Sunday, August 26, 2012

 

My Favorite Star Parties: Indian Springs’ Last Bow


Last bow? Maybe. Maybe not. You never know, muchachos. I might get back to Georgia’s Indian Springs State Park one of these days. Even if I don’t, I had a good time at all four of the star parties I attended there, a couple of Peach State Star Gazes and a couple of Georgia Sky Views. The Georgia whatsits? Everybody in our part of the country has heard of the Peach State Star Gaze, and quite a few people not in the sunny south know about the Atlanta Astronomy Club’s big deep sky observing event, too, but there is another Georgia star party, The Georgia Sky View.

In 2002, Peach State decamped for the hills of Tennessee (and later the dark acres of the Deerlick Astronomy Village).  Which left Unk without his yearly visit to the pine forests of central Georgia and lovely Indian Springs near Jackson, smack in the middle of the state. It looked like there would never be another star party there despite the fineness of the site’s facilities. The Peach Staters made it pretty clear they would not be back, no matter how their new venue just over the Georgia-Tennessee border worked out.

Many of us Georgia-Alabama amateurs missed Indian Springs with its cool woods and reasonably good skies, though. No, the location was not perfect and could never be perfect sitting barely 60 miles from metro Atlanta, but the sky was more than sufficient for rewarding deep sky viewing. Like I told y’all in my blog article about the last PSSG at the site, as long as you avoided the Atlanta light dome (to the relatively uninteresting northwest) all was well.

Yeah, quite a few of us missed our yearly star party at Indian Springs. Some missed it so much they decided to do something about it. Those folks were the members of the Flint River Astronomy Club of Griffin, Georgia. I admit I really don’t know much about the club, but I do know it is made up of some talented and enthusiastic amateur astronomers who’ve accomplished amazing things despite their status as a relatively small small town club. Some of the Flinters decided they would like to put on a spring star party, and that nearby Indian Springs would be the perfect place for it.

And that is just what they did in 2004. And again in 2005, when they had Unk up as their keynote speaker. I’d had a lovely time back at my old Jackson stomping grounds and was overjoyed when two of the prime movers behind the star party, Dawn and Steve Knight, invited me up to serve as speaker once again for the 2006 edition, which would be held April 20 - 23.

I was well into the groove of Chiefland observing by 2006, but I was also well into the groove of star party speaking, and was only too happy to say “yes” to the GSV a second time. No, this was not a huge event—maybe there were 50 observers on the field in ought-five when all was said and done. But that was the beauty of the thing: a small, intimate star party that didn’t stress the facilities like the ever-growing Peach State had.  I didn’t have any other engagements on tap for April of 2006, so I was happy not just to say “yes,” but to make a donation to the cause. As I sometimes do for club gigs and new/small star parties, I appeared gratis, asking only for the organizers to cover my registration, housing, and meals (if any).

By the time the morning of my departure rolled ‘round, your old Uncle was getting right excited. Not only would I be heading back to the heart of Georgia for a weekend of deep sky observing, I planned to record what I saw with my Meade Color DSI “Deep Sky Imager” camera. I’d had the little CCD cam for a few months and had finally at least partially grokked the CCD stuff and was beginning to turn out some images I thought were kinda decent. I was interested to see what it might be able to do under spring skies that were appreciably better than the ones down in The Swamp.

Bright and early Thursday morning, as close to 6 a.m. as I could stand, I was packed and on I-65 for the journey north to Montgomery and then east to Georgia. What had I packed? My C8, Celeste, my year-old Celestron CG5 mount, my Toshiba Satellite laptop, and the usual odds and ends I take on any star party expedition. In other words, my poor Camry was practically bursting at the seams. Only downer? Miss Dorothy’s increasingly demanding responsibilities at the University meant I would have to do this one solo.

I maintain that the drive up I-65 is the most boring stretch of road in existence. Worse even than the west Texas segment of the trip to The Texas Star Party. It is flat. There is nothing to see. There is nowhere good to stop. Two things kept me going: a book on tape, Stephen King’s The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, and the allure of the Stuckey’s just before Montgomery.

Miss Dorothy and I still stop at Stuckey’s today, even though it’s kinda past its prime, but back then it was great; packed with interesting gee-gaws and serving Dairy Queen fast food—which Unk craves since they closed all the DQs along the Gulf Coast. A glass of orange juice in a nod to “healthy,” and a fried chicken biscuit in a nod to “tasty,” and I was on the road again.

One thing about the drive to Jackson, Georgia, once the trip up to Montgomery has been endured the rest seems (almost) like a hop, a skip, and a jump. Past Auburn, home of the renowned Auburn Astronomical Society, past Tuskegee, over the Georgia state line, first exit for Newnan Georgia, onto Georgia 16 for a spell on two-lane roads sometimes bedeviled by log trucks and farm machinery, and to the far side of Jackson and Highway 23 and Indian Springs State Park.

The roads were relatively free of slow traffic and road construction patches and I made good time to Jackson. The town appeared to be struggling economically but persevering in 2006, but lord knows what it must look like today after four years of this depression—excuse me, “recession.” Camp Macintosh, Indian Springs’ “group camp” facility where the star party would be held, is only a few miles from Jackson, but the little town doesn’t add too much to the light pollution burden of the site.

What Jackson does do is add convenience; it brings a goodly number of amenities—restaurants, grocery stores, etc.—to within a short drive of the observing site. Being able to scoot up to even a Bill’s Dollar Store for things you inevitably forget is not something to sneeze at, muchachos. Just a few minutes after I passed through town, I was turning into Camp Macintosh, for once not missing the nondescript turn.

The real beauty of Indian Springs was the observing site itself. Camp Macintosh was a wonder as star party venues go. Not only were there clean open-bay-barracks style cabins with clean bathrooms, there was a humongous central building with an institutional kitchen, a space perfect for speakers and other star party group functions, and more clean restrooms (an important feature for Unk at his increasingly advanced age). There was also a smaller building to the north of this “headquarters” that was perfect for vendors, and which had been used for that purpose during the Peach State years.

Just as before, registration was in the front office of that big main building. I cooled my heels for a little while, but was soon seen to by one of the star party staffers. I did note things seemed a little catch as catch can:  “Where do you want to stay? Oh, you want a T-shirt? What was your name again?” but that was OK. I would have been happy in the group cabin, but ended up being assigned to the lodge instead. That was where Miss D. and I had stayed the year before, and I figgered it would be just fine. Reconnoitering my housing was for later, though. 

As always, first order of bidness was equipment setup. I picked a spot near the center of the field so as to be able to catch both the setting winter stuff and rising summer stuff. It sure was nice to have my choice of field positions, unlike in the Peach State days. I will say the crowd at the GSV had grown since I was there the previous year. I don’t know that I ever heard an attendance figure, but it looked to me to be up from “about 50, almost” in 2005 to “over 75” in 2006.

OK, let’s get set up. In addition to the C8, Celeste, and her CG5 GEM  mount, there was the camp table, the Toshiba satellite laptop, the big deep cycle marine battery I used to power the power hungry PC (the big Toshiba would barely go 90-minutes on her internal battery), the Meade DSI camera, cables, the EZ-up tent canopy for blessed shade, an ice chest for more help surviving those sometimes brutal Georgia spring afternoons, an observing chair, a couple of lawn chairs, accessory boxes, jumpstart batteries for the scope and dew heaters, and—you-all get the picture. By the time I was done, I was hot and tuckered and was ready to go check-out my accommodations.

Motored over to the lodge, which was just a couple of hundred yards off the west side of the observing field. This was a rustic building not much different in appearance from the group cabins. Inside it was completely different, however, being divided into a couple of “apartments.” Each half featured a bedroom and sitting room and shared a bathroom with a shower. Since it looked like nobody would be in the lodge with me, I could have my pick of either apartment. I chose the front one and threw my stuff on the reasonably comfortable double bed.

Before I left my quarters, I plugged in my little Peltier-cooled ice chest. I bought it one time when a hurricane was threatening The Swamp, since it can be powered by a 12-volt battery as well as AC. It ain’t much larger than a six-pack, but that was all I needed it to cool, a few Colorado Kool-Aids for post-run consumption. One good thing about having the lodge to myself was that there would be multiple outlets available for recharging my many batteries. With no AC on the field, everybody would be competing for the AC in the group cabins and main building after a good, long night.

How did I fill the hours till sunset? There weren’t really that many. The sun wouldn’t set till after 8 p.m., but by the time I finished setup and was settled in my cabin it was already past five. I made one last check of my field position, and, everything copacetic, I stopped by the HQ building for a look-see. With far fewer people onsite than during the Peach State years, there wasn’t much going on. Back out on the field I was pleased to see my old Chiefland buddy Tom Crowley had arrived with his huge RV and huge Dobsonian, and spent a few minutes chatting with him. OK, suppertime.

Thursday that was at the Fresh Air Barbecue. As those of y’all who’ve been reading The Little Old Blog from Chaos Manor South for a while know, my fave BBQ joint of all time is Chiefland’s Bar-B-Q Bill’s. But Fresh Air, which has been in business since freaking 1928, is certainly in the running, and it is most assuredly the best I’ve had in Georgia. It’s right on Highway 23 on the left heading back into Jackson, and it is some kind of good, campers.

Which is not to say it is fancy: wooden tables and benches. Short menu. But the folks there are always nice and the food is always excellent. I know my pork sandwich (on “loaf bread”) was. I supplemented it with a bag of chips—no fries at Fresh Air—a coke, and a bowl of their wondrous Brunswick stew. Y’all, if you ain't had Brunswick stew like they cook in the backwoods of Georgia you ain’t never had Brunswick stew, and if you ain’t had it at the Fresh Air, you ain’t had the best Georgia can offer. Nuff said.

After my solitary supper—the non-RVer GSV folks all seemed to be dining on camp-stove fare on the field—I headed to Jackson for the single item I’d forgot. When I am in a cabin at a star party instead of in a motel, I invariably use a sleeping bag rather than bring along sheets, blankets, etc. That’s cool, but I need to remember to bring my consarned pillows with me. I didn’t this time, so I hit the discount store in town for a couple, which cost me less than ten bucks.

Then it was back to the field to see what would happen with the sky Thursday night. Tell the truth, I didn’t think much would happen with it—at least not much good. It had been mostly cloudy all the way up, and by the time I was settled-in the vault of heaven was a depressingly uniform gray. It didn’t look like there was threatening weather in the offing; we were just well and truly socked in. Which was what the dadgum weatherman had predicted. But, as always, Unk was a glass-half-full kinda guy and stayed out on the field till 'round midnight.

By then the weather hadn’t begun to look better; it had begun to at least feel worse, as if rain might be coming. I secured Celeste with her Desert Storm Cover, covered anything else I thought might need to be covered, grabbed the laptop, and headed for the HQ building. On cloudy Peach State nights I’d spent many a happy hour there shooting the breeze about amateur astronomy. On this night, alas, nobody was hanging out. Everybody was buttoned up in a cabin, tent, or RV I reckoned, ready for bad weather, which arrived with the sound of intermittent raindrops that soon increased to a steady roar.

That was that. When the wet stuff slacked off for a minute I hot-footed it back to the lodge. Dang good thing I had some DVDs with me. I was too tired to think about reading and there was absolutely no Internet available. If there had been, I would have checked the weather, but since there wasn’t I just hoped for the best for Friday and Saturday.

At least I was reasonably comfortable. There was no air conditioning, but there were ceiling fans, which were more than sufficient to make a rainy night in Georgia bearable. Put on the DVD of 2001: A Space Odyssey, poured out a little of that legendary Rebel Yell, made it to the point where Hal refuses to open them gull-dern pod bay doors, and your old Unk was off to dreamland big time.

I was not up early Friday morning. I slept in as late as I could since I reckoned there would not be a hell of a lot to do. I was right. I was very happy to spend plenty of time on the field with friends old and new, but there is only so much Georgia Sun you can stand. I spent a while under my EZ Up with the venerable SkyTools 2, figuring out what I might want to look at Friday night, which, it appeared, might be good enough for visual work if not for imaging. The heavens dang sure were in better shape than they had been Thursday afternoon, but it was still mostly sucker-hole city and looked like it would stay that way to sunset and beyond.

I snacked my way through lunch on Fritos, dip, and similar BAD STUFF. As much as I’d have liked to have made another run on Fresh Air, I was saving room for the big GSV pot luck supper Friday night. Modeled on the famous Chiefland Spring Picnic, the GSV would provide burgers, dogs, and similar picnic entrees, and us observers would furnish side-items and deserts. Unk’s contribution was a thick-frosted chocolate cake he scored in the bakery of Jackson’s small supermarket.

Supper was great, but the main course was afterwards: the sky and the observing we’d come to Indian Springs for. What I mostly did Friday evening, which did turn out to be an acceptable visual night, was Virgo-Coma, concentrating on the bright Messier galaxies during the often hazy and occasionally clouded-out hours we were given. I managed to collect and admire every one of the spring Ms and some of their brighter NGC kin before midnight, when the clouds came back and appeared to be settling in for an extended stay.

Despite us being clouded out just as solidly as on Thursday night, I still had some hopes, so I took a break, went back to the cabin, and watched a DVD, forgoing the Rebel Yell since I thought we might get a break in the weather over the next couple of hours. The DVD? That was a mistake.

Looked in my DVD case. Already watched 2001. What else? Well, there was Friday the Thirteenth. My daughter Lizbeth and I had been on a horror movie jag for a while, and had been re-viewing our beloved slasher films from Halloween onwards. Hmm. Camp Crystal Lake wasn’t a whole lot different from Camp Macintosh, really. And the lodge looked a lot like Crystal Lake’s Counselor’s Cabin where all that bloody unpleasantness ensued. To make a long story short, I got a  little lonely and a little spooked and decided to go back to the field, clouds or no clouds.

Out there, I trotted around a bit, talking to the few people still hanging in. A couple of times there were some semi-clear patches, but none lasted long enough to allow me to get the scope and her CG5 realigned. I sat out for a while, and, when it looked like there might be some sprinkles, covered Celeste back up and got in the Camry, intending to sit for just a few more minutes—it was barely 2 a.m.—and see if it was really gonna rain before heading back to the lodge. Rested my eyes for just a second, and when I opened them again it was after four. And it was still cloudy. I went back to my quarters, Mr. Jason utterly forgotten.

Saturday found me up at mid-morning. I spent a while working on the presentation I’d give later that day. That done, I wandered Camp Macintosh, walking down to Indian Springs' lovely and expansive lake. After that? Without a vendor on site there wasn’t much to do. You will really learn to appreciate the intrepid astronomy dealers who travel hundreds of miles to star parties when you attend an event without their tables to drool over.

Come time for my presentation, “The Care and Feeding of a CAT (adioptric),” and I was pumped and ready to go on. Whoops. The local person doing the talk before mine droned on and on and ON. Fifteen minutes. Half-an-hour. Finally, the GSV organizers could see old Unk was a mite hot under the collar and prompted this dude to wrap up his presentation. 

I’ll admit I was put out. This person ate into my time, since I was the last speaker and would be running up against sunset. I didn’t, however, give a big down-check to the GSV organizers. They did a good job with the event, really, and being able to always keep events on schedule is something that requires more than a few star parties’ experience under the belt. All in all, I felt like I was treated fairly well at GSV 06, though I was a little surprised to be left mostly on my own and somewhat unacknowledged by the staff despite my status as their guest and keynote speaker. My feelings in toto about the GSV? Let's just say "mixed" and leave it at that, I reckon.

Anyhoo, when I finally got onstage my admittedly tech-heavy talk went well. There were plenty of SCT users in the audience, and I managed to answer plenty of their burning questions, both with my PowerPoint presentation and during the Q and A after. I was tempted to keep going, but a glance out the big windows showed darkness was arriving.

If the sky had looked like it had the previous evening, I would have let the questions continue, but it appeared we were finally going get the clearing we’d been hoping for for three days.  I was out on the field quick like a bunny and got my (relatively) new camera, my Meade DSI, ready to go. I had been able to let the CCD stretch its legs under the dark skies of the Deep South Regional Star Gaze the previous October, but I was anxious to let it have a go at the galaxies of spring.

As I was getting ready for my imaging session, a jam session, or at least a concert, was getting underway down at the main building. John Serrie, a prominent keyboard wiz, recording artist, and composer based in Atlanta would be playing for the GSV. While his style of music, New Age, was not exactly Unk’s cup of tea, I was impressed by his talent and professionalism the couple of times I wandered over to have a listen. I even found myself getting into his expansive, “spacey” music.

When it got dark, Unk got down to work. Did a polar alignment with the built-in routine in the CG5’s NexStar hand control, focused my little CCD on a bright star, and began doing the prettiest denizens of the spring sky. Which wasn’t hard with the Meade DSI software, “Envisage,” part of their AutoStar Suite package.

As I’ve remarked before, Envisage ain’t that user friendly, but it will do just about anything except fix the pancakes and bacon. I’d center up a target, focus using the program’s focus-indicator, and tell it to take 30-second exposures (about the limit for the CG5 since I was not guiding) until I told it to stop, stacking the good ones into a final image. Despite having used the software for the last six months, I still found it hard to believe it really could do all that reliably, but it could, and delivered good pictures within the bounds of the DSI Color’s small chip and my meager processing skills.

I captured ‘em one after another: M101, M51, M81, M82, NGC 4565, M63, M64, and a couple more. Who knew when I’d get to use the camera under relatively dark spring skies again? Tell the truth, though, I was somewhat bored. I had nothing at all to do during the exposures. So I began a tour of the field, cadging views from all and sundry, including Tom Crowley, who showed me some mind-blowing sights in his superb big Dob. When I'd finish a circuit of enjoying the hospitality of my fellow amateurs and arrive back at my setup, it would be about time to go on to the next target. When the next exposure was underway, I went back to orbiting the field: “Watcha lookin’ at Mister?!”

As three in the fracking a.m. came on, my usual “all-nighter” limit then or now, I figured I’d better start wrapping things up. There would be packing and drive back to the Swamp in the morning. But I didn’t want to. Something told me this might be my last visit to lovely Camp Macintosh; if not forever, at least for a long time. I dismounted the camera, mounted a diagonal and a Nagler eyepiece, and backtracked down the path I’d been on all night, visually observing the objects I’d imaged and doing a few more till merciless Aurora began to throw open her gates.

In the morning I had a hard time leaving. I spent an hour or so sitting in the camp building doing some preliminary processing of my images from the night before to the accompaniment of the approving words of a few of the folks still onsite. I just did not want to go. Of course I finally went, hitting the road at eleven a.m.

My premonition was correct. I have never been back to Indian Springs either as a speaker or as an attendee. Oh, the Georgia Sky View goes on despite having taken a year or two off here and there over the last six annums, but it goes on without me. I’ve often thought about the place, but the allure of CAV with its motels and darker skies is just too strong. Still, Camp Macintosh and Indian Springs are lovely and very star party friendly and you never know. I may get a yen for Fresh Air barbeque again some spring, muchachos.  

Postscript:  It's fair to say we here at Chaos Manor South, Unk and Miss Dorothy, are in mourning. Just as this blog article was getting the finishing touches we received word that Neil Armstrong had died. All I can say is that millennia hence when all our fads and foibles and "great" and "holy" men are long forgotten his name and legend will live on. A fitting way to pay your respects? Do as Neil's family suggested:  the next time you see a fat Moon hanging in the sky, think of Neil and give it a wink.

Next Time: The Zenith and the Zenit...

Comments:
Rod, great blog , we lost a giant yesterday in the Aerospace Field , Neil was a Great explorer , Engineer and Space Flight Championthat never lost his perspective. I can not think of a greater honor for this man than to emulate his dedication, ethic and modesty in our work today, he will be missed but never forgotten.

Res Gesta Par Excellentiam Ad Astra

Rod be safe, this storm Approaching looks like it could be really bad trouble.

Satman
Cloudy Nights Classic Telescopes Forum
 
We are definitely watching damned old Isaac. Went to bed last night thinking it would go in well to our east. Now? Not so much... :-(
 
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