Sunday, September 15, 2013


AHSP 2013: The Prodigal Returns

I like star parties, muchachos. All star parties. Y’all know that. Yet, I must admit I’ve got my favorites. The Deep South Regional Star Gaze takes it for sentimental reasons. That was Miss Dorothy’s first star party less than two months after we married. The Texas Star Party is a winner for dark skies and accomplished observers. Chiefland has good skies and crazy good facilities.

For me, though, the Almost Heaven Star Party (AHSP) hits a home run in all the categories: dark skies, friendly folks, great facilities, and both guests and speakers who will teach you a thing or two about amateur astronomy no matter how much of a veteran you are.

The AHSP is held at a site on Spruce Knob Mountain in West Virginia, which is a fur piece from the good old Swamp. Nevertheless, your old Uncle has been able to attend for years thanks to the kindness of the organizers at NOVAC, the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club, down in DC, who’ve flown me up to be a speaker a bunch of times. I’ve liked the sky, the people, and the place so fraking much I’ve only missed one edition since I started going back in 2007.

Why did I miss out in 2012? It wasn’t my choice. I was still playing the engineering game, and since I was the only available engineer on the coast knowledgeable about ships’ navigation systems, I had to spend the star party out in the Gulf of Mexico onboard a San Antonio Class amphibious assault ship. That wasn’t near as much fun as AHSP woulda been, and now that I’ve retired I’ve sworn to do my best never to miss another long weekend up on Spruce Knob.

As I’d hoped he would, some months ago AHSP organizer Bob Parks contacted me wondering if I’d be available to speak at the 2013 event. After I said, “hail yeah,” the next question was “How long can you stay, Unk?” The star party runs from Friday till Tuesday, but I’ve always had to limit that to Saturday – Sunday or Friday – Sunday at best. Not anymore. I told Bob I’d stay as long as the logistics of getting me to and from the airport in DC made possible and practical.

Since Sky and Telescope Editor in Chief Robert Naeye would also be a speaker at AHSP 2013, it made sense to fly us both into DC at the same time and for us to drive up to the site in a shared rent-a-car. Mr. Bob and I would meet at Reagan National on Friday, 6 September, be at AHSP late that afternoon if there were no airline craziness, and would return to Reagan on following Monday morning.

Everything appeared to be set, and the only question was “What will Unk bring with him?” as in “Scope or binoculars?”  I originally planned to pack my li’l C90, Stella. She has almost as much light gathering power as my not very airline friendly 100mm binoculars, doesn’t require near as much tripod, and her ability to change eyepieces and magnifications means she can go deeper than even the big glasses. I was dissuaded, though, by the thought of having to tote an extra carry-on and weigh down my suitcase further with even a lightweight tripod.

I eventually settled on my old reliable binoculars, my 15x70 Burgesses. I’ve have ‘em since I bought ‘em from Bill Burgess at the 2003 ALCON for a song. As powerful as Stella? No, but they can show a hell of a lot under a dark sky and I figgered that suitably padded they’d be safe enough in my checked bag. If not? I would hate to lose the Bugesses, but they did only cost me 50 bucks.

As the date for the event got close, there were a few travel-related hiccups, but everything resolved itself in quick order, and Unk was up at oh-dark-thirty on Friday September 6 to catch a U.S. Airways flight out of Possum Swamp Regional. The lack of flights from The Swamp to DC meant I had to take the 6 a.m. early-early, but that was OK. While I’ve got used to often sleeping till 7 – 8 ever’ morning now, I have not completely got out of the habit of early get-ups after only six months of retirement.

How was the flight? In the past, I’ve called my carrier, U.S. Airways, “the legitimate heir of Aeroflot.” In truth, however, they are not much, if any, worse than the other U.S. airlines. What was the most irritating thing about them? Their use of the cabin P.A. system to make long, LONG commercial announcements in an attempt to torture you into applying for their dadgum credit card. I was able to ignore that foolishness with the aid of a good SF novel, Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet: Valiant.

After a plane change in Charlotte, where for once I actually had plenty of time to catch my connecting flight, I was off on the short hop to Reagan (Washington) National. I’d just been there a few weeks back with Miss D., so I purty much knew the lay of the land and wasn’t stressed. I was to meet Bob at the Dollar Rent-a-car counter, and as I was waiting for the shuttle to take me to their off-airport site, I got a call from Mr. B. He’d arrived early, had our car all checked out, and we could be off as soon as I got there.

I am luckier than most writers are in that I get to spend some one-on-one time with the editor of the magazine I do most of my writing for. Even if I didn’t write for Sky and Telescope, I’d enjoy shooting the breeze with Bob Naeye. Despite his status as a Dadgum Yankee, we agree on almost all subjects (albeit with a little disagreement about Pluto). We grabbed lunch at a local burger joint out in Virginia, Fosters, which was some kinda good, and after what seemed like a not overlong journey out of the DC metro area, through northern Virginia, and into West Virginia, were turning off on the road that winds up to the Spruce Knob site of AHSP.

Where exactly is the site? It’s near Circleville, West Virginia at a Mountain Institute facility that’s not quite at the top of Spruce Knob, but which is high enough nevertheless, 4300’, to be out of the muck and haze of the lowlands. When it’s unusually humid at the site, you can see a light-dome to the east, but that is mostly blocked by the mountain. Frankly, the location boasts the best skies I have seen east of the Mississip. On one very dark night one year, dim M101 was incredibly prominent in 50mm binoculars.

After a few winding miles of access road, we were pulling up to the registration tent. We got our badges, info packets, and were delivered into the care of AHSP organizer Kathryn Scott, who rode up to dorm area with us to help get us settled. As I’ve mentioned before, all the buildings at Spruce Knob are done in faux Mongolian Yurt style (yep). The dorm where we’d be staying echoed that a little bit, but was a more modern take on that trope and was nicer than the “real” (wooden) yurts. Bob and I both had rooms of our own, so Unk had plenty of space to spread out all the JUNK he’d packed in his enormous suitcase.

After that? Down to the main yurt, the Big Yurt, which is where everything happens but the observing, to see what was what and wait for supper. While I was hanging out, I got the distressing news that long-time AHSP chief Phil Wherry would not be present this year due to a serious health issue. The good news is that Phil is doing well and we all hope he’ll be back for 2014. In the meantime, NOVACer Chris Lee assumed Phil’s duties and did a bang-up job. As did the entire staff. As always, they are ALL to be commended for putting on the best organized, best run star party—no bull—I have ever seen.

When late afternoon came, it was time for Bob’s talk. Mr. Naeye is an experienced and talented speaker and it shows. His presentation, “Amateur Exoplanet Achievements,” was well-received by a gratifyingly large and interested audience. We could probably have kept him onstage for at least another hour with questions, but it wouldn’t be long before folks would be queuing up for supper, with the line extending through the Yurt and the presentation area.

The talks and the star party itself seemed to be off a damned good start. ‘Course, the true measure of success for any event is the skies. While there had been a few passing clouds in the afternoon, and there was obviously a little haze, it looked to me like all systems were go for a good, long night of deep sky voyaging.

After Mr. Naeye’s presentation, I spent a little time wandering the Big Yurt area reacquainting myself with the facilities. I also spent quite a while browsing the wares of the single vendor onsite this year, Hands On Optics (Astrogizmos was a no-show). Gary Hand’s outfit has always been one of my faves, but, alas, at this stage of the game I have just about everything I need. That doesn’t mean HOO didn’t have plenty of stuff I wanted, however. I managed to restrain myself somehow.

Then came supper. What can I say about the AHSP food? ‘Bout the same as the last time I was up:  it is good. It ain’t the best star party food I have ever had; that’s a tossup between TSP and DSRSG, but it is more than edible and certainly above average. It has also improved substantially over the years. In the beginning, the Mountain Institute folks were heavy on the vegetarian/brown rice stuff. That was OK, if not exactly to this old hillbilly’s taste. Over the six years I’ve been attending, the menu has become a little less radical, and they now actually serve beef (burgers), pork, and chicken. On this particular evening, we had stir-fry chicken and it was right tasty. Sure was plenty of it, and I took advantage of that fact.

After supper, it was time for the main event, the great celestial show, to begin. I retrieved my 15x70s as darkness came on and Bob and I hoofed it for the field. I don’t know if it’s the altitude or the site’s position in its time zone, but darkness came on in an awful hurry. Before we knew it, we were seeing the Milky Way appear and then begin to burn.

What did I look at with the Burgesses? Plenty, starting down in Sagittarius with M22, M28, M8, and M20. Then over to the big ol’ Scorpion for M4 and M7. I then toured the spine of the Milky Way in Cygnus hitting M27, M71, and a bunch of open clusters. Over to the north I spied M51. M81 and M82 popped out pretty as you please and appeared distinctly different even at “just” 15X. These wonders and the many more I essayed all looked great, but maybe not quite as great as they can from this site. That was brought home when I went to M101. Both Bob and I were able to see it, but with difficulty. It was more than just a case of averted imagination, but not much more.

Nevertheless, we saw a lot and so did the many happy observers on the expansive field. There was no denying, though, that Spruce Knob was a click down from what it can deliver on its best nights. Higher than normal humidity and haze made the light dome over the mountain to the east more prominent than normal. A patch of clouds obscured M31, M32, M110, and M33 for a while, though I did eventually bag them and plenty more “new” stuff rising in the east.

The observing was fun, but what was even more funner for your old Uncle was sitting in what we began to call the “hospitality” area with the staff and many guests, shooting the bull about everything from the NFL to SETI and drinking many and various hot and cold libations. Oh, the INFAMOUS Little Debbie – Dolly Madison War was finally brought to a victorious conclusion by my girl Debbie. Cosmic Brownies rule! Sorry y’all, you’d have to have been there.

And so it went till the time began to creep on till midnight and it began to get ever damper and, yes, colder. Down in the Swamp, it is still in the mid-70s at midnight. On Spruce Knob Mountain, summer was dying and the temperature was dipping down into the lower forties and even the upper thirties. I was chilled and tired from the trip, decided enough was too much, said my thanks and goodbyes, and headed for the dorm.

There, I was definitely ready for some shuteye. I had a laptop, a case of DVD movies, and a flask of Yell (I never travel without it), but I didn’t bother with any of that, collapsing into my reasonably comfortable bunk. Wouldn’t you know it, though? Maybe it was because I was so tired, but I tossed and turned for a spell time before drifting off. When I did get to sleep, I slept well, though I did have to get up once to grab an extra blanket off one of the other bunks. It had gone from, being cool, crisp, and good sleeping weather to being downright cold.

Saturday morning brought a right good breakfast of tasty biscuits, gravy, and some real nice sausage. And the morning and afternoon brought good talks. You can’t do everything at a star party, unfortunately, and this year I chose to go on Lyle Mars’ famous Geology Hike rather than listen to the presentations. Unfortunately that meant I missed Katy Nagy of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum on Sunspots and NASA Goddard’s Andrea Jones on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Both their talks were outstanding, I was told.

Lyle, a PhD geologist with the USGS, led us all over the mountain—that’s the way if felt, anyway—teaching us about the rocks and the geological history of the site and the surrounding area. The Academy lost a man who would have been a great teacher when Lyle went to the government, that’s for sure. After the hike, I was plain tuckered and had to recharge for a while back at the yurt.

After reading a few pages of my book, I drifted off for a couple of hours, but was up in plenty of time to get ready for supper and, most of all, my presentation, which was scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. following the evening meal. On the way back down to the Yurt, I realized I was identifying every dang rock I saw. That pea-picking Lyle did a dern good job.

Before supper, there was that feature of every star party large and small, the prize giveaway. The AHSP raffle is probably one of the biggest outside the Texas Star Party. Dozens of prizes mean that even a perennial loser like your old Unk has a chance. One special feature of the AHSP raffle I’ve never seen anyplace else? Instead of just putting your tickets in a big pot, there are bags labeled with the names of the prizes. Really want to win that Plössl? Put your tickets in that bag only. This is an idea I like very much and one I wish more star parties would emulate.

Anyhoo, there were lots of prizes, including a spiffy pair of Canon 10x50 stabilized binoculars. I didn’t win those, natch, but, believe it or not, I did win something: a cable (from Orion) to allow me to control my go-to scopes with my iPhone. Looks like ol’ Unk will be experiencing 21st Century amateur astronomy shortly.

Supper, burgers and dogs, ran a little late. We are without doubt the largest group the Mountain Institute has at Spruce Knob over the course of the year and they got a little behind on the burgers. They finally got them out (they were pretty good, too), but that meant my presentation had to be delayed about half an hour. That was OK. It wouldn’t put me so late that I’d be pushing much past sundown, and since most everybody set up the previous night, nobody really needed to get to the field much before dark, anyway.

Not long after seven, your old Uncle went on with his latest presentation, “Expanding Your Final Frontier with Deep Space Video.” This was a brand new show, and I fumbled now and then, but the audience was enthusiastic. Maybe because deep sky video cameras are now on the verge of breaking big, and plenty of amateurs are anxious to learn more about this “new” way of observing. Anyhoo, the folks seemed to have a good time despite my occasional rambling and usual corny jokes.

Saturday’s observing run was another corker. Few clouds/haze once in a while, but mostly a Milky Way that resembled a great burning rainbow. Unk’s stay in the hospitality area was enlivened by hot cider kicked up a notch with generous alky-hol. Believe you me, the colder it got, the better the cider tasted, and the jollier and more garrulous your silly old Uncle became. In addition to talking foolishness, I was pleased to be able to answer quite a few attendees’ video astronomy related questions.

Breakfast Sunday was just right: eggs, sausage, salsa, and tortillas so you could make yourself a breakfast burrito if’n you wanted.  Again, the day’s presentations were both interesting and professionally done. The standout for me was Dr. David Devorkin’s “History of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory under Fred Whipple.” The history of astronomy in the U.S. is a long-standing passion of mine, and Dr. Devorkin spent quite some time on the 1950s and the Moonwatch/satellite tracking program, a time I find particularly interesting.

What else did I do Sunday afternoon? Toured the field taking pictures of and admiring any scopes that were out from under their Desert Storm covers. In the course of that, I ran into one of my Cloudy Nights buddies, Charlie Bradshaw, who is the proud owner of Celestron’s new automatic go-to alignment widget, the StarSense. I was curious as to hear how the StarSense had worked with Charlie’s CGEM. He gave it a thumbs-up, and that has got Unk wondering if one might be a big help for him. If I could let the scope align itself while I am going about all the other tasks I need to do to get a video observing run underway, that might be a Good Thing. We shall see.

Sunday night started out considerably cloudier than the previous evenings. The weather forecasts were not encouraging, either. Still, there were plenty of clear stretches. The night began with an absolutely lovely Crescent Moon - Venus pairing. They were barely a degree and a half apart, and I was tempted to run back up to the dorm and fetch my camera. Unfortunately, just as I was fixing to do that, the pair disappeared into a cloudbank. That was OK; a hot, spiced rum took my disappointment away. I was in a particularly good mood because of the news the Saints had won one, and couldn’t resist letting out a WHO DAT after the first rum went down the hatch.

Despite all the fun on the field, which even included some binocular observing, it had to be an early evening for this old hillbilly. Bob and I planned to head back to DC right after breakfast, and it would be an awfully long day. Again, took me a while to get to sleep.  I had a hard time staying asleep, too, awakening once and poking my head outside to see what the sky was up to.  There was a beautiful expanse of winter and fall constellations, and whoever was still hitting it at 2 a.m. out on the field must have been getting their jollies bigtime.

Come morning, neither Bob nor I was that hungry, and on a travel day both of us were a little wary of consuming the good and greasy bacon that the smells coming out of the Yurt indicated was being cooked. We also wanted to allow plenty of time to get to Reagan in case we got stuck in traffic—the last time we rode back together, we were stopped for well over an hour. We lit out slightly before 8 o’clock in the a.m. 

It turned out that for once there were no bad traffic snarls. We ran well ahead of time and were able to do lunch in Tyson, Virginia. I don’t care what you fraking connoisseurs say, the NEVER-ENDING PASTA BOWL at Olive Garden rocks. It was a pleasant ride back to the big city with Bob and Unk having plenty of time to talk over and solve all the world’s problems.

The denouement? The only slight snag was that my flight to Charlotte was delayed for over half hour. Typically, the crew was close-mouthed about the reason, but I assume it had something to do with security, since it was a just few days before 9/11. I managed to catch my connection for the Swamp in Charlotte, but just barely. Nevertheless, I didn’t get all upset. There was nowhere I had to be on Monday.

Back at at good, old Chaos Manor South, it was Taco Bell Tacos, Kolorado Kool Aids, and The Big Bang Theory. It was great to be back home with Miss Dorothy, but what fun I had had, muchachos. I am counting down the days to AHSP 2014, that’s for dagnabbed sure.

Nota Bene:  As always, you can see lots and lots more pictures on Unk's Facebook page, in the photos/albums section.

Next Time:  Destination Moon...

Rod, thanks for your kind words about AHSP - the volunteer team did a fantastic job! My absence this year was purely precautionary (and to avoid worrying my wife) - I'm definitely planning to see you there in 2014!

Phil Wherry
That is just great to hear, Phil!
Sorry I missed you Rod. I'm in Barcelona right now but sure would have enjoyed being on the mountain.

Next year for sure,

Bob Parks
Looking forward to next year!
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