Monday, August 13, 2007


Almost Heaven?

Yep. When the skies were clear, anyway. Maybe even when they weren’t. Thanks to the hospitality of the good folks at the just-finished Almost Heaven Star Party way up yonder in West Virginia, I thoroughly enjoyed myself even when all I could see was the underside of clouds (or the insides of my eyelids). There was also the blessedly cool weather—I’m talking jacket weather at night, muchachos—what a welcome relief from the “Expect a heat index of 112 today” Weather Channel reports I keep hearing in the Swamp.

When I arrived at the AHSP’s Mountain Institute facility site on top of Spruce Knob Mountain (not far from Circleville, West Virginia, about 4 hours from DC's Dulles airport), I could tell it was gonna be a nice weekend. While the trip up from Possum Swamp was not an easy one due to the tender mercies of what passes for our airline industry (ever been REVERSE screened?), the good folks of NOVAC and VOLT, the star party's two organizing entities, made made me feel at home right away. They had also made my journey a little less arduous than it would otherwise have been, arranging a ride up from Dulles that saved me from an intimidating drive (thanks AGAIN, Lyle).

What’s observing from the top of a mountain like? While the site is hilly, as you’d expect (!), there was plenty of room for over 150 excited observers and their scopes, which ranged down in aperture from 25-inches, and included some purty danged serious hardware. The “what else” that makes this a great star party site is what makes any star party great: facilities. I don’t care HOW dad-blamed good your skies are, if your “facilities” consist of two porta-potties and a picnic table or three, don’t expect success.

Spruce Knob is almost luxurious in its amenities. In addition to a meeting hall, bunkhouses, and cabins (all in an odd but functional mock-Mongolian-Yurt design …no, I ain’t kidding; ask me about yurt living one of these days), there’s a large deck that overlooks the observing fields and which proved to be a great gathering spot for meals (the food, cooked onsite by the Institute folks, was fairly good all things considered), talks, and general hanging out

One of the most encouraging facets of the AHSP? The many young folks and young families that were present. If the youthful and energetic makeup of the group at AHSP is any indication, the 21st is gonna be a good century for amateur astronomy

Other than observing, what do most of us look forward to doin' at a star party? BUYIN' ASTRO STUFF, of course! For those of us without a nearby dealership, being able to actually examine the merchandise before buying is a rare treat. This year, two outstanding dealers were present at AHSP, long-time astro-biz fixture Gary Hand (Hands on Optics), and a newer outfit, Astrogizmos, who specialize in interesting and useful accessories. Naturally, your ol' Uncle couldn't resist opening his moth-eaten wallet a time or two.

But who am I kidding? I know that no matter what I say about the everything-else, you little birds are wanting to know just one thing: HOW WERE THE SKIES? Thursday night was (I was told) pretty much a washout. Friday night? A few minutes in the early evening and a few minutes in the late evening/early morning. Saturday, though? Hoo boy! I am not exaggerating when I say I have never, ever seen better skies east of the Mississippi.

Equipped with a pair of Celestron 10x50 binocs I’d brought along and a loaner Celestron C6 SCT, I was in deep sky heaven. The Milky Way from Sagittarius to Cassiopeia was a wonderland, stretching from horizon to horizon like some great, burning rainbow. Marvel after marvel fell to my binocs, the C6, and the many scopes whose owners graciously let Your Old Uncle take a peep. Examples? When was the last time you saw, really saw, M101 in a pair of 10x50s? How about M110? Or were honestly able to call The Eagle's (M16's) nebulosity "bright"—in a 6-inch scope? Suffice to say, I sucked-in sky for as long as I dared. If anything, my trip back would be even more punishing for someone of my—ahem—“advanced age.” So at 1 in the a.m., unsated, it was back to the yurt, a draught of 'Yell, and let's-call-it-a-night for me.

I’m sure my down-home manner puzzled some of the good AHSP folks and irritated plenty of others, so I definitely appreciate ‘em not only putting up with me for a long weekend, but just being so darned nice.

Up next? The Idaho Star Party

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