Sunday, December 11, 2011

 

My Favorite Star Parties: The Chiefland Spring Picnic 2002


With the weather as punk as it can be down here in the Swamp, and the fracking Moon swinging back into view, and Unk not having any observing expeditions planned till after the first of the year, what can he do but take you-all on yet another trip down memory lane? This time to the Chiefland Spring Picnic of 2002. Y’all know something about this one. You've heard me complain about it often enough, anyway. So, if I complain about it all the time, what’s it doing in the “My Favorite Star Parties” series? All shall be revealed, muchachos—eventually.

In 2002 the Spring Picnic, which a decade ago was one of two yearly star parties held at the Chiefland Astronomy Village, was scheduled for May. May 10 – 12. That was when my buddy Pat Rochford and I planned to be there, anyhow; some folks, we’d heard, would be down at the CAV at least a week before that doing hard core observing on the cusp of summer.

Pat had spoken to Jeannie Clark, one of the prime organizers of the event, a couple of weeks previous, and she had said she didn't know how many folks to expect, “Could be twenty, could be two-hundred.” That sounded alright to us. Lots of folks on the field would be fun, but so would a small group. The weather forecasts weren't outstanding (“partly to mostly cloudy”), but they didn't sound overly dire for late spring, either. What Mr. Rochford and I didn't take into account, unfortunately, was that other factor in late spring Florida weather, TEMPERATURE.

Not that I’d have let that change my carefully laid observing plans. I was on a mission, you see. I’d just bought a new telescope, a NexStar 11 GPS, Big Bertha, a short time before and had not had a chance to give her a real shakedown cruise. Chaos Manor South’s orange-sky backyard, yeah, Pat’s light polluted observatory, yeah, but out in the real dark, no. I was one antsy little camper to do that.

If Pat and I had checked the Weather Channel, we would have seen that Chiefland, Florida was sizzling, with temperatures well into the 100s F. before figuring in the heat index. That shouldn't have been a problem; once field setup was done, we’d hide out in a cool motel room till sunset. That’s what we would have done if we'd had good sense. But we didn't. We had decided to economize. Who needs a cotton picking motel? A tent on the observing field next to the scopes would be more convenient and nearly as comfortable. Uh-huh.

Come Friday morning, Pat and I loaded up his little Isuzu Trooper mini-SUV and a borrowed U-haul-type trailer with the tons of stuff we considered essential for a star party weekend back in them days. At the time, Pat was still using his home-brew 24-inch Dobsonian (today it’s been replaced by a big Meade SCT); that went in the trailer, suitably padded with sleeping bags and our other camping gear. Bertha rode comfortably in the back of the Trooper in her JMI case. Loaded, we hit the road at 8:15 a.m. for six hours of Interstate-10 and Highway 19. We pushed it as hard as we could with a trailer, since we wanted to be assured of having plenty of set up time—there’d be tents to erect as well as scopes. To that end, we skipped lunch (horrors), in favor of an early supper in Chiefland.

Chiefland, ah, Chiefland. When we hit town I couldn’t help feeling bad for the little burg. It looked as if the mini-recession at the turn of the century had hit ‘em hard. There were lots of empty stores in town and plenty of unworked fields to the south. It took a few years for me to realize that’s the way Chiefland always looks, come economic rain or shine.

Arriving at the CAV, we were some kind of surprised. Jeannie Clark’s words had led us to expect a small crowd. As we rolled onto the Club field, it was obvious there were easily 100 – 150 eager observers already set up with more arriving every minute. It was crowded enough that we had to make several orbits of the field before we found a spot with enough room for the two scopes, the tents, the Trooper and trailer, and us. We were not able to get close to one of the field’s electrical outlets, but that was OK; I came prepared to operate the NS11 completely off batteries. As long as I could get my jumpstart battery (for the scope) and my lawn tractor battery (for the DewBuster) charged during the daytime, all would be well.

All would not be well if we didn't get the picnic canopy up in a hurry. It was now mid-afternoon and the observing field was boiling hot. We needed shade, and we needed it right away. We got one of my old pre-EZ Up canopies erected as fast as possible, fighting tangled tent ropes and lost stakes all the way. When we were done, our little patch of shade made us feel cooler, if far from cool. Still had to get them cotton-picking tents up, though.

I got mine, the Coleman dome tent I’d used at the Texas Star Party a few years before, pitched in record time, but I noticed Pat was struggling. His tent resolutely refused to cooperate. I lent a hand, and got his sleeping quarters up with only a moderate amount of cussing. By now, Pat and I were soaked. Squinting through sweat-stung eyes, I adjourned to my tent to change into shorts and T-shirt and flip-flops. That helped some, but the interior of my tent was already like an oven, and by the time I was dressed my change of clothing was near-about soaked too.

We should have seen the handwriting on the wall, and right then and there should have said, “You know, this just ain’t gonna work. We’ll go straight into town and find a motel room. If we can’t get into the Holiday Inn Express, the Pregnant Guppy Motel (Rod’s nickname for the Manatee Springs Motel) will do just fine.” But we convinced ourselves that a ride into town, a tour of Wal-Mart, and a late dinner/early supper would let us cool off from set up and that everything would thenceforth be fine. We'd only be onsite for two days. How bad could it be? All I can say is we were a little younger and a lot dumber almost ten years ago.

Not that it wasn’t a good idea to visit Wally World. We bought plenty of bottled water and several big bags of ice; it was clear both would be desperately needed. After the Wal-Mart A/C had brought us back to life, we were off to Bill’s Bar-B-Q. We were also too dumb in those days to understand you ALWAYS order the legendary Lunch Special and salad bar at Bill’s, but the pork sandwiches we got were good, anyway.

What then? Back to the field to trot around and visit with friends old and new. I was particularly happy to meet some SCT User Yahoogroup and sci.astro.amateur (if’n you remember what that was) friends in non-virtual space for the first time. As always, it was cool to survey the huge array of scopes our fellow CAVers had brought out. In those days, the Dobsonian was still king at Chiefland, almost to the exclusion of anything else. This was when the Starmasters were riding high, but there were Dobbies of every description scattered across the field.

There were also some cool CATs on the field, including at least three NexStar 11s in addition to Bertha, a brand new NexStar 8 GPS, and numerous LX200s old and new. Particularly attractive was a big TEC Maksutov Cassegrain on a beautiful (no longer made) Millennium Mount. I looked forward to getting a peep through that high-flying bird, but the owner never seemed to do much with it, uncovering it briefly during the day and covering it back up at sundown. Go figger.

Other than mucho hot, how was the weather? It was variably cloudy every day, but it was usually clear enough to allow old Sol to beam down his blistering rays with a vengeance. I slathered on the sunblock, but that didn't make me feel much—if any—better. Yeah, it was a little cooler under the tent canopy, but only a little. Our mighty star’s radiation was being reflected back up off the field and into our faces from all sides. Clouds would actually have been welcome in mid afternoon, but, naturally, they held off till sundown. By the time Sol was out of sight, the clear stretches had assumed the character of the dreaded SUCKER HOLES.

The result was that on Big Bertha’s first dark sky evening I had to cool my heels for at least an hour before a sucker hole big enough to allow me to do a two-star go-to alignment wandered in off the Gulf of Mexico. Today, I take Bertha’s excellent go-to accuracy for granted, but this was all new to me a decade ago, and I was gobsmacked. The C11 pointed north, took a GPS fix, and headed to two alignment stars, which I centered. Took maybe five minutes to do, and for the rest of the evening, and for the rest of the weekend, she put every blessed object I requested in the relatively small field of my 12mm Nagler at f/10 (233x). Wow.

Bertha ready to go, things was looking up. The temperature had fallen a little, to the bearable 80s at least, and the bad, old clouds had changed their minds and scudded off. They returned occasionally over the course of the night, but we were never completely socked in and there was always plenty to see. I got to work, and what work it was. The skies of the Chiefland Astronomy Village are good today, remarkably good, but ten years ago they were just a wee bit darker, and Bertha and I took full advantage of that.

I saw lots of wonderful sights Friday evening. This was the first time in my life I toted up over 100 DSOs in one observing run. I tried to give each one the eyepiece time it deserved, but some got the short shrift. This was, after all, a shakedown cruise, a “commissioning” run, to allow me to see what Bertha could do and how she would do it on a wide variety of objects all across the late-spring/early summer sky.

I did get stopped in my tracks by a couple of wonders. One was the lustrous M5, the great globular cluster in Serpens. As I mentioned last time, a few years before I’d made up my mind that M5 was actually “better” than its famous neighbor, M13, and my view of it on this night just reinforced that. Second best in my eyes that night wasn’t M13, either, but a more distant marvel, NGC 3115, the Spindle Galaxy. In the NS11 on this intensely dark evening, it was amazingly bright, showing traces of the faint nebulous envelope that surrounds its spindle-shaped body.

What else? After a couple of hours of relying on my memory for gooduns, I began to run out of targets. Not to worry. Out came Kepple and Sanner. The whosit of the whatsit? The Night Sky Observer’s Guide, which is the best guide-book available for the working deep sky observer. Yes, it is better than Burnham’s Celestial Handbook. The Handbook will always be number one in my heart for its thoughtful, poetic take on the sky, but if you want a book with lots of objects and lots of data on those objects, Kepple-Sanner is where you go.

With the aid of Volume 2 of NSOG, Bertha and I continued to cruise to target after target. Some familiar, some not so familiar. We did every—well almost every—globular cluster in Ophiuchus. Let me tell you, muchachos, that is a lot of globs. As I said last week, I laugh when somebody opines that all globulars look alike, and my tour of Ophiuchus really gave the lie to that: big, small, bright, dim, odd shapes, and “normal” globes of stars; they were all there.

As the clock ticked on to midnight and after, I just kept going, Bertha quietly humming and delivering. I was particularly taken by the NexStar hand controller. It was so simple to operate that when I got The Stupids at 3 a.m. in those dark days before Monster Energy Drinks, I could still figure out which button to push. Right then and there I decided the real strength of the NexStar 11 wasn’t its high-tech, but its refreshing simplicity.

And so it went until 3:30 in the cotton pickin’ a.m., when it began to cloud up seriously. Me and Pat, who’d been pushing his 24-inch Dob hard, took a break to wait for the next clear stretch. When it became obvious that would not happen any time soon, out came the Rebel Yell. After about 4, the sky did look to be improving slightly, but not enough to encourage us to get started again. Around 5 a.m., I finally lay down in my now semi-cool tent. First thing I noticed? Even with an air mattress under you, a sleeping bag on the ground ain’t that comfortable when you are approaching age 50. Second thing? There was a clear patch to the west, and I had a lovely view of the stars of the Dipper plunging into the horizon through my tent’s little screen window. Which was the last thing I saw before I plunged—into a deep sleep.

But not a long sleep. A combination of heat and noise meant I was resolutely awake after no more than three hours. Tired as I was, it didn't take long after sunup for the interior of my little dome tent to become breathlessly hot. And, as is always the case at a big gathering, some early risers (!) just cannot keep quiet. One goober was serenading the field in off-key fashion ("Hippity-hop to the Barber Shop") as he marched to the shower. Which I did, too—headed for one of the showers, not burst into song. The clean shower stalls on the edge of the field were the high point of the field's amenities for campers. The low point? The porta potties. Refreshed, I strolled around a bit, visiting with my fellow observers before the field became too hot to bear again.

Next thing on the agenda Saturday morning was grub. Pat and I had resolved to take our meals in town except for the picnic in “Chiefland Spring Picnic,” which would be our evening meal. Where to? The Huddle House (like Waffle House) beckoned, but we’d been told Bill’s Bar-B-Q did as fine a job on breakfast as they did on dinner and supper. Pat and I, in the company of another couple of visiting amateurs, feasted on omelets that easily violated B. Kliban’s rule: “Never eat anything bigger than your head.”

After that? To Wal-Mart again to enjoy their a/c for a while and pick out our contributions to the Saturday afternoon picnic. I chose, as usual, the most disgustingly butter-cream-frosting-drenched cookies in the bakery. Pat chose a healthy vegetable tray. Go figure. Then it was back to the field, where we tried to keep cool without much success. If it had been hot Friday afternoon, it was H-O-T Saturday. Even Pat and I, Gulf Coast residents that we were, found it almost too much to take. Make that “too much to take.”

We somehow persevered until picnic time. Sitting under the big pavilion, drinking cold cokes and gobbling the barbeque chicken CAV residents had grilled, it was barely possible to keep my mind off the incredible temperatures, which had now passed 110 F. out on the observing field. Eventually, though, the picnic at the Picnic was done, and we slowly headed back to our little patch of shade. I swear, y’all, I thought I was gonna melt.

We were saved by the kindness of our host, Mr. Tom Clark. Tom showed me and Pat the impressive observatory dome he’d just completed for the 42-inch monster-scope he was building. With a fan running in the dome, it was almost cool, and a damned sight better than that desert of a field. Even better, Tom invited us to walk over to his AIR CONDITIONED shop where he was fabricating components for the big scope that would soon be known far and wide as “The Beast.”

Sitting there with Tom, shooting the breeze about the astro-business, sucking down the icy-cold co-colas he passed out, poor Unk actually began to feel human again. We probably strained even Tom’s generous hospitality by remaining resolutely glued to the folding chairs he’d set up for us for hours, but—my gosh—we just couldn’t face the thought of going back out into the terrific heat. We stayed undercover until the Sun finally began to sink and the outdoors became, if not comfortable, at least endurable. I’ve been down to Chiefland in July more than once over the intervening years, but it has never felt as hot as it did that May.

Saturday night started out a lot like Friday night. Plenty of passing clouds, with the clear stretches less frequent than the overcast ones. By the time I was finally able to get Bertha aligned, however, it was obvious Saturday would be a better night than Friday. When the sky suddenly and almost magically cleared, I hit the showpieces again: M13, M5, M10, M12, and the rest of the late spring treasure trove. Howsomeever, my main focus this night would be galaxies, and I headed straight for the great fields of Coma – Virgo, where I spent the next several hours.

So enthralled was I by my Virgo haul under these excellent conditions—I almost convinced myself I saw M87’s jet at high power—that I almost forgot to look at that greatest of globular clusters, Omega Centauri. When I caught the big thing just after culmination, it was the only time that night that I wished for a smaller telescope. At 30’ across, the great mass of suns was hard to frame, even in my 35mm Panoptic eyepiece. ‘Twas still a mindblower:  tiny and uncountable stars filling the field of my big glass.

I spent most of both nights at Chiefland with my new telescope, but that don't mean I didn’t take a few looks through other folks’ instruments. It took a lot to pull me away from Bertha, but Jeannie and Tom Clark’s Yardscope II, a 36-inch monster, which was set up on an observing pad outside Tom’s shop, did that easily.

Yeah, I had to climb a towering ladder, but it was well worth it for a look at the Antennae Galaxies with this much aperture. You’ve heard people claim the images in their scopes “look like photographs,” but rarely is that true. It was with the Yardscope. The Antennae were bright, but, most of all, amazingly detailed. The dust lane in the Sombrero Galaxy was, it was easy to see, uneven and scalloped along its edges. M5 didn't just look like Omega Centauri had in Bertha, showing a huge number of stars, those stars were dramatically colored: white, orange, and, here and there, blue. I don’t think I’ve ever had a better visual experience with a Dobsonian—well not until the Clarks got The Beast going a couple of years later.

I was honored to sign Tom and Jeannie’s observatory guestbook with, “Thanks for a wonderful time and the wonderful hospitality. I will be back.” And I was. This visit to CAV would be followed by a long, long string of Chiefland trips.

The 2002 Spring Picnic wasn’t quite over yet. There were a few hours of darkness left, and I had yet to see the sight that would be the capper for a trip that was horrible in the daytime and wonderful at night. After my visit to the Yardscope, Bertha and I made another pass on the Coma – Virgo Cluster of galaxies. Not only was I able to see the famous Playing Mice in Coma, Big Bertha even showed a little detail in those distant sprites. But the best view of the trip wasn’t a galaxy and came around midnight when a new batch of clouds had covered the western side of the sky. That forced me back east, to the little constellation, Scutum. After a good, long look at the Wild Duck Cluster, I punched in NGC 6712, a globular cluster I didn't recall having visited before.

I won’t burden you with details, since I raved about NGC 6712 last week. I will just say that the vision of a little knot of a globular star cluster almost subsumed by an enormously rich star field in Scutum is one that will remain with me to the end of my days.

When I was finally able to pull away from Scutum’s remarkable star cluster, after at least half an hour, the clouds had again wandered off, and I resumed my journey across the sky. I carried on till near 4 a.m. before pulling the Big Switch. I hated to do that, even at 4, but I’d only had about three hours sleep the whole weekend, and there’d be packing and the drive home purty early in the a.m. Mr. Pat would be doing the driving, but I felt it incumbent upon me to at least try to stay awake during the trip home.

When I look back on this adventure, the phrase that comes to mind is “no pain, no gain.” Yes, it was hot. It was really too hot. Pat and I should never have tried to tent camp on the field. This was, in fact, the last time I set up a tent at any star party anywhere. And yet, it had been well worth the pain. I’d seen what my new telescope could do, which was offer me a surfeit of nighttime wonders that easily outweighed the days’ blistering heat. I’d do it again, I thought, but with a motel room in the mix. Which is just what I did and continue to do to this very day, muchachos.

Next time: You gotta guide...

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