Sunday, June 16, 2013


My Favorite Star Parties: Peach State Star Gaze 2000

While there were some stretches of blue during the day, it was clear I probably wouldn’t see much this past Saturday night, muchachos. Still, I stuck to my resolution, “If it ain’t raining, head to the dark site.” I just did it in a less arduous fashion than if I’d packed even a C8. My ETX 125, Charity Hope Valentine, an eyepiece case, and a few odds and ends went in the 4Runner painlessly and we were off for the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society observing field 15-minutes after I decided bad weather wasn’t imminent.

There, I was pleased to have the company of a couple of my buddies, Mike and Max. I was not so pleased at the condition of the sky. Those blue patches had shrunk, and by the time I got my little ETX girlfriend’s tripod set up, they had disappeared completely. Worse, as us three die-hards stood looking at the sky, the southern horizon began to be illuminated by an awesome lightning display. Even then we weren’t hasty, but after 45-minutes of the sky becoming ever more threatening, we had to admit it was throw in the towel time. Dadgummit.

So, this Sunday morning you-all get yet another star party reminiscence. Specifically one about our neighboring state, Georgia’s, premier amateur astronomy shindig. I’ve featured Peach State in this series once before, and made my way there a total of three times back in the early years of this century. If I liked it so dang much, then why didn’t I go more? I got caught up in my usual quest for the elusive More Better Gooder.

Back when Peach State was held in the spring, I chose the Texas Star Party instead of PSSG a couple of times. When Peach State moved to the fall, it was up against our local event, The Deep South Regional Star Gaze and, later, the Chiefland Star Party, neither of which I was inclined to miss. Still, I liked PSSG, which got started in 1994, and would probably have had as good a time there and seen as much as at those other star parties (with the exceptions of TSP 1999 and 2001, natch).

Anyhoo, I did go to PSSG those three times, 2000, 2001, and 2002. I might even get back there someday. It’s in a new location (its third), the dark Deerlick Astronomy Village. I just haven’t been able to work out the accommodations problem. The motels in the area seem a little far from the site from what I can tell, and old Unk ain’t much for the dern tent-camping scene anymore, as y’all know.

To be honest, I was also a little skeptical about Peach State’s original location. The venue for the event, Indian Springs State Park near the tiny town of Jackson, Georgia, was not far from Atlanta. Near enough, less than 50-miles, to be within range of that city’s enormous light dome. Why did I do PSSG the first time, then? Miss Dorothy’s schedule meant there was no way we’d be able to attend The Texas Star Party in 2000, the Mid South Star Gaze had been a bust in ’96 and I wasn’t anxious to go there again, and I was yet to be initiated into the joys of the Chiefland Spring Picnic. That left Peach State.

Despite the nearness of Indian Springs to Atlanta, I expected it would be a pretty good star party anyway. Couldn’t help but be given the presence of keynote speaker Antonin Rükl, author of The Atlas of the Moon, a work still sought after and used by us Lunatics today. It would be worth the trip just to hear him speak, I reckoned. I expected lots of good otherwise, too. The chief cook-and-bottle-washer at the time, Ken Poshedly, "Kenpo" to his buddies, was someone whose good reputation as an organizer was known to me. In fact, PSSG’s sponsoring club, The Atlanta Astronomy Club, was blessed with a large number of talented boys and girls.

The only slight complication? I had agreed to teach a Thursday night section at the University that spring. Didn’t want to cancel or ask a colleague to cover for me, so I’d only be able to do two days of the star party, Friday and Saturday. I reckoned that was actually OK; if I didn’t like the star party’s skies, accommodations, or programs, I could still stand two days’ worth. I can stand two days’ worth of almost anything.

There was one other bring-down. I was sorry to be making the drive up to Atlanta by myself. I’d never been to Atlanta before I met Miss Dorothy, and I’d never been up there without her since, but Miss D. just couldn’t make PSSG and I was blue about that. Nevertheless, I was up bright and early—at my normal get-up time for those years, 5 a.m.—packed, and on the road by 6:30.

What did I pack? The Ultima C8, Celeste, then still on her massive non-go-to fork mount, and my Celestron Short Tube 80, Woodstock, on his EQ-1 German mount. Otherwise? Pretty light load for the ’96 Camry. I had our picnic canopy, observing table, eyepieces, logbook, ice chest, sleeping bag, suitcase, and what I considered the star atlas of the day, The Herald-Bobroff Astroatlas.

As you-all know if you’ve been reading this blog for even a little while, on those rare occasions when I use a print atlas today it’s the little (but good) Sky and Telescope’s Pocket Sky Atlas. Mostly it’s been computerized sky charts for me for years. Back in 2000, though, I was still a non-go-to, non-laptop kinda guy. I thought Herald-Bobroff was the best atlas in the whole world, and in some ways I guess I still do.

HB, from Australia, was different from the other popular atlases of the time, Sky Atlas 2000 and Uranometria 2000. Herald-Bobroff went deep, as deep as 14th magnitude for stars, so there were lots of charts, but fewer you had to contend with in Uranometria’s 664 pages (in two volumes). HB was in a larger format, 16.5 by 12.5-inches, than Uranometria, so there didn’t need to be as many pages. Uranometria is best used in conjunction with a wider-field atlas like Sky Atlas 2000. Start paging through Uranometria and you’d soon be lost in all those pages—Unk would be, anyhow. No getting lost in Herald-Bobroff, and not just because of its lower page count.

HB, was different, you see; it was divided into six series of charts, with each series going deeper. You could start out with Sky Atlas 2000-like maps, but if you needed more detail you could go up to something like Uranometria’s charts. The wide-field maps had labels showing which larger scale chart covered the same area. To top it all off, HB’s pages were printed on heavy, glossy paper nearly invulnerable to Possum Swamp or Indian Springs dew.

I went computer-crazy in 2002 with go-to scopes and computerized charting in the field and never looked back or regretted doing so, but I still love H-B, even if I rarely use it. I do pull it out ever’ once in a while and look at it, and am happy I have it. I must be, since the (now out of print) atlas, especially the original version I have, commands mucho-dineros on the used market. I just can’t seem to part with it.

Same goes for the other book I took with me to PSSG, Antonin Rükl’s Lunar atlas, Atlas of the Moon. Why in Sam Hill did Unk take a lunar atlas to a star party? Because of Mr. Rükl. In his honor, the AAC scheduled the 2000 PSSG so there would be a small Moon in the sky early in the evenings. I thought it would be fun to do a little Moon gazing with the Atlas and wanted to get Mr. Rükl to sign his work if possible.

Computer applications like Patrick Chevalley and Christian Legrand’s Virtual Moon Atlas and DVD copies of various formerly “professional” reference tools like The Consolidated Lunar Atlas have put Atlas of the Moon in the same place SkyTools 3 and TheSky have put Herald-Bobroff and Uranometria. But, just as with H-B, I still treasure my copy of Rükl’s atlas and have no intention of selling it despite the fact that I could no-doubt get plenty of buckeroos for it.

Before I could take a look at the Moon with Mr. Rükl, I had to get to Indian Springs. The drive up freaking I-65 to I-85, then or now, is a royal pain. Flat, nothing to see, nowhere good to stop. Without Miss D. along all I could do was listen to a book on tape, on an actual cassette tape then, Stephen King’s Grand Guignol-strained-through-post-Vietnam-blues Skeleton Crew. Other than that, the only highlight of the drive to Montgomery was a stop at our favorite Interstate joint of the day, Stuckey’s. You know what, though? Even my fave junk-food treat, the foot-long chili-cheese dog (with onions and mustard, natch), tasted of wormwood without Miss Dorothy along.

The rest of the trip went faster. Seemed to, anyhow. Through Montgomery (at a slow place due to road construction that still goes on to this day), past Auburn and Tuskegee, over the Georgia line, and to Exit 41, Newnan. From there, it was two-lanes most of the rest of the way, with plenty of log trucks and farm tractors for me to get behind.

Despite Old McDonalds and slow trucks in profusion, before long I was past the little town of Jackson, which appeared to have been dropped straight out of the 1930s. With the aid of the excellent directions I got off the Auburn Astronomical Society’s (AAS) website, I made the turn for Indian Springs’ group camp area where the PSSG was held, Camp Macintosh, without incident. Well, almost. Unk being Unk, I missed the last turn, but I realized what I’d done right away.

Soon enough, I was pulling up at Camp Macintosh’ impressive main building, which served as registration headquarters, dining hall, and meeting place for the star party. I got my t-shirt and registration packet and bunkhouse assignment, and it was time to head for the field for telescope set up.

Rut-roh. On Friday afternoon, it was wall-to-wall astronomers, over 200 folks easy, packed in like sardines on an observing field not quite as big as I thought it would be. About football field size, maybe. Not only was the AAC a large club, Peach State was now drawing folks from Alabama and Tennessee as well as the Atlanta/Georgia area. Wasn’t sure I’d be able to set up on the main field.

Being an astro-writer has its ups and downs, but thankfully the ups outnumber the downs. One of the ups is that you get noticed. While I wasn’t speaking at PSSG 2000, a number of AAC folks recognized me as a “personality,” including a group on the south end of the field:  “HEY UNK, HEY UNK! GET YOURSELF OVER HERE! WE DONE SAVED A SPOT FOR YOU!”

I don’t know if they’d really been saving a spot for me, but there was a place on the south end of the field just big enough for me, Celeste, Woodstock, and the observing table. Didn’t look like I’d have room to put up my tent canopy, but that didn’t appear to be a problem. My new friends seemed eager to share their shade with me. I’ve said it before and I will say it again: amateur astronomers, like amateur radio operators, are some of the nicest people it’s been my privilege to be associated with.

After I’d set up the scopes, placed the ice chest in the shade of a canopy, and got everything else set out for a night of observing, I took a look at the sky. Spring in Georgia and anywhere else in the South can be touch-and-go weather-wise, but it seemed certain we’d get some hours in on Friday evening. Mite hazy, but not bad. The main question in Unk’s mind wasn’t about the weather; it was “How bad is the Atlanta light dome?” That would have to wait till dark for an answer.

Udder than that? It was going on four, and a look at the PSSG schedule in the nice program in the packet I got at the registration desk said I’d missed all Friday’s presentations. That was alright; there were plenty of talks scheduled for Saturday, including Mr. Rükl’s keynote. Most of the presentations were lunar/planetary in nature this year in keeping with the “theme” of PSSG 2000, but there were some deep sky talks scheduled, too, and I was given a copy of the star party observing list, the famous “Peach Fuzzies” program. In addition, in 2000 there was a “Peach Pits” list of interesting Lunar features (get it, y’all?).

Field setup complete, it was time to check out the housing situation. No, the accommodations were not in the same class as the centrally heated and air-conditioned cabins at DSRSG’s Percy Quin, which I’d come to take for granted, but they were OK. Large open-bay barracks, as we used to call ‘em in the military, big rooms filled with GI bunk beds and an adjoining large bathroom. Not bad at all and nothing outside my range of experience. Plenty of room, too. Since many folks had chosen to tent-camp on the field or had RVs or travel trailers, the PSSG only had to use two bunkhouses, with one being reserved for men and one for women.

What was there to do, then, but trot back to the field, see who was there, and begin to think about suppertime? If there was a drawback to PSSG in them days, it was the meal-plan or lack of much of one. There was lunch, burgers and dogs sold by the AAC, but no supper. What to do? I ran into an old Deep South buddy of mine, Russell Whigham from the Auburn club. Accompanied by a couple of other bubbas, we were soon taking off for Jackson in Russell’s truck in search of grub.

Mr. Whigham recommended this excellent barbeque joint the star partiers had discovered, Fresh Air Barbeque, but we were overruled by one of our number who said he had a weak stomach and insisted on freaking MacDonalds. Don’t ask me why greasy Mickey D’s food would be better than home-style barbeque, but we took pity on him and I wound up with a cotton-picking Quarter Pounder (no cheese, at least).

Back on the field, I did a little wandering around in advance of darkness, both to see who else was there and what they had brought. In addition to Kenpo, who was pretty danged busy, I ran into two fellow club members, the late Marvin Uphaus and his girlfriend, Betsy Hopson. They had a nice vintage Meade 10-inch 2120 SCT at their disposal. Marvin, who’d got the scope for a song, had even managed to adapt one of Meade’s inexpensive Magellan I digital setting circle computers for it and was ready to rock. Betsy was at the controls of a beautiful 1990s white-tube C5+.

There was a large selection of scopes old and new on the field, including some of them futuristic-looking Celestron NexStar 5s, which Unk was right curious about. I was mostly curious to see how well one worked and whether this scope, Celestron’s first go-to rig since the kinda ill-fated Ultima 2000, might be a hit for the Big C, who was struggling at the time.

Then, after a long wait—curse the dadgum Daylight Savings Time—it was finally dark in Indian Springs. The question in Unk’s mind was “How dark will it get?” Was the sky perfect? No. How could it be with that megalopolis barely fifty miles away? Yet, it was OK and more than good enough for purty serious deep sky work. The light dome was visible and prominent, but it was in the relatively uninteresting northwest, and I was never much bothered by it.

Before hitting the deep sky, though, it was time to give my old friend Hecate a look-see. Luna was slim, but not so slim as to be devoid of interesting sights, and the Ultima 8 did a fine job on her in the steady spring skies. As I was Moon-watching intently, I heard a heavily accented voice at my elbow:  “Can I have a look?”

Mr. Antonin Rükl dern sure could. Tony had just retired from his permanent position at the Prague Planetarium and was obviously having a ball observing and hanging out with amateur astronomers. My fellow Lunar observers are invariably impressed when I tell them the scope they are looking through, Celeste, was once used by Antonin Rükl to gaze at a yellow Georgia Moon.

When the Moon was gone, it was time for Virgo and her multitudinous galaxies. I started out with the mind-blowing Markarian’s Chain and then cruised north and south in search of as many glorious night birds, Messiers and NGCs, as I could bag. Biggest surprise of the night? How well Woodstock the Short Tube 80 did on galaxies. Not only was he able to reveal plenty of objects, and not just Ms, he showed considerable detail in the brighter ones.

Woodstock’s amazing performance was mostly a testament to the good conditions we were experiencing, decent transparency early in the evening and surprisingly good seeing—amateurs tend to forget atmospheric steadiness can have almost as big an effect on deep sky objects as on planets. I’ve often found a supposedly marginal site can outdo a “better” one when the conditions are right.

Not that the sky was perfect all night long. It was obvious a front was creeping up on us, and later in the evening I had to take frequent cloud-breaks. Which was OK. I’d wander over to the main building, guzzle coffee, and gobble the Little Debbie cakes the AAC was selling all night long. I spent a pleasant half-hour with Kenpo discussing the current state of the amateur astronomy biz before the clouds scudded off and it was back to the field for more galaxies.

In addition to my own observing, I watched interestedly as the dude set up next to me did CCD imaging with an Ultima 2000. Looked complicated, but Unk was fascinated and impressed. Seeing somebody actually imaging the sky electronically on a star party field was one of the things that impelled me to get my first CCD the next year, an humble Starlight Xpress MX516 that at least got me started.

I wasn’t sure what the weather gods would decree for Saturday night, so I hit it hard Friday until we were clouded out for good at 3 a.m. I still wasn’t sleepy, though—I was on a high in the wake of an outstanding evening. I broke out the Rebel Yell bottle and hung out on the field for at least another hour before slowly, ever so slowly, moseying back to the bunkhouse.

I awoke about nine or so after a surprisingly restful night on the GI bunk. After my morning ablutions, I poked my head outside. What I saw was not encouraging: plenty of gray clouds and the wind was beginning to stir. Felt like bad weather was on its way for sure. With rain in the offing, I thought, I hustled over to the vendors’ building north of the main complex to, naturally, buy astro junk.

There were two full-line dealers on site in 2000, Chuck Pisa from Wolf Camera and old buddy Rex of Rex’s Astrostuff. I believe the only thing I wound up getting that year was from Chuck, an Intes 2-inch visual back for the C8 to go with the 2-inch Intes star diagonal I already had. Rex had one of them new NexStar 5s on display, so I got a chance to examine one at length in the daylight and was downright impressed both by its evident build quality and its light weight.

After that? Clouds, clouds, and more clouds and, worse, intermittent rain. It was still a fun day though. Instead of lunch, the AAC did a pancake breakfast Saturday, and kept it going till 10:30 a.m. so even slug-a-bed me was able to down numerous pancakes smothered in butter and Log Cabin syrup along with sausage aplenty.

The main item on the menu, however, was speakers. Beginning with the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers’ Walter Haas with a talk that fired Unk up, “Those Unnumbered Reports of Lunar Changes:  Were They All Blunders?” I’ve never seen anything strange on the Moon—no weird lights or hazes, anyway—but I found the subject of Transient Lunar Phenomena as interesting as I had when I was a Moon-crazy kid.

As Mr. Haas was wrapping up, the bottom fell out: more rain, but mostly high winds. When the talk was done, we all scurried out to the field to check the scopes. My little Woodstock had gone over, but save for a scrape on one of the EQ-1’s slow motion cables he was unhurt. Celeste was on her feet and unfazed. Unfortunately, Marvin and Betsy’s lovely C5+ had tipped over and had suffered some damage, though thankfully not catastrophic damage.

After the break, the talks resumed with Mr. Rükl taking center stage. He was an excellent speaker, as you’d expect from a planetarium professional, but it was the depth of his knowledge about the Moon that held us spellbound. I had been correct:  it was worth attending PSSG 2000 just to hear Antonin Rükl.

After the prize drawing (as usual, Unk didn’t win a pea-picking thing), there was a good panel discussion on the future of Lunar observing. When that concluded, the programs for PSSG 2000 were done.  All that was left was observing after dark—if there were any observing after dark.

Leaving the meeting hall, it was obvious there would indeed be clearing. The front was pushing through in a hurry. The big blow at 1 p.m. that toppled Marv and Betsy’s C5 had obviously been its last gasp. For once, the timing was right; my usual luck would have had the front not passing through till dawn.

It was just 5:30 p.m., so there was still some time to pass before I could go galaxy hunting again. There was also supper to think about. It felt like those pancakes had been a long, long time ago. I’d heard quite a few PSSGers were going to caravan to the local “country” restaurant, Buckner’s, but I had barbeque on my mind. Didn’t look like any of my PSAS or AAS buds were joining the Buckner’s group anyways, so I hit the road for the Fresh Air.

I didn’t know quite what to expect when I pulled up. Fresh Air was, at best, unassuming inside and out. The exterior looked like it had been untouched for at least three-quarters of a century, and inside it was order at the counter and eat at long tables with wooden benches. Appearances can deceive. What I received from the chirpy little countergirl was some of the best, maybe the best, barbeque and Brunswick stew I’ve had in Georgia, ever, and that is saying something.

Back on the field, the sky was completely clear at dark, and by the time the Moon set it was looking even better than it had the previous evening. Only minus? The front had left cold weather in its wake—the low thirties on this early April evening. I persevered, howsomeever, continuing to run galaxies. When Woodstock and Celeste and me finished Virgo, it was on to Coma, Canes Venatici, and Ursa Major—what a night it was.

I kept going long enough to do a quick tour of the rising summer wonders, but pulled the switch a little early on this evening. We were supposed to be gone by 12-noon Sunday, and there was that drive back down I-65 to endure. At 2 a.m., it was a quick shot of the Yell and back to the bunkhouse.

I’d had a good time, muchachos, a real good time. A lot of that was the outstanding facility and the great AAC folks, but the sky had been good, too. Real good. Better than it had any right to be, I thought, as I cruised down 65. I resolved to be back the next year, and I was back for another round in 2001. Tell y’all the truth, I miss the old Peach State. I’m sure the new, darker site is cool, but Indian Springs provided just the right balance of amenities and observing for your tenderfoot Uncle.

Next Time: Destination Moon…

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