie was delighted that finally we were all able to see her bear. I’m sure that she was proud to be able to show us all something we had never seen before, and that she saw first.
Now I’ve been to a lot of open houses and shown a lot of folks a lot of objects through the telescope. Some folks you have to ask if they saw it and they just mumble “yeah,” like it didn’t make an impression at all. Others say “WOW!” and you don’t even have to ask. But never have I had a complete novice look through my scope and see something in a completely new way, and show me something that I’ve overlooked after viewing it dozens of times. Gracie saw a bear, and with a little bit of work helped us to see her bear too. It was a special moment, because in that moment we opened up a whole new universe to some very nice people, in particular Gracie. And I was able to look at an old, familiar object with new eyes, the eyes of a child. Gracie’s eyes.
It made me take pause. All too often while I’m observing I’m trying to analyze what I’m seeing in the eyepiece. It’s this many light-years away, that many light years across. It looks like a single object but it’s composed of hundreds of thousands or maybe billions of stars. That orange star is really a red giant, many times larger than our sun. But Gracie I hope has changed that in me a little. She wasn’t analyzing what she was seeing, she was just seeing, and didn’t see red giants or white dwarfs but instead saw a bear. And by doing so she reminded me that while it may be a good thing to know the distance to that galaxy, or the spectral class of that star, or how old the stars are in that globular cluster, that maybe it’s a better thing just to take the time to appreciate the utter and almost indescribable beauty of what’s in the eyepiece. That sometimes we should just turn off our brain, stop thinking, and simply look and admire and appreciate and soak it in. If we do, chances are we’ll see something we never noticed before.
And isn’t that what attracted most of us to this hobby anyway—the sheer beauty of the night sky? So from now on, whenever I look at the double cluster, I’ll still see that little ice cream cone, and notice those red giants scattered about. But the first thing I’ll look for is Gracie’s Bear, and remember a little girl who reminded me to not only look, but to actually see.
And what of Gracie? Did what she see through our scopes that night spark a life-long love of the stars like that first look through a telescope did for so many of us? For her sake I sure hope so. And if some day she ends up with her own scope, I hope that every time she looks at the Double Cluster, she remembers the time she showed a couple old-timers her bear in the sky. Gracie’s Bear.
The Double Cluster. Do you see Gracie’s bear? If you can’t then move the cursor over the image to see it. Photo courtesy Clay Kessler.