Sunday, July 14, 2013


A Chiefland 4th

By all rights I should be some kind of P.O.ed, muchachos (“put out;” this is a family-friendly blog, y’all). Miss Dorothy and I spent the long 4th of July weekend Down Chiefland Way, and what did I see of the deep sky? Nuttin’ honey. That’s not quite true, I did get in about 30-minutes of observing one evening, but you get the idea. I am not put out, however. I had a great time and even got to test a new piece of astro gear. “How the heck did you do that if it was cloudy, Unk?” All shall be revealed shortly.

I shouldn’t be bitter about our near skunking, anyway. It was obvious a couple of days before our departure on Thursday the 4th that the weather would not be cooperative. Oh, I kept checking all the weather resources, Wunderground, TWC, Clear Sky Clock, Scope Nights, hoping for encouragement, but there was none to be had and hadn’t been for days.

Our July Chiefland Astronomy Village getaway unfortunately coincided with one of the nastiest storms to hit the southeast in quite a while. This system sat over the Gulf Coast from Mobile to well east of Panama City and dumped rain. Some places along the coast, and even inland, got over a foot of precipitation. I contented myself with the observation that the Chiefland/Nature Coast area appeared to be slightly east of the worst of the weather.

Dorothy and I did talk about delaying our departure till Saturday and staying an extra couple of days, but, honestly, the forecasts were not much better as you got into the following week. Monday might be a slight improvement, but only slight. Chances of precipitation ranged from 30 to 60 percent for the rest of the ten-day forecast. We decided we’d leave on the 4th as planned and hope we got lucky. In the four years I’d been doing the “If it’s July, this must be Chiefland” thing, I’d always had at least one good/semi-good evening. In spite of similarly depressing weather forecasts, summer 2010 in Chiefland was spectacular.

So, come Wednesday afternoon I began loading the 4Runner with the tons of gear I’d marshaled in Chaos Manor South’s front parlor a couple of days before. There was plenty of astro-junk, but the loading went easier than it ever had before. Maybe because, in the course of writing a recent blog article about astro-packing, I’d done a lot of thinking about the process.

What did I pack? The usual for a CAV expedition—almost. Over the last five years, the Chiefland scope of choice has been Big Bertha, our NexStar 11 GPS. I can’t say she’ll never get back down CAV way, but right now we sure are enjoying the new one, Mrs. Emma Peel, the Edge 800 SCT and her VX mount. What else? The usual: Mallincam Xtreme, computer, digital video recorder, gear boxes, tent canopy, observing table, etc., etc., etc.

Come the morning of the 4th, Miss D. and I were ready—more than ready—to get on the road for our holiday, come what may. We were out of the Old Manse not long after 8 a.m., and following a quick stop at the neighborhood Mickey D’s, where Unk got his traditional fried chicken biscuit, we were headed east for the Florida line.

The five and a half hours to C-land was, as always, uneventful. The only difference this time was that we’d had to replace our old Tom-Tom GPS with a new one from Garmin. Some miscreant absconded with the Tom-Tom, but it was really time to upgrade, anyway. The Garmin has a larger screen, free map updates, a more legible display, and the same voice, “Samantha.”

Weather? The first couple of hours or so was OK, but as we passed Destin, the rain began to fall, and by Tallahassee it was fracking pouring. Funny thing, though? When we left I-10 for Highway 19, The Florida Georgia Parkway, stopping for gas at the good, old Sunoco station, the rain quit. As we traveled the last 100 miles, Unk, mind and body refreshed with a Sasquatch Big Stick from the filling station, began to feel hopeful.

Those hopes began to be dashed as we neared town, with the clouds building again. When we got to our motel, the Suwannee Best Western, it began to rain, and shortly after we'd got settled in our room it was pouring. I tried not to let that bother me. We’ve had quite a few trips where the first night has been skunk city—Chiefland Thursday seems cursed—but have gotten plenty of good hours Friday and Saturday. Also, since I don’t teach my astronomy class in the summer and am retired from the day job, we could extend through Monday, at least, if necessary.

“Best Western?! Unk, what happened to the Days Inn you’ve been staying at for as long as this here blog has been on the air?” Oh, it’s still there Skeezix, but as I related in our last CAV report, it’s been going downhill since it switched chains from Holiday Inn Express several years ago. The last time we stayed there, it was close to pitiful:  dirty, poor service, a laughably scanty breakfast, almost non-existent maid service. It was time for a change.

The new one, the Best Western, is about the same age as the Day’s Inn, but is considerably better maintained. The TV was a nice big LG flat-screen, the carpet in our suite-style room was new, and the staff to a person was friendly and helpful. Even better, it was a mile or two closer to the CAV, and there was a liquor store and a Bubbaque’s right across Highway 19 (more on that later). Looks like it will be Best Western for our Chiefland trips from here on out.

I felt bad about not heading to the site and at least trying to set up, but it was purty clear that would be a mistake. The chance of rain was not going down; it was going up. It was at 40% now and would, if you believed the weather goobers, rise to 60% by morning. We stuck to the hallowed plan: “If you can’t set up, head to Wal-Mart for supplies.”

What was to be had at the cotton-picking Wally-World? Same old – same old:  Jack Links and granola bars for the field, bottled water, 12-pack of Kolorado Kool-aid for after run celebrating. I looked for a new Star Wars t-shirt to add to my wardrobe, but no dice. I did find two cool tees, though, a Batman and a Flash.

After we’d deposited our Wal-Mart purchases in the room, it was going on seven and time to think “suppertime.” On nights when we’re sure we’ll be observing, we do fast food, usually Taco Bell. When it’s apparent we won’t see a thing? Our old favorite, Bill’s Bar-B-Q. I never tire of the place and neither does D. Since there would be no astronomy on this night, I had a couple of brews to go with my excellent smoked ribs. Miss Dorothy’s rib-eye looked real good and I was sorry I hadn’t chosen that.

Back at the motel afterwards, I was still annoyed we hadn’t gone out to the site. Heck, it might not even be raining there. Then, the thunder began to boom, the lightning began to flash, and it rained so hard the satellite TV picture pixilated and faded out. My guilt at not attempting gear set up left me; I was happy I’d listened to reason for once, and spent a pleasant evening watching The Big Bang Theory on the tube.

Friday dawned to partly cloudy, but only partly cloudy, skies, and the weather didn't seem anywhere near as dire as the “60% chance of rain” prediction had made it sound. After checking out the Best Western breakfast, which was fine, if not much different from what the Days Inn had on a good morning, it was out to the CAV to get the gear unloaded.

At the site, I was pleased to see several travel-trailers lined up, and one of my buddies puttering around. I don’t normally get spooked at the CAV when I am alone, but it is still nice to have company. More than anything, it indicated I wasn’t completely crazy.  Some of my pals, at least, thought there might be a chance of us seeing something over the long holiday weekend.

The equipment had gone in Ms. Van Pelt, the 4Runner, easily, and it came out just as easily. I love my C11, but there is no denying a C8 on a German equatorial is just a whole lot more pleasant to deal with when, like Unk, you get within spitting distance of your 60th annum on the third stone from the sun. It’s also nice to have to have plentiful AC power on the field. Plugged up the VX mount’s AC power supply, got the DewBuster dew heater ready to go, and, after erecting the tailgating canopy and putting up the observing table, we were done.

Well, sorta. There was still the computer, the Mallincam camera, the video display, the DVR, and plenty of other stuff to arrange before I could observe, but given the look of the sky, which as noon approached was tending to “worse,” I decided to wait till closer to sundown to prepare the rest of the astro-stuff.

Set up done, or at least as much of it done as I thought wise to do, there wasn’t much point in hanging out at the CAV. Naturally, everybody was undercover at the height of a July day. Not that the heat was that bad. If there was one redeeming feature of the weather, it was that the temps never got above the 80s, even during the few sunny periods. Dorothy and I headed back north, past Chiefland to the next little town up the road, Fanning Springs, to tour one of our favorite Nature Coast attractions.

D. and I have been to Fanning Springs State Park several times over the last couple of years, but like Bill’s, it’s something we never tire of. In summer, the Park is beautifully green and shady, and the springs are filled with almost unbelievably clear water. To top it off, a short walk takes you to the banks of the legendary Suwannee River meandering its leisurely way to the Gulf of Mexico. Miss Dorothy and I spent at least an hour strolling in the shady cool. I even went down to the river’s edge and dipped my feet in those storied waters. Dorothy was afraid I’d become a meal for Mr. Gator, but that cold and clear river just calls to me.

Once we’d had enough of the springs and the river, it was time for another of our Chiefland traditions, the 19/98 grill. This little place not far from the Park has become justly famous with visiting CAV observers for its huge menu of fresh food. One of these days, I’m going to explore that menu, but this time I ordered my fave once again, the buffalo chicken sandwich: spicy (but not too spicy) buffalo chicken, a fresh seed roll, lettuce and tomato straight out of a garden, slathered with chunky blue cheese. The fries? Cut from potatoes recently, not poured from a freezer bag. I had sweet tea, but I was mucho tempted by the old-fashioned bottles of Nehi Grape and Nehi Peach.

After a much needed rest period at the Best Western, it was time to go back to the site. First things first, though. The Alabama State Stores still don’t have Rebel Yell. Not a drop. Salvation was at hand at the liquor store across Highway 19 from the motel, where they were practically giving the stuff away. Unk got a huge bottle for a twenty and change. Said bottle of Yell would constitute my backup “observing plan,” which I might need given that the sky was continuing to degrade.

Out at the CAV with darkness slowly coming on, it was decision time. The weather was looking worse still. It wasn’t raining, but that appeared to be a distinct possibility. Would I really want to be faced with packing up the computer and all the video gear in a hurry if the weather turned nasty? Nope. If I got any observing in on this night, it would be visual observing with the mount operated with its hand control instead of with NexRemote on the laptop. I’d brought along the “good” eyepiece case, so at least I’d be able to wow my buddies with Edge and Ethos vistas. Maybe.

With not much else to do, I spent the gloaming hanging with my pals. Amazingly, given the WX forecasts, seven other hearty and hardcore observers joined me before the evening was out. Eventually, somebody broke out the sparklers and we had a good old time playing 4th of July on the 5th. Urania? She just couldn’t make up her pea-picking mind. The sky occasionally looked like it might want to give birth to a sucker hole, but didn’t—not for a while.

If I couldn’t look through the scope, at least I could play with it, or at least play with the new DewBuster controller. If you read my article on dew in the July 2013 issue of Sky and Telescope, you know I am serious about my dew removal tools. Not long after the original Kendrick Dew Removal System became available, I got me one. Nothing works better for keeping your scope, finder, and eyepieces clear of the wet stuff than heater strips.

The Kendrick system worked fine, but then, about a decade back, Ron Keating over in Louisiana came up with a better idea. The controller on the original Kendrick system was time-based. The farther you advanced its knob , the longer the heater strips stayed on. That worked, but was inefficient. Ron’s DewBuster, which uses a temperature probe, and cycles the heaters on and off according to temperature, is much easier on the battery. It is also much easier to find a setting that will keep moisture off your lenses with the ‘Buster. Adjusting the original Kendrick was pretty much guesstimate-hit-and-miss.

So, the DewBuster was the cat’s meow and couldn’t be improved? That’s what I thought, but then I got word from Ron that he had a new and improved controller ready to go. The difference? The old controller had one temperature-sensing probe, and the new one has two. That means you have two independent temperature-regulated outputs. Maybe one for your corrector or objective, and the other for a piggybacked scope or camera.

The controller still has the “medium power" outlets that cycle on and off like those on the old Kendrick, but Ron has added non-cycling accessory outputs for 12-volt devices. According to Mr. K., the new controller is also less likely to generate electrical interference that might bother your scope or camera electronics.

That all sounded cool, but, as y’all know, I am not a big fan of change. When it comes to astro-gear, I prefer “the same, not different.” Still, I thought I’d give the new ‘Buster a try on this trip. With the sky nearing the fully socked-in stage, that was all I could do.  I removed the C8’s aperture cover and cranked the ‘Buster up to 10-degrees-above-ambient, which I thought appropriate for the conditions.

It was damp, campers. Wet, I mean. It was hard to tell where the dew left off and the haze and rain sprinkles took over. How did the new DewBuster act? At first I was disappointed: “Hell, this dadgum thing don’t work at all.” The red LED that indicates power is flowing to the corrector heater only cycled on occasionally. Under similar circumstances, the light on the old controller would have been flashing like mad. And yet…and yet…Mrs. Peel’s corrector remained bone dry for the next several hours, till I finally gave up on the night.

It appears the new DewBuster is more efficient than the old one. Given that and the fact that it is also less “noisy,” I might be able to power the VX mount and the DewBuster off the same battery. It sure will be nice to leave one battery at home when I am without AC power at the club dark site. Anyhow, I love the new DewBuster. It seems even better than the original, if that's possible.

DewBuster tested, all that remained was to wait on sucker holes. Amazingly, not long after 10 p.m. we did get a few breaks. I didn’t bother to try to align Mrs. Peel; it was obvious there wouldn’t be time for that. Instead, I had a look through my friend Paul’s StarStructure Dob. M51 was beautiful, with its “bridge” and companion galaxy, NGC 5195, looking real sweet. The galaxy has the distinction of being the one and only deep sky object I saw through a scope the whole time we were Down Chiefland Way. I also got a look at Omega Centauri, now well past culmination, in a pair of binoculars, and that was freaking it.

Just as I was beginning to wonder whether I oughtn't get the VX aligned after all, another bunch of clouds came pouring in and I called it quits. At least there wasn’t much involved in throwing The Big Switch on this night. Turn off the ‘Buster, tuck the C8 in with her Desert Storm Cover, and that was it.

It had been a disappointing Friday evening at CAV, but back at the Best Western it was a relaxing and jolly Chiefland denouement: Rebel Yell and those silly, silly Ghost Adventures on the TV. Zack, Nick, and Aaron were, once again, locked in a scary old hotel with the haints running rampant. I watched the spooky nonsense and sipped the magic elixir until Morpheus called to me and I knew nothing more till morning.

Saturday dawned to mostly clear skies, but that didn’t reassure me. The weather pattern had become a rather disgusting one for astronomers:  clear up at about 6 a.m. each morning, grow progressively cloudier during the day, rain by late afternoon, clouds till well after midnight. What would be would be, but Saturday was rubber-meets-road time. The forecasts for Sunday and Monday still didn't look good, and Miss Dorothy and I’d decided that even if we didn’t see anything Saturday evening, we’d head back home to the Swamp on Sunday.

On Chiefland Saturday afternoons, Dorothy and I always motor over to Duma Key, which is our pet name for the touristy little fishing village of Cedar Key on the Gulf of Mexico. That is just what we did, or tried to do, anyhow. The drive and the coastal scenery were nice, but when we got to the Key, it was a fracking madhouse. People and cars everywhere. We literally could not find a parking place. Seems as Cedar Key is not the secret it once was. Neither D. nor I wanted to wait for a table at a restaurant or endure uber crowded shops. We headed back to Chiefland where we’d do lunch somewhere.

Miss Dorothy and I had been laughing about Chiefland’s other barbeque joint, Bubbaque’s ever since it opened in a shopping center storefront some years ago. But we’d never considered actually trying the place. Now, however, it was in a convenient new location just across the highway from our motel. We were hungry and decided “why not?”

I sure am glad we did. Bubbaque’s is a little small, and you Yankees will be puzzled by the redneck décor, but the food is danged good. I ordered the pulled pork, fries, and beans and all was excellent. Maybe not quite in Bills’ territory, but close. The pork was juicy, and the crinkle cut fries (the way Unk likes ‘em) tasted fresh. What was really cool was the selection of six barbeque sauces and two hot sauces. Unk had a fine old time trying all of ‘em (beware the Rump Roaster sauce). Large portions, gallons of sweet tea, friendly servers. I liked Bubbaque’s—a lot.

Back at the room, I spent the next couple of hours doing some catch-up astronomy reading, mainly of Astronomy Magazine. While I write for Sky and Telescope and naturally think it is the best, I like Dave Eicher’s Astronomy, and now that I am retired, I hope to have more time to actually read the magazine.

After seeing what the competition was up to, I took a dip in the motel’s wonderful old swimming pool. It was big and filled with cold, strongly chlorinated water that reminded me of boyhood July afternoons at the neighborhood swim club (a.k.a. “The Redneck Country Club”). The Best Western pool was truly in the ancient mode, emblazoned with huge frescoes of frolicking manatees and turtles. I would have stayed in longer, but the thunder began to boom after half an hour and it was soon raining hard again.

Eventually, the rain quit and it was rubber-meets-road time indeed. I motored back to CAV resolved that I wouldn’t leave the field until I saw something with Mrs. Peel.  At least I had some work to distract me early on. I needed to take some pictures of telescopes and computers for a couple of Sky and Telescope articles I was working on. That kept my mind off the sky for the couple of hours remaining till dark. After that? I’d just hang on the field till the sky cleared.

I didn't care if it took till freaking four in the a.m. to get a sucker hole; I was not leaving without using my new scope. That was the plan, anyhow. The reality was that the C8 was never uncovered. By eleven, there was substantial lightning ringing the field, and booms of thunder began to be audible as yet another storm approached. I said goodbye to my fellow observers, grabbed the laptop, and headed for the 4Runner.

Back at the Best Western before midnight, I was a mite disgruntled. Maybe I shouldn't have been so hasty. I guessed my friends would get in a couple of good hours before dawn. I should have been with them. Oh, well. Cable TV (just missed Svengoolie) and Rebel Yell served to lift my spirits a little bit.

The next morning, early the next morning, since I sure hadn’t had a late night, me and D. had another Best Western breakfast, packed up, checked out, and were back at the CAV by 9 a.m. I was flabbergasted when we arrived at Dodd Field. Except for Carl Wright, everybody else had pulled up stakes and left—and Carl was fixing to.  Miss Dorothy and I are usually the first to go. I stopped and inquired with Mr. W. as to whether they’d got anything after I’d left. They hadn’t, and with the forecast looking no better for Sunday night, the consensus was that you have to know when you are licked.

Dorothy and I were packed and on the road in about an hour—we were careful to take it easy. It wasn’t too hot, but it was crazy humid. All that remained, then, was 100-miles of Highway 19, gas up at the Sunoco, and on to I-10. After I scored a basket of insanely good “Highway 19 peaches” at the produce stand next to the filling station, we were on our way back to Possum Swamp.

I tried to be philosophical on the drive home, as I always do in the wake of a GOOD SKUNKING. Actually, I found I didn’t have to put a happy face on our Chiefland July. It already had one. I didn’t see much, but I saw something—certainly more than I would have had we stayed home. I’d got to spend some time with my Chiefland friends. D. and I had an excellent time playing tourist in the Old Florida style of the Nature Coast. As far as I am concerned, you cannot beat any of that with a stick, muchachos.

N.B.:  If you’d like to see more pictures from our trip, they are as close as ol’ Unk’s Facebook page…

Next Time: The Astronomer Looks at 60...

Hey, Unk' Rod - 60 isn't so bad: I hit same in February. Considering that my grandad went cross-country skiing for weeks every winter and danced every lady at my sister's wedding reception to exhaustion *in his 80s* five years after a six-months-to-live cancer diagnosis, I figure we can go out with a bang when we're good and ready. And that won't be any time soon.

Best to you and Ms. D always!
Thanks, Jim. :-)
Hi Unk, could not resist putting in a comment this time. You mention the Dewbuster and having moved away from the Kendrick products in the past. I suppose they're all fine products. Just want you to know that Kendrick have been producing dew heater controllers for years with just the specs you are describing here: temperature sensors (ambient and OTA), 12V output that is either fixed, or time pulsed or temperature controlled. There is even a top of the line model that measures humidity and adjusts according to the dew point. Not claiming this is any better than the Dewbuster stuff. Just creating awareness...

All the best, Ludwig
HI Ludwig:

Yep, I am well aware that Kendrick has been producing temperature controlled systems for a while, which was why I was careful to refer to the "old" Kendrick, and say that explicitly in my Sky and Tel article. :-)
Hi Rod, which visual back and diagonal are you using on your Edge in this image:

No visual's a 2-inch WO SCT style diagonal. Spacing seems just right for the Edge.
When on the road last weekend, on the way BACK from FL, I discovered that Svengoooooolie was on MeTV back home in Houston. Yippee.

Love the blog.
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