Sunday, August 21, 2011

 

Gone Fishin’


Do you ever wet a line, muchachos? I do. Or I used to, anyway, when things were a little slower. I wouldn’t be surprised if you were a fisherman, since many amateur astronomers seem to be, at least in my part of the country, south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Truth is, amateur astronomy and angling have a surprising amount in common.

Both are, of course, pursuits for the patient. An antsy person ain’t apt to have much fun waiting for a bite or for a sucker hole to open up. Angling or astronomy can be practiced simply and for little $$$, or for as many greenbacks as you want to throw at the cause. Both seem to attract more than their share of two seemingly opposite types of people: those who want to relax, and those who are obsessed. Obsessed? Yeah, about catching the biggest bass or the littlest LEDA galaxy and willing to spend as much time and money as it takes to fulfill the quest.

Unk as fisherman or astronomer? I guess I was always more on the obsessed side than the relaxed. As a young sprout, I waited for Saturday morning fishing trips down to our little creek, Spring Creek, with all the impatient eagerness of today’s wait for the Moon to darken so I can get down to Chiefland again.

Another thing fishing and amateur astronomy have in common is gear. When winter winds were blowing and I couldn’t get out with my rod and reel, I contented myself by inventorying my fishing stuff, obsessing over whether that new lure was really as good as my buddies said and scheming to get the bucks together for a Zebco Model 33. That was the holy of holy of spin-casting reels for us younguns, staring down at me in the sporting goods section of Sears, a silvery vision of all that was wonderful about fishing. I’d become even more obsessed as spring came in and that fascinating and wonderful Garcia Fishing Annual hit the newsstand.

I’ve transitioned almost wholly from rods and reels to telescopes and eyepieces, but otherwise it is just the same. I wait for the Moon to get out of the way with the same breathless anticipation. I am constantly fiddling with my gear, wondering whether that new eyepiece is as good as my buddies say it is. I stare up in wonder (virtually, anyway) at that holiest of SCTs, the Celestron HD 1400 Pro, which represents all that is wonderful about astronomy. I drool over the Orion catalog as soon as it drops through the mail slot.

The cool thing you noobs may not be aware of and the point of this here Blog entry? A lot of the gear fishermen use is also of use to astronomers. No, you ain’t gonna hook Sirius B with your Zebco 202, but things like tackle boxes can come in awful handy. Include the other departments in the outdoor store, camping and hunting especially, and you will see why I call Bass Pro “the best astronomy accessory dealer in town.”

Accessory Cases

Why is it that no astro-vendor makes a decent case for astronomy widgets? Oh, almost all sell cases for eyepieces, but nothing for the small items: flashlights, filters, scope parts like diagonals and visual backs, and on and on? You got me, but it doesn’t matter. The fishing section of Bass Pro (or Cabelas or Academy or whatever) has got what you need, and it is probably more suited to the task than anything an astro-stuff pusher would come up with anyway.

What is Unk talking about? Tackle boxes. Some folks use toolboxes for the small astronomy junk, but tackle boxes are better. They are designed to corral small items, and are, most importantly, designed to allow you to get at those small items in a hurry. They are also usually sturdily built of bump and salt-water (or dew) resistant plastic.

OK, so a tackle makes a good astro-junk box. What do you look for in one in particular? Most of all, do not get one that is too small. You probably have more stuff than you think. It is likely scattered over several boxes of gear and will fill a surprisingly large tackle box.

What else? The candidate box must be strong, so do not low-ball it. In my experience, tackle boxes in the fifty buck range are about right. That might seem like a lot of dough, but when you tote up the cost of the stuff you are gonna put in it, especially if you include LPR filters, you will find you are buying something to carry and protect hundreds of dollars worth of gear.

You also want a box that is versatile. Look for one that has at least some larger-than- fishing-lure compartments. Even better is one that has compartments that can be adjusted in size by removing/replacing plastic dividers. It would also be well to look for a box that has a large non-compartmentalized section for things like star diagonals and what-not that won't fit in the trays.

Finally, pick one that makes it as easy as possible to get the stuff out. I find that is fulfilled by tackle boxes that have slide-out drawers or trays. The former is far easier to deal with in the middle of the night. If the tackle box you choose has slide out trays, you will usually have to completely remove them from the box and open a cover to get at your stuff.

My needs are being very well met by a Plano 758. It is large and has four nice drawers in the front which easily hold my fifty years accumulation of accessories without complaint. It’s sturdy as it needs to be, loaded down with about 20 pounds of junk, and has allowed me to consolidate three separate accessory cases, meaning that, while it takes up quite a bit of space in the truck, I still save space when packing. Only downcheck? I wish it had a wee bit more non-compartmentalized space. What it has (under the top lid) is sufficient, but just.

Dry boxes

Chances are you will need at least one other case for less frequently used items. Things you will not use every run: tools, electronics like multimeters and GPS receivers, batteries, cables, etc., etc. The fishin’ store still has you covered, but you will probably need to mosey out of the angling department and on down to the hunting section.

There you will find cases that look sorta like surplus Ma Deuce .50 cal ammo boxes. That was the inspiration, anyhow; you will find these things, usually known as “dryboxes,” are larger—wider anyway—are made of plastic, are weather resistant, and have compartmentalized trays. Every one of these boxes I’ve seen has been uber sturdy and waterproof, and I used them as my only accessory cases before I figgered out tackle boxes are better for frequently used items.

Eyepiece Cases

I’ll be honest: my main eyepiece case came from Orion ten or fifteen years ago. But that was because I bought it just before the home improvement and sporting goods stores began to fill up with cheap aluminum eyepiece cases, a.k.a. “tool attaches” or “pistol cases,” from China. Some of these cases are identical to what I got from Orion; some are actually better—with a sturdier, reinforced build. Almost always they are cheaper.

There’s only one catch: you have to find a case with “pluckable” foam or provide that foam yourself. Pluckable foam is scored/diced so square pieces of it can be removed easily, allowing you to make customized recesses for eyepieces. Uncut foam is devilishly hard to work with. Some folks have had success soaking it in water, freezing it, and cutting it with a very sharp knife. Don’t sound pleasant to me. Orion has sold blocks of pluckable foam in the past, so you might check with them if your case didn’t come with any.

A step down from the aluminum cases are the black plastic boxes often sold in the firearms/hunting department as pistol cases. They are not as pretty as the aluminum jobs, but they are every bit as useful and will keep your gear just as safe. One thing I discovered about them? They often have pluckable foam, it’s just hidden. Pulling out the top layer of foam will sometimes reveal a hidden, pluckable layer that can be placed on top and customized as you see fit. These cases work so well, are so light and waterproof, and are so attractively priced that I've stopped buying the aluminum jobs for my still expanding arsenal of telescope junk.

One thing I get asked occasionally is whether the foam in Chinese cases will “outgas” and harm eyepieces of other optical gear. Some of it is pretty smelly, and you might want to let it air out for a day or two after you get it, but I have never ever had a problem with it depositing anything on eyepieces, nor have I ever heard a convincing story of that happening to somebody else.

Tents

Let’s say that, like your old Uncle Rod, you often go to multi-night star parties, but, unlike Unk, you don’t mind sleeping in a tent. OK, let’s head over to the camping section. I don’t tent camp much anymore. I like to be cool and comfortable and have cable TV and wireless Internet so I am both rested and entertained and ready to face the coming long night of observing. Not all star party or dark site venues have accommodations onsite or nearby, however. Or, you may, like Unk feared he would be last year, in reduced circumstances and have to economize (luckily didn’t happen to me). Maybe you just like tents.

I don't like tents much anymore, but I can give you the broad guidelines about choosing one. Most important thing? If you’re going to be in the tent more than one night, for god’s sake don’t get one that is too small. You want plenty of room for cots or air mattresses and everything else you need to put in the tent. Most critically, NEVER consider a tent you cannot stand up straight in. Changing clothes or doing anything else is a maximum pain in the rear if you are hunched-over all the time.

What else? If you are flying solo, choose a tent that is easy to erect. Even if you ain’t flying solo, choose a tent that is easy to pitch. What if you don’t arrive on site till an hour before sundown? Having to wrestle with an octopus-like tent will not make you happy. It’s fairly easy to tell from the packaging how easy a tent will be to pitch, and the clerks at some stores will be knowledgeable enough to help you. If in doubt, consult a fellow club member or other friend with camping experience. I would definitely investigate the new “instant up” tents.

Certainly you want a tent that is durable. If you find yourself buying a new one every year or two, that will cut into your money savings. Good news? Most of the tents in the big outdoor stores like Bass Pro are pretty good. My humble Coleman, for example, has held up very well despite being pitched everywhere from Texas to Maine. You can check the Internet for tent reviews, but be aware many of these are posted by enthusiasts. For star partying you do NOT need a tent that will endure the Himalayas or the Amazon.

Chairs

I’m not talking about observing chairs. For those, you go to an astro-merchant. But you’ll want a couple more for lounging on the field in the daytime or, like me, for sitting at the computer. I also find camp chairs useful for keeping things like scope covers off the ground during the observing run.

What do you want? That is simple. All you need is a couple of the canvas outdoor chairs that have been the rage for a decade or so. You know: the ones that fold up and go into a tube-like canvas bag. Even the cheapest of the cheap from Wal-Mart work well, and you can get ‘em emblazoned with the logo of your favorite sports team or your university and with cup holders and even foot rests.

Stoves

I take my meals in town or, if I’m at an organized star party, I pay for the meal plan. But what if there ain’t a town nearby? And some star parties don’t have meal plans. Or they may not offer the meals you want. You may like breakfast in the afternoon, or you may be suspicious of star party fare (I’ve rarely had a problem with any star party’s food). Or you may need or want to economize.

Some years back, I decided that since I usually went to the Chiefland Star Party alone, there was no sense in sitting by myself in a MacDonald’s. I already had a camp stove, that most popular of camp stoves, a Coleman propane stove, so I ate canned chili and Dinty Moore for lunch and supper at Chiefland that year. I got over this craze for outdoor cooking, but, you know what? It really wasn’t that bad and you may like it and be more creative with what you cook than Unk, who was just one click up from MREs.

Which stove do you buy? You buy a Coleman. They have been in this business forever and their products are foolproof and perfected. Do eschew the few white-gas stoves still available. The fuel is dangerous and messy and there is no need for it. Modern stoves are fueled by the little bottles of propane you have no doubt seen. These bottles are very cheap and do a good job. What else? Get an electric start (piezoelectric) stove and get a two burner one. There are some more sophisticated models out there with things like griddle attachments you may want to investigate if you get serious about cooking on the field.

Stove accessories? Get a collapsible stand for sure. You will also want Coleman’s Mr. Coffee coffee maker. That is extremely cool; it works like the Mr. Coffee you have in your kitchen, but is heated by the stove instead of by electricity, fitting securely on Coleman’s camp stoves. Oh, one caution: don’t make coffee or cook anything after dark. You will get yelled at. Even turned down low, the burners put out a surprising amount of light.

Heaters

It will be the fall/winter star party season before we know it, and in some areas of the country (not Possum Swamp) it will be getting chilly soon. Another Coleman product I like real well, even though I do not camp anymore, is a Black Cat heater. This is a catalytic heater that runs on the same propane bottles as the stoves. “Catalytic” means the Black Cat does not use an open flame to produce heat, relying instead on a chemical reaction between propane and platinum.

The Black Cat works exceptionally well, and with some tarps hung to enclose the sides of my E-Z Up tailgating canopy, it will keep me bearably warm all night. If I am observing visually, I duck in and warm up when I get chilled. If I am doing video, sitting at the computer all the time, I keep wondering why my fellow observers are complaining about the cold. Since catalytic heaters do not use an open flame and thus do not emit carbon monoxide, they can potentially be used in tents. But be very careful and consult with the manufacturer before you do that. They get hot and do consume oxygen.

I like the Coleman Black Cat, but if I had it to do over, I’d look for a catalytic heater with electric start. I have to get mine going with a match or lighter. Despite that, you can’t argue with success, and mine has got me through cold nights when I’d have called it quits before midnight. I can make it through a long night on one to one-and-a-half propane bottles—and they are easy to change.

E-Z Ups

“E-Z Up” is a brand name of picnic canopies (now often sold as tailgating canopies), and the company’s products are good, giving plenty of shade during the day and keeping dew off the observing table and accessories at night. These canopies are “E-Z Ups” because they can be erected without much trouble by one person and without any trouble by two. They are one-piece with no separate poles or anything else, come in zippered and wheeled cases, and fold-out like accordions when you erect ‘em. If your star party allows tent canopies to be set up on the field, believe me, YOU WANT ONE.

Miss Dorothy and I used an E-Z Up, a genuine E-Z Up, for several seasons and had good luck with it till one fall night at the Deep South Regional Star Gaze when a storm/cold front blew through the star party field and filled the tent roof with about 30 gallons of rainfall. It did not collapse, but a couple of the extruded aluminum supports snapped.

We intended to buy another E-Z Up, but when we went looking for a replacement in Bass Pro’s camping section, they did not carry the brand. Instead, we wound up with a tailgating canopy from Coleman. You know what? I like it better. It’s a little more steeply peaked than the genuine article, so it won’t collect rain as easily. It’s also a little larger than the basic E-Z Up model we had. The Coleman is as easy to erect as its inspiration, too. On the downside, it does not seem quite as well-made and durable.

Lights

Every astronomer needs a red flashlight, a red L.E.D. light, and a Bass Pro or Cabelas or other outdoor retailer is an OK—if not great—place to buy one. Oh, you’ll find one that will work, but it will not be optimum. A good observer’s light will have adjustable brightness. As you know, too much red light will kill your dark adaptation as quickly as white light. It’s easy to find red flashlights in the camping section, but they are almost always too bright and do not have brightness adjustments. Often these can be modified simply, though. A little red paint on an L.E.D. and you are in business. Of particular utility are be the “head lights,” red/white L.E.D lights on elastic bands that fits over your head and provides hands-off light. You will find these in the camping and hunting departments, usually.

You may also want a source of white light. What I like these days is a “Coleman lantern,” a modern Coleman lantern that uses batteries and super-bright L.E.D.s instead of the nasty old white-gas and radioactive mantles. When the club site observing run is over and everybody is breaking down their gear, one of these lanterns will make life much easier than it would be if you were trying to disassemble a scope with one hand while holding a flashlight in the other.

Tables

I found the perfect observing table—once. I used a card table for years, since one is fairly easy to pack and provides an at least adequate amount of work area. Alas, as the years rolled on and I accumulated ever more telescope-junk and computers hit even my observing table, a card table wasn’t enough anymore. Imagine my joy, then, when I found the perfect solution while touring the Wally-World sporting goods section.

What I found was a camp table the size of two card tables. But it didn’t take up any more space than one. How was that? It folded up in the middle. It was no heavier than a single table, either, since the top was made out of lightweight masonite-like stuff. It was cheap, too, being from Wal-Mart’s bargain brand “Ozark Trail.” I’ve used this table for over ten years now, and it’s held up fairly well till recently.

Till recently? Yeah. After a decade, the endless dew baths and occasional rainstorm have taken their toll. Oh, it’s still in one piece, but that masonite surface has warped to the point where it ain’t flat anymore. Not a huge deal, I suppose, but a little annoying, and I sometimes worry about having my disk recorder off level, which I’m not sure is good for it.

I have looked and looked for a replacement, but have not been able to find a camp or any other sort of table as good. Oh, there are plenty of camp tables at Wal-Mart, Academy, Cabelas, and Bass Pro, but they all seem to have two things in common: they are heavy, being made of plastic or aluminum, and they are too small. I’ll keep looking, though, and if you run across a good candidate, let me know.

Batteries

You get your telescope power source, jump-start “powertank” batteries, at an automotive discounter (unless you like to pay extra, for a nameplate that says “Orion” or “Celestron”). But that ain’t all you need. If, like Unk and an increasing number of amateurs, you run video, you may need more oomph to power a video recorder and/or a big display. Same goes if you are a big time CCD imager. If you control the scope with a high-power laptop, you may need an external power source for it, too. The boating section of the outdoors store has what you need, what we down here call a “trolling motor battery,” and which you probably call a deep cycle marine battery.

“But Uncle Rod, but Uncle Rod, why does it have to be a marine battery? They are heavy and more expensive.” Oh, you can use a car battery, Skeezix, but you will be buying lots of car batteries. It is not unusual to run a battery down purty good on the observing field. Marine batteries have thick lead plates (which is why they are so heavy) that will stand deep discharge over and over. Do that to a car battery often and it will die on you.

What do you look for? Mostly, plenty of current capacity. 75 – 100 amp hours at least. Don’t imagine you’ll be able to run a 1 amp draw device for 75 – 100 hours with a battery of that capacity, though. Due to the physics of the situation, expect to get about half that at best. So, over-budget your current needs. How much moola are we talking? 100 – 150 dollars, though you might be able to undercut that a bit if you buy from Wal-Mart instead of a sporting goods or boating store.

Other Stuff

The above just scratches the surface of the wealth of useful things you will find in your local “astronomy store.” Some of the other good stuff I’ve run across?

Compasses: If you run an equatorial mount, you’ll find a compass helpful for getting a rough alignment before sunset. Any outdoor store will have a selection of ‘em. I found a nice lighted job at Academy.

Hand warmers. What’s the first thing to get really cold? Your hands. While observing you will be manipulating small doohickeys like focusers, hand paddle buttons, etc., and you will probably need to do that with your gloves off. Chemical hand warmers can help get your paws warm again. Open one, shake up the little packet, and it will give off plenty of heat for hours. Buy as many as you need for the observing season and get more next year. In my experience, the shelf life of these things is limited. Luckily, they are very inexpensive.

First-aid kits: Even if your site is only ten or twenty miles from home, you need a basic first-aid kit. You will probably never need it, but if you or one of your bubbas ever does, you will be happy to have it. Most outdoor stores have a good assortment, and you should be able to find a fairly complete one that does not take up much room.

Various and sundry: Duct tape, tarps, tent stakes, bungie cords, it’s all there for you.

So, there you have it; the place to get a large portion of what you need for remote observing ain’t a big astronomy merchant ten states away. It’s right down the street. I’d appreciate hearing about your finds down to the Bass Pro or Cabela’s, since this list is far from inclusive.

Next Time: Unk hopes to get out on the observing field with his DSLR this Saturday evening, but the fracking weather gods ain't so sure. We'll see.

Comments:
Thanks for the good suggestions! Especially on the dry box and the options for eyepiece cases. See you at AHSP 2001 this next weekend!

Chris Lee
 
Looking forward to it!
 
Hey Rod,
Harbor Freight has a really good Tool/Gadget foam/compartmentalized
valise.
Lowe's has a really good Temperature gun for cheap.
I used the same table, you used, for years. The replacement came from Home Depot(got the idea from a table that Camping World sells).
Exact same table, much less money at Home Depot.It's a little heavier but much more robust.White top, folding legs.
Great article.
I'm glad to see that everyone is not into having the Moofongotz Especiale gear or you ain't $#!%.
Take Care,
Tom Mozingo
 
Hi Rod,

Gee, I think you have all the bases covered in this blog entry! There are things there that I would have never considered.

The only thing missing is a nice chrome Italian espresso machine with the pull down lever & a cappuccino frother:)

Those old Garcia catalogs were beautiful. I still have a Mitchell 308, made in France, I'm surprised to see what they go for on E-bay.

Cheers,

Duncan
 
Rod,

If you have Odd Lots/Big Lots stores in your area, check them out for your fold-up table. I saw it there last week.

-dk
 
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