Sunday, October 16, 2011


My Favorite Star Parties: Peach State Star Gaze 2001

I planned to bring you an observing article this week; one about DSLR imaging with the Atlas/EQMOD, or maybe about a Herschel Project run with the Stellacam. ‘Twas not to be, muchachos. The first Saturday of the month’s dark of the Moon window was resolutely clouded out. On the second Saturday, Unk was onboard LPD22 for her sea trials in the Gulf. We were scheduled to get in Saturday morning, so I had some hope, but, naturally, events fell behind schedule, and it was after dark before we pulled back into port in Pascagoula.

Not that there wasn’t anything astro-related going on. Miss Dorothy and I traveled to Pensacola, Florida to the excellent Escambia Amateur Astronomers’ Association for telescope guru Doc Clay Sherrod’s annual talk. Miss Dorothy and I had a great time visiting with my old friend Clay and his wife, Patsy, and listening to yet another of Doc’s interesting presentations, “Doc Clay’s Delorean Time Machine.” The EAAA is a great club, and Miss D. and I always appreciate their generous hospitality. Wish you coulda been there. But, no, we didn’t do any observing. Not e’en a look at Jupiter with the Starblast, muchachos.

So, today will be the beginning of a new series. What I mean by “my favorite star parties,” by the way, is my favorite individual outings, not my favorite events. I love the Texas Star Party and think in some ways it is The Greatest, but I have sometimes had better trips to the Chiefland Astronomy Village (it can be cloudy and rainy in West Texas night after night believe it or not).  And I have had some great times, if not always great skies, at the Deep South Regional Star Gaze, and at the subject this time, Georgia’s Peach State Star Gaze (PSSG).

It takes more than great skies to make a star party especially memorable. How good a time I have is often affected by what else is going on. When work is super stressful, getting down to Chiefland is super special. The 2001 edition of the (old) Peach State Star Gaze came right after a date that will, like 12/7/1941, live in infamy: 9/11/2001. If ever I and everybody else needed to de-stress, that was the time, and PSSG seemed like the perfect way to do it.

If the star party went on as scheduled. PSSG registrants were quickly informed via email that it would indeed. Since I work in the defense industry, I did wonder if I’d be able to take a few days off. Turned out I could. The shipyard was revamping and enhancing security and they did not want us around. So PSSG 2001 was G-O. The only problem would be for anyone who intended to fly in for the event; the air travel system was still completely shut down.

I bet most of you southern boys and girls know all about Peach State—I’d even guess a lot of you Yanks know about the star party held at Georgia’s equivalent of the Chiefland Astronomy Village, the Deerlick Astronomy Village. Well, that ain't the PSSG I am talking about; I am talking about its twice-removed ancestor, the original Peach State, held at Indian Springs State Park near Jackson, Georgia.

Back in the early 1990s, key members of the Atlanta Astronomy Club, including the current editor of The Strolling Astronomer (ALPO), Ken "Kenpo" Poshedly, began asking themselves why there was no star party in Georgia. I’ve often asked myself the same thing about Alabama, but Georgia’s lack of a star party was even more curious. Seemed strange a state that’s home to an astronomy club as large and active as the AAC didn’t have a big event to call its own. “Kenpo” and company set out to change that starting in 1994.

Indian Springs' outstanding kitchen/auditorium/bathrooms/warm room building.
The original home of the PSSG near Jackson, Georgia, had pluses and minuses. A big plus was the state park where the event was held. Indian Springs State Park was adjacent to a beautiful lake and was possessed of a slightly-larger-than-football-field sized open area for observing, a large dining hall/auditorium perfect for star party talks and meals, another building that served equally well as a vendors’ hall, and fairly modern, clean cabins. The small town of Jackson was only a few miles away—close enough to make its stores and restaurants a good resource, but far enough away to make its light dome mostly a non-factor.

Course, like any site, there were the downers, too. While the field was nice, it was barely large enough to accommodate the Atlanta crowd, and as the reputation of the PSSG began to spread and it began to attract observers from Alabama and Tennessee, astronomers were packed in like consarned sardines.

There was the sky's condition, too. Jackson is only about 50 miles south of Atlanta, not far enough to disperse the huge light dome of that megalopolis. That was not fatal, though, since the worst of the light pollution was confined to the northwestern sky, an area of comparatively little interest much of the time. And, thankfully, Atlanta’s light dome petered out quickly as it approached 30-degrees of altitude. As I have often said, it’s worth it to me to put up with less than perfect skies for a site with good amenities like Indian Springs.

Back in the early years of the last decade I was teaching my university astronomy lab two-nights a week, one of which was Wednesday. I planned to leave bright and early Thursday morning, but by the time I finished stuffing the sprouts’ heads with astronomical knowledge, I was too tired to do much packing. I did manage to drag some of my astro-stuff into the front parlor. Thursday morning, I double-checked the gear checklist, loaded the fairly substantial pile into my 1996 Camry, and hit I-65 a little after seven.

My 1995 Ultima C8, Celeste, would be the primary instrument for this expedition, but on a whim, I threw my still relatively new Celestron Short Tube 80 refractor into the backseat. I’d bought a simple and somewhat crude but economical and very useable piggyback bracket for the little scope from Ken Dauzat, and I wanted to see what the 80 would do under PSSG’s fairly dark skies. The few times I’d had “Woodstock” out of the city, the 80mm f/5 had performed amazingly well; the North America Nebula was a treat in the refractor’s wide, wide field.

This was in the days before I embraced go-to, and Celeste was on her original large fork mount and in her original large case, so she took up a substantial amount of space in the trunk. Add various eyepiece and equipment boxes, a tent canopy, an observing table, an ice chest, and numerous other necessities (no laptop in those days), and the Toyota was on the full side. Since Miss Dorothy was unable to attend, I could be a little sloppy with my packing to save time, letting the overflow flow into the passenger seat.

Good, old Stuckey's
The trip from the Swamp to Indian Springs is about equal in length to the trip to Chiefland, Florida, six to six-and-a-half hours, and without the lovely Miss D. to talk to, I had to find something to occupy my mind. I listened to 9-11 news on NPR for an hour or so, until I had enough—the newscasters were just repeating the same information over and over—and then started a book-on-tape (really on tape back then), Michael White’s Newton, the Last Sorcerer. Ten cassettes would be about right for the trip up and back, and if it were good, it would make the trip go much faster. It was good. I still remember the book vividly years down the line and recommend it highly.

I wasn’t in a huge hurry, since the field would not (supposedly) open till 1 p.m., so I stopped off at one of me and D’s traditions, the Stuckey’s just south of Montgomery. Y’all know me: if there is the remotest possibility of a fried chicken biscuit for breakfast, I will make time for it. After enjoying the greasy goodness—hell, y'all, I had a glass of orange juice to make breakfast healthy—it was back in the Camry for the run into Georgia on I-85.

Before long, I was taking the first Newnan exit for the last 100-mile leg of the trip. It took a little longer than I thought it would, since I got behind every dadgum farm pickup truck and tractor in central Georgia, but eventually the narrow two-lane highways gave way to improved roads as I approached Jackson, which is just about smack in the middle of the state.

Jackson was a little town that was hanging on somehow. Its old and picturesque main street had obviously suffered some decades of economic hard times, but it looked like new life was stirring, with the town hotel being renovated. I’d heard retirees from Atlanta were moving south, and that, I thought, might help this still clean small town.

Using the driving directions I’d printed off the Auburn (Alabama) Astronomical Society's excellent website in those pre GPS days, I had no trouble at all finding PSSG. This wasn’t my first visit, which helped, but if you could get to Indian Springs, which wasn’t hard, you could get to the star party site, which was held in a section of the park referred to as “Camp Macintosh.”

The main (and only) observing field.
I pulled up at the main building, picked up my information/registration packet and T-shirt from the uber-organized staff, and took a look at the observing field. Rut-roh. I had wondered if the attendance would be as large as normal due to the events of 9-11. Was it ever. At 1 p.m. the observing field was packed. Which teed off Unk a little bit. Actually, more like a lot. 

The main criticism I had of the old PSSG was that they apparently did not enforce their rule that the observing field would not open till afternoon on the first day. At least they did not enforce it for everyone. Apparently, if you were on the star party staff or were a buddy of someone on the staff, the rules did not apply to you, and you could set up as early as you liked. Folks, that is no way to run a star party. I did partly excuse them since this was a fairly new event, but they still should have known better than to play these kinds of games.

It was catch as catch can field-position-wise, with me securing a spot on the southwest side on a semi-slope. That was OK in that it gave me good access to objects coming up in the east and provided some shade from the still fierce Georgia afternoon Sun. It pretty much denied me the sinking southern wonders of summer, however. With close to 250 folks in attendance, even if I’d got there earlier, I probably wouldn’t have been able to do much better.

Got everything unpacked, C8 assembled, tent canopy up, and paid a visit to my cabin. While this was an open bay arrangement, a large room with about ten bunks, it was clean and so was the bathroom. As usual, I didn’t worry about bedclothes, just plopped a sleeping bag down on the bearable G.I. bunk.

How did I spend the remaining hours till darkness? Wandering the field, visiting old AAC friends, hanging out with the Possum Swamp AS and Auburn AS members who’d made the trip up, and having “eyeball QSOs,” meeting in person for the first time with several members of my SCT User Yahoogroup, which, like the other Yahoo astro-groups, was still going strong in the years before the Cloudy Nights bulleting boards began to take over.

Open bay barracks, but OK.
What was on the field besides nice folks? Not too many new scopes. The usual mix of Meade LX200s, Big Dobs, Celestron SCTs old and young, a few APO refractors, some classics, and an Ultima 2000 C8 or two. This was during a lull in the astro-biz, just as the new generation of go-to SCTs was aborning. The Celestron NexStars were around, but not in any numbers, and Meade hadn’t shown anything new in a while. Just before dark, my frequent observing companion in those long-ago days, Pat Rochford, called with the hot-off-the-presses news that Meade was discontinuing the much-loved LX200 classic in favor of a new SCT they were calling the "LX200 GPS." “Well, I’ll be dogged,” Unk thought.

After touring the field setups for a while, it was time to think about F-O-O-D. At this stage of the game, the PSSG did not offer a regular meal plan. Thankfully, the AAC Women’s Auxiliary (who at the time were calling themselves “The Ladies of the Night” (!)) were selling hotdogs and hamburgers. Commendably, they’d decided to donate the proceeds to the Red Cross that year. A burger and a dog and some of the junk food I’d brought along (Fritos; I had yet to discover the joys of Jack Links), and I was set and ready for darkness.

When that came, there was no denying the site was not perfect, whatever that is, but you coulda fooled me. The Summer Milky Way was bright and prominent overhead and as long as I didn’t look north, I almost forgot I was in spitting distance of Hot Lanta.

As I stood gazing at the September stars winking on, the events of two days before seemed far away. Until I stopped and realized how different the sky was. Oh, it was no darker than usual, but it was a lot less busy. Jackson is in the glide path of Hartsfield International Airport, and astro-imagers really have to keep an eye peeled for descending airliners. Not on this night. With the airlines still shut down the heavens were spookily empty.

Kenpo (l) and the late Marv Uphaus (r).
What did I look at on this nice late summer evening? I’d brought a list printed with Deepsky 2000 (this was before I discovered SkyTools), and the AAC’s deep sky guru/astro-writer, Rich Jakiel, had put together an excellent list to hand out, “Peach Fuzzies.” On this first evening I kept it a little simpler. To start off, I toured the best and brightest of the late summer early fall marvels. Nothing hard—M13, M15, M27, M57, M2, the usual suspects. I was a little weary, but I wanted to see some different stuff too. Since I didn’t feel like spending the night squinting at a star atlas or fussing over my C8’s analog setting circles, I decided I’d do a detailed survey of the Great Andromeda Nebula, M31.

It had been a long time since I’d looked—really looked—at this marvel. Like most of ya’ll, I usually take a quick glance at it once every fall and move on. On this night, I gave it plenty of time and saw one heck of a lot, from its tiny and somehow almost frightening star-like nucleus to subtle details near that nucleus, to the immense star cloud NGC 206, to two dark lanes, to satellite galaxies M32 and NGC 205. 

I didn’t stop there, though. I’d had a project in mind for a while and had a finder chart that pointed the way to M31’s more prominent globular star clusters. I spotted the brightest of those, the massive G1, with fair ease. It didn’t look like much, just a slightly fuzzy star, but I was gobsmacked to think my humble C8 brought me the globular cluster of another galaxy.

Celeste showed off Andromeda’s details beautifully, but you and I both know this huge thing is best at very low power. That’s one of the reasons I’d decided to toss the ST80 in the car. In the short refractor, M31 really looked like a galaxy. The little scope picked up the dark lanes with amazing ease, and the immense disk seemed to stretch on forever. It was even better than in binoculars, since I could use a variety of magnifications with the Short Tube 80.

After that? The clock was, unbelievably, ticking on toward 3 a.m. One last look at sinking globular cluster M15 with the C8, where it was glorious, and a peep at it with the Short Tube 80, where it was very good, if not showing even a hint of resolution, and I was ready to pull the Big Switch. Not only was I weary, but it was also getting chilly and damp and the sky was beginning to close down, with haze moving in.

The big windows were a problem for projectors, but not a show stopper.
Scope covered and gear secured, I sat in my lawn chair and toasted the heavens with a Dixie Cup of Rebel Yell, ruminating on the strange "water" constellations of autumn I'd wandered and those of winter that were now following them into the sky. Yeah, the stars of winter beckoned, but they would wait. I headed for the warm bunkhouse.

I must have been more tired than I thought, since it was well after 9 a.m. before I finally crawled out of my bunk Friday morning. No need to worry about breakfast, since it was nearly time for lunch by the time I got out of the shower and left the cabin. I ran a weather eye over the sky and wasn’t pleased at what I was seeing. The haze that had moved in early that morning had been followed by real clouds. Welp, no use worrying about what I couldn’t change. I moseyed on over to the meeting hall.

Following hamburgers, hotdogs, and chips, the programs got underway. The excellent talks more than filled the hours till supper. They were all good, but two that stood out were Rich Jakiel’s presentation on the history of deep sky observing and Art Russell’s talk about the hows and whys of star hopping. Only sad thing? The keynote speaker was to have been legendary celestial cartographer Wil Tirion, but the shutdown of the airlines prevented him from flying in from Europe (he made it to the next year’s PSSG, but that is a story for another time).

During a lull in the presentations, Unk naturally wandered next door to the vendor hall. Usually, the PSSG was host to three or four dealers, but this year only Wolf Camera from Sarasota, Florida showed up. I assumed the events of 9-11 had encouraged some of the usual sellers to stay home. No matter. Wolf’s Chuck Pisa had a lot of nice gear on display. Somehow I resisted buying everything in sight, and confined my purchases to a 2-inch Kendrick heater strip.

The little venue that served as the vendor building.
By the time I finished shopping, the shadows were lengthening and it was near-about time for supper. The AAC wouldn’t be doing a meal, so I’d need to head into town for some grub. My friends from the Auburn club insisted I just had to try the Fresh Air Barbecue, which was just down the road from the park.

I don’t know if the barbeque there was really “the best in the south” as the Fresh Air claimed, but man was it good. The menu was not extensive, but it was more than sufficient: pork sandwiches on "loaf" bread, chopped (not pulled) pork, chicken, good sides, and some of the best Brunswick stew I have had anywhere in Georgia—which is saying a lot. I was more than satisfied. I also had the amusing experience of seeing one of my fellow observers from a place well north of Georgia attempt to order mayo on his pork sandwich (!). I was right behind him in line, and the pretty little counter girl turned to me and said, “What is wrong with him?! Is he one of them YANKEES?!”

After this outstanding meal, it was back to the site to wait for dark. When the Sun finally got out of the way, I was hopeful. There were still clouds, but it appeared to be tending to “clearing,” and there were some sizeable sucker holes along the Meridian. I got started in the Cygnus area, doing about a dozen DSOs, including a couple of cool planetaries from Rich’s Peach Fuzzies list I’d never seen before. Alas, the clearing trend began to reverse itself well before midnight, with the last of the holes closing by 11 p.m.

What to do? I wasn’t a bit sleepy and had no intention of turning-in at 11 fracking o’clock. I wandered over to the meeting hall and found a lot of my fellow observers felt the same. I spent the next several hours shooting the breeze with buddies including my old friend Kenpo, drinking coffee, eating Little Debbie cakes and other sugar-laden treats the AAC had laid out, and peeping outside at the sky every few minutes.

About 2 o’clock, I stuck my head out to find the weather had not improved; we were totally socked in. Oh, well. I wandered back onto the field to my picnic canopy, broke out the Yell, had a dollop or three, and headed for the bunkhouse. As frequently happens when Unk throws in the towel, it did clear, but not till after 3:30. By which time I was snoozing heavily. If I had to miss some dark sky time, at least I didn’t miss much.

The weather was much improved when I awoke Saturday, the last day of PSSG 2001. The heavens were that beautiful shade of blue that spells “deep sky heaven.” The clouds of the previous night had been in advance of a cold front, which had moved through bringing not just clearing but blessedly cool temperatures. Thank God, no more roasting in the Georgia Sun!

As afternoon came in, it was time for that star party institution, the raffle. I don’t care if I am at the Peach State Star Gaze or the Idaho Star Party, one thing is a constant: Unk Rod rarely wins a blessed thing. So it was this year, with my chances not being enhanced by the fact that the prize count was down compared to 2000. In 2001, the economy was sputtering a little, though not like it is now, and I assume some prize donors had to cut back.

Walking out of the main building, I was suddenly concerned about the sky again. More clouds, including some of the dreaded high cirrus. This had nothing to do with the front that had moved past; instead it was the remnants of a late-in-the-season tropical storm, Gabrielle, whose clouds had been the source of at least some of our weather problems all along. The good part? The weather reports we were able to pick up on radio were unanimous in insisting the sky would clear. The only question was when.

Supper this evening was off-site again, at a much recommended local restaurant, Buckner’s up on the Bucksnort Road (I am not making that up). A bunch of us hopped in cars and convoyed to the restaurant, Unk riding with a fellow Alabamian, my old pal Robert Rock. What did we find when we got there? A clean little restaurant combined with a bluegrass/gospel music hall. There was a long line to get in, so us PSSGers figured we were in for a treat.

Buckner's--famous for having hosted Ellie Mae.
Buckner’s chief claim to fame (attested to by many glossy photos), was that they had once hosted Donna Douglas, who played the erstwhile Ellie Mae Clampett of Beverly Hillbillies fame. That seemed about right for this very country place. What was a little odd was the way the food was served. You were plunked down at a big round table with up to a dozen fellow diners. The food was placed on a huge lazy Susan mounted to the table. You served yourself, turning the thing to bring the dish of your desire to you.

What kind of dishes? The food was good old southern country cooking and NOTHING else: fried chicken (really good fried chicken), barbeque, pork chops, ham, greens and other down-home vegetables, lots of cornbread, all washed down with gallons of sweet tea. Pork fat was involved in almost everything, which was cool with me. As Emeril Legasse, whose cooking show was everybody’s fave back then, used to say, “pork fat RULES!” 

All us southern boys and girls were happy. Even if this was not the fare we ate day-in, day-out in these latter days, it was still familiar from mama's and grandma’s tables. I will say a couple of our northern brothers and sisters were badly puzzled by the cuisine, “What is this green leafy stuff with the CHUNKS in it?!”

Back at Indian Springs and the PSSG, the darned clouds lingered on. Man did they linger. It wasn’t till 11 p.m. that the wind sprang up and began to blow them out. But in short order they were gone, revealing black skies spangled by diamond-hard stars. It was the last night of the star party, and I’d want to get up reasonably early to pack and hit the road, so I pushed the C8 hard, trying to cover as much deep sky ground as possible in the few hours left to me.

The cleanliness of the sky allowed me to see objects and details I’d have thought impossible from this supposedly “average” site. The Crescent Nebula, NGC 6888, which is usually kinda hard for a C8, even from a better location, wasn’t just there; it was exquisitely detailed, especially in my Lumicon OIII filter-equipped 12mm Nagler. SWEET!

The night was getting old now, and the lustrous stars of winter were peeping up over the horizon. Naturally, Celeste and I headed that-a-way. We visited quite a few winter favorites in the time remaining to us, doing a tour of as many of Auriga’s multitudinous open clusters as we could find. The hit on this evening wasn’t a star cluster, though, but a galaxy. Yes, there are galaxies among the winter stars away from the Zone of Avoidance, and NGC 1023 in Perseus was a spectacular one on this night.

At 300x in the surprisingly steady seeing, this usually small SB0 galaxy was large and detailed. What was really cool was the way the distant sprite gave a chilling reminder of the true depth and scope of the Universe. Compared to the galaxy, the clusters in Auriga were my friendly next-door neighbors, no more distant than Jackson, Georgia. I looked and looked and looked, trying to drink in as many photons as I could before Big Switch Time. I kept on keeping on till nearly 4 a.m. before pulling that accursed switch.

Indian Springs' lovely lake.
Somehow, someway I was up at 8:30 to pack and was on the road not much more than an hour later, saying my farewells to beautiful Indian Springs, maybe forever, or so I thought at the time. Why forever? For its 2002 edition, the PSSG would be moving to a new location, White Water Express up in Tennessee. The field at Indian Springs was cramped, the skies not perfect, and the star party management thought it was time for a change.

That particular change did not last. For a variety of reasons, the Tennessee site was not viable over the long run. One of those reasons was for non-Atlanta based attendees, those to the south, Tennessee was a little far to go. Several competing fall events like the Chiefland Star Party and the Deep South Regional Star Gaze (the PSSG’s original inspiration) were within that nearly perfect 6 hour driving range. I gave the 2002 PSSG a try but didn’t return after that. Nice place, and I had a good time, but just a little too far given skies that were hardly perfect. The event stayed on in Tennessee until 2007, when a more convenient and darker site was found, the Deerlick Astronomy Village, which is not only dark, but much closer to Atlanta.

No, I’ve never been back to Peach State, though if, as planned, Miss Dorothy and I retire to Atlanta, you can bet I will be a PSSGer again. I did make it back to Indian Springs, though. When the AAC departed, another Georgia club, the Flint River Astronomy Club, began holding a new event, the Georgia Sky View, at Indian Springs. These folks had me up as a speaker several times. Unfortunately, their star party was not to be a long running event, coming and going after a few iterations. Nevertheless, I hope to get back to that lovely park again some day some way. Even if I don’t, muchachos, I have my wonderful memories of PSSG 2001, the year when we all needed a break and got one with good skies and great people.

Good column like you I remember the day 9-11-2001
The fear of what was going to happen next, I remember watching the planes disappearing off the national radar display one by one, when the order was given for all aircraft to land, for hours after the event. Days after this life changing day I reflected on what I really wanted to do with my limited spare time , I decided to return to my hobby of youth, (never totally abandoned) with an increased vigor and have never looked back. Rod you should really publish all your blogs in a book it is a unique look at the hobby for
us of a certain age who have walked the similar path to the stars.

Best Regards ,
Thanks for your _very_ kind words...

Wow this is really spectacular too read. I read it 4 times, great experience and written so nice. Great job Uncle Rod :)
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