Sunday, November 20, 2011


My Favorite Star Parties: TNSP 2003

It’s still cloudy, muchachos, and I have a sea trial for the Navy’s newest ship, LPD 22, to ride, so this week it will be another trip down memory lane to one of Unk’s most fondly remembered star parties. This time way up north to Tennessee and lovely Camp Nakanawa.

Some of my favorite star party outings have been to those events like the Deep South Regional Star Gaze and the Chiefland Star Party that I return to year in and year out like a swallow to Capistrano. Not this time. I had never been to the Tennessee Star Party before the 2003 edition—heck, I probably didn’t even know there was a TNSP—and I haven’t been back since. That doesn’t matter; the good times I had there are still fresh in memory eight years down the road.

The story of me and Miss D’s TNSP trip actually begins at the 2003 ALCON, the 2003 Astronomical League Convention. Unk fulfilled a lifelong dream by not just attending the ALCON, but by being a speaker at that storied event. When I was a young sprout looking at the pictures of those serious ALers in Sky and Telescope, I didn’t dream that one day I’d be among them; not just as an attendee, but as a speaker. Which is a nice story, but not the story for this Sunday.

The 2003 ALCON was hosted by Nashville’s Barnard – Seyfert Astronomical Society, a large and active club. Apparently my presentation impressed these good folks (believe it or no) and they decided to invite me up to their big state star party. While the journey from Possum Swamp would be a not inconsiderable one, sitting under hot, humid, cloudy skies it sounded great; even if we only got to spend a couple of days there. TNSP was a young event, and, like many new star parties, it was initially only a two-dayer, 26 – 27 September in 2003.

Our teeny-tiny cabin.
The 2003 TNSP’s site, Camp Nakanawa, is on the national historic register as it should be. This privately owned camp has been around since the early years of the last century in mostly unchanged fashion in the east-central part of Tennessee near tiny Crossville. It was founded in 1920 by Colonel L.L. Rice with its express purpose being to help “young ladies” reach their potential. Young ladies have changed a lot in the near century that’s elapsed since then, but the basic mission of Nakanawa hasn’t, and good on ‘em. The pictures we were able to find on the Internet showed us the summer camp’s incredible scenery, but didn’t prepare us for the amazing antique-but-still-alive feel of Nakanawa. Before we could experience that, we had to get there.

The drive from Possum Swamp to Crossville is a long one as I judge such things, and one I probably wouldn’t have made it if I were doing it on my own dime. The condition of Nakanawa’s sky would be a partial unknown, and the knowns didn’t sound any too good. Looking at a map, Crossville was barely 75 miles from Chattanooga, and I doubted that was quite enough distance to completely dispel the huge light dome of that big, spread-out Tennessee city. But what the hey, this was a speaking engagement and if I saw anything at all, that would just be the cherry on top.

Since Miss D. and I would be driving up, this was one time I’d be able to take a telescope with me on a professional engagement. That telescope would be my almost new Celestron NexStar 11, Big Bertha. While I’d only had her a year or so, I was already blown away by her capabilities, and being not-quite-over-the hill at the time, I was taking Bertha with me everywhere. In addition to the scope we packed a few, support items: observing table, gear boxes, etc. We tried to keep the astro-stuff to a minimum. TNSP was only two days, and the prime goal was, as always, to do a good job as speaker, not to go deep sky crazy all night long.

Bertha snug under her Desert Storm cover.
But, yeah, we had to get there first, and Miss Dorothy’s schedule prevented an early start. We got going before afternoon, but just barely, loading up the Camry for what would be a near nine-hour drive. Our late departure impelled us to make the trip up a two-dayer, which was actually kinda fun. It would have been even more fun if the motel Unk picked, just outside Huntsville, hadn’t been situated in a dry county. When I tried to order a beer at the nearby Applebee's, the waitress said, “No way, hon. ‘Round here it is coke or sweet tea.” Oh, well, I had plenty of “supplies” back in the room.

Next day, we did get an early enough start, if not too early, since we were practically in Tennessee already. The last part of the journey wasn’t quite as quick as I thought it would be, though, since it consisted of two hours on two-lane country roads. I was a little P.O.ed at that (“put out;” this is a family-friendly blog, you-all), but it turned out to be the best part of the trip up. Those two hours were filled with beautiful mountain scenery as we climbed to the plateau on which Crossville and Camp Nakanawa are located.

Even in those pre Tom-Tom days, we had no problem finding the star party; the directions provided on the Barnard-Seyfert AS’ excellent website were more than sufficient. We soon found ourselves at registration, which was held under a park-style pavilion near the entrance to the camp. I prefer to be treated like one of the guys, usually, but the way the BSAS folks went out of their way to get us settled was mucho appreciated and reassuring, since we were in unknown territory with (mostly) folks we did not know.

Housing? There were several options available for star party guests, but D. and I were assigned to the oddest and maybe the coolest cabin I’ve ever been in at a star party, a tiny two bed chickie that Miss Dorothy immediately pronounced “adorable.” While it was like a chickie cabin, it was quite different from those you usually encounter at out of the way camps. It was clean, in excellent repair, very comfortable, and had the same historical gravitas of Nakanawa’s other buildings.

The dining hall.
Next thing on the agenda was, of course, equipment set-up. I didn’t find much to criticize about the observing field. It was for sure more than big enough, its huge expanse making it way more than sufficient for the 150 or so observers at TNSP 2003. It would have provided plenty of room for future star party growth if TNSP had stayed at Nakanawa over the long run (more on that later). If there was a single down-check, it was that the field had just been cut, and the grass must have been pretty high when it was. The clumps of mown grass covering the field were an irritation if not an impediment to getting tents set up.

Actually, Miss Dorothy and I made do without our usual tent-canopy. The short stay, weather reports that didn’t sound overly astro-friendly, and my intention to focus on my role as speaker led us to downsize on gear more than we had before or have since. But that was OK; at least set up was derned quick. Since my presentation wouldn’t be until the next day, Saturday the 27th, all we had left to do was wait for supper and darkness.

Supper, ah yes. A sign on one of the buildings near Nakanawa’s huge, old, and perfectly preserved dining hall proclaimed “Our food is really good!” And it was as simple as that. Simple, yes—we had spaghetti that night—but prepared with obvious care. Even better than the food, though, was the company. The BSAS folks were all very friendly and eager to make us feel at home. And there were a few familiar faces from across the southeast. Dorothy and I were very happy to be able to have ALPO’s Dr. Richard Schmude, who we’d met at the AL conference that spring, as our dinner companion.

Looking toward the vendor building from the field.
Good food and good people, right on. But let’s be honest, what you and me think and obsess about at a star party is “What is the sky gonna do?” The answer on Friday night was “Hard to say, but don’t look so hot.” Oh, things started off pretty promisingly at sundown, but the humidity was high, real high. As you know, moisture laden air makes any light pollution far worse than it is under dry conditions. There was a fairly prominent light dome from nearby Crossville, and there was noticeable sky-brightening to the south in the direction of Chattanooga, as I’d expected.

Still, that sky had possibilities and I thought it might be impressive under better weather conditions. Frankly, we were lucky to get in any observing at all on Friday night. The haze turned out to be in advance of a fairly violent storm system. Nevertheless, I was able to see some pretty stuff with Bertha, including the Veil Nebula, which was surprisingly prominent, and little NGC 404 near Beta Andromedae. Staring at Mirach’s Ghost, I began to wonder if conditions were as bad as I thought they were and whether they might actually be getting better. Not. I continued on for a while, focusing on the bright favorites of late summer and early fall, but clouds, real clouds, began to cover the sky about midnight.

I wasn’t quite ready for bed, so I covered the scope and wandered over to the big open air pavilion on the west side of the field that served as the vendors’ hall. There I found some old friends, Bill Burgess of Burgess Optical and Ken Dauzat of Ken’s Rings and Things. Bill’s setup included several of the Chinese achromatic refractors he was selling in those days. I was particularly impressed by the view of Mars I got through his 127mm f/8 rig between cloud bands. Mars was just a month or so past its record breaking 2003 opposition and was a welter of detail in Bill’s scope. It was all I could do to resist pulling out the credit card. Wisely, I moved on to Ken’s tables.

The Wigwam
Mr. Dauzat was showing a lot of cool accessories, but what really caught my eye was his custom ETX 125 OTAs. These telescopes lacked the normal plastic rear cells and flip mirror assemblies of a standard ETX, being equipped instead with metal cells and 2-inch capable rear ports. The only drawback to these scopes, which were originally designed to be used in an optical communications system, was that the correctors were not coated. You’d never have known that from the images they produced, though.

I spent quite a bit of time admiring the pretty playthings and sucking down the coffee and hot chocolate the TNSP organizers served during the wee hours. I took frequent looks at the sky, but it was clearly getting worse instead of better, and I was finally chased back to our chickie by the sound of thunder. In those benighted days I didn’t travel with a laptop and barely knew what a DVD was, so after a few minutes of listening to the rising wind and booming thunder and drinking Rebel Yell it was off to night-night land.

When I awoke I didn’t have to look outside to know the weather situation had not improved. It wasn’t just thunder I was hearing, but rain. So it goes. It was time to focus on my presentation, “The Care and Feeding of a CAT,” a talk concerning, as you might guess, the maintenance of a Schmidt Cassegrain Telescope to include, naturally, collimation.

After a breakfast and a lunch that were worth getting rained on for, Miss Dorothy and I were off to the building where the talks would be held. “The Wigwam” was possibly the most historic structure still standing at Nakanawa, a somewhat strange round construction of braced tree trunks and rough hewn planks decorated with paintings and drawings done by girls during their 1920s summers. I was gobsmacked by how recognizable the camp in their drawings still was. After marveling at these amazing relics, we settled in to listen to presentations on everything from cosmology to planetary observing. All were excellent and well received. I just hoped mine would be.

Inside the Wigwam.
Big group, including some very prominent amateur astronomers, and Unk was naturally a little nervous. I needn’t have been. My audience was polite and, I was relieved to find, genuinely interested. Let’s face it, SCT collimation is a black art for novices, and even veterans are always anxious to hear about new collimation methods and ideas. I got not just rapt attention during my talk, but dozens of questions after. When these finally slacked off, I was asked to join a panel discussion with the day’s other presenters where we fielded audience questions on everything from String Theory to ETs and flying saucers.

After the talks were done and the rain had passed, I wandered around the camp, videoing all and sundry and marveling at my surroundings. Lake Aloaloa was shrouded in an eerie mist following the storm, and when a breeze brushed by I thought I could hear echoes of the laughter of long-ago little girls in it.

Striking as everything looked after the storm, it was also damp. And slippery. Wouldn’t you know it? I tripped and slipped and went you-know-what over teakettle. Luckily, my pride was more hurt than my bod. Nursing my scrapes, I hoped a front would come through and dry things out. Even if it cleared, the high humidity would mean conditions no better than the previous night.

After supper, another really great supper, it became clear a front would barrel through. The temperature was dropping precipitously and the clouds were fleeing with ever greater speed. It took until about 10 p.m. for the mess to completely blow out, but when it did it was obvious we were in for a treat.

Eerie mist made the place look more like Camp Crystal Lake.
Not only was the sky clear, it was black, velvet black, studded with a million stars. Yes, I could still make out some sky glow from Crossville and Chattanooga, but it was nearly gone. The sky at Camp Nakanawa was now gorgeous. With my speaking job done, it was time for fun. I set to work with a will on this excellent night, or what remained of it. Bertha showed me almost a surfeit of wonders. I’d go-to a target, suck down every photon I could, punch in the next destination, and Bertha would hum and lead me unerringly to yet another marvel.

The deep sky object of the evening? No doubt about what that was. By 2003, I was an old hand when it came to LPR filters: UHCs, OIIIs, hbetas, I used ‘em all. Still, e’en with the aid of a filter, I classified the Eagle Nebula, M16, as a tough object. Oh, the cluster was easy, and I could always see the nebulosity, but details? Hints of the mighty Pillars of Creation? Tough. Except on this night. The combination of a 2-inch UHC filter, a 35mm Panoptic eyepiece, and my beloved Big Bertha allowed me to see those tantalizing details like I’d never seen them outside CCD images.

I had to admit, though, that as good as the nebula was in my Panoptic, it was far better on the monitor screen of Dennis Williams’ Stellacam. Yeah, I saw hints of the “fingers of god” in my eyepiece, but Dennis’ 10-inch LX200 showed them in detail with the aid of the deep sky video camera. Right then and there I decided the Stellacam was for me. I’d been impressed by what one could do from the parking lot of (very light polluted) Nashville’s Embassy Suites hotel during ALCON, but out here in the dark what the Stellacam revealed was nothing short of astounding. Yeah, today the little black and white video camera has been far surpassed by the Mallincams, but nearly a decade ago the Stellacam was a revelation.

The only bringdown? The long journey back to the Swamp in the morning. We absolutely had to make the drive in one day, and I reluctantly threw the Big Switch shortly before midnight and did a little preliminary packing. Which don't mean I trotted off to bed when I was done. No, I was so enthralled by the images Dennis’ LX200 and video camera were delivering that I stared at and marveled at his monitor for at least another hour. When it became obvious to my fellow observers that Unk had shut down his scope, I quickly got several requests to check SCT collimation, which I was happy to do. When everybody was satisfied with Polaris’ diffraction rings, it was off to the chickie for a little Yell and a little shut-eye.

Nice turnout despite so-so weather.
Whatever happened to the TNSP? I’ve checked the BSAS’ and other Tennessee groups’ web pages every once in a while over the years, but as far as I can tell the TNSP has only been back to Camp Nakanawa once, seven years ago in 2004. In fact, I am not at all sure there is a TNSP anymore. I know there is a TSSP, the Tennessee Spring Star Party, and that it appears to be quite popular, but it is the work of another group, and is held in a different location, a state park near Spencer, Tennessee.

The fact that the TNSP was a onetime good deal for me doesn’t diminish the experience one bit. Maybe it enhances it. Dorothy and I still talk about the wonderful time we had at Nakanawa, and whether there’s still a TNSP or not or whether it ever goes back to that beautiful camp or not, the good folks who put it on should be proud of what they achieved and the good memories they planted.

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