Sunday, October 13, 2013


My Favorite Star Parties: Cherry Springs 2006

When is a repeat not a repeat, muchachos? When the subject wasn’t sufficiently covered back in the days of this blog’s infancy. The Little Old Blog from Chaos Manor South didn't really hit its stride till about two years after its birth, till I learned to stretch out. To give my Sunday morning epistles plenty of room. Yes, I did a couple of entries on the 2006 Cherry Springs Star Party right after the event, but both were brief and one of the nation’s more well-known star parties deserves more.

Let me preface this by saying that, as always, being one of My Favorite Star Parties doesn't necessarily mean the observing was top-notch. I had a pretty good time at Cherry Springs in ‘06, but remnants of a tropical system that made it all the way up to dadgum Pennsylvania prevented the site from really showing what it could do.

Back in the spring of 2006, I knew something about Cherry Springs, if not about the Cherry Springs Star Party. I had at least heard of the Black Forest Star Party, the other star party held at Pennsylvania’s Cherry Springs State Park, but I didn’t know pea-turkey about the CSSP. Not till one afternoon when the kitchen computer made the bleep-bloop sound that means Outlook has downloaded a new email.

When I opened the missive from Mike Snider of the Astronomical Society of Harrisburg (Pennsylvania), I was intrigued. ASH, who were putting on the 2006 Cherry Springs Star Party, were inviting me up to be a speaker. The 2006 CSSP would be held 22 – 26 June 2006, and it looked like it was gonna be a good one. The star party’s state park home near Coudersport, Pennsylvania, sounded great, there were lots of vendors lined up, there was food onsite, and it appeared I could expect a large and enthusiastic audience for my talk. I fired off a response to ASH giving them a big Unk Rod thumbs-up.

Meals on Wheels ASH style...
Shortly thereafter, we firmed up the details, which would have me flying up on Friday, 23 June. I was still a big-time wage slave in them days, of course, and couldn’t do Thursday. The only thing that gave me pause was the question of getting to Coudersport and the Cherry Springs Star Party. The airlines didn't seem to think somebody from Mobile, Alabama (a.k.a. "Possum Swamp") would ever want to go there.

The only way for me to get to the CSSP was to fly into Elmira – Corning New York and drive south for about 85-miles. Unk didn't much like the sound of that. Still, what could happen? Mike said they’d have a rent-a-car waiting for me, and that the directions to Cherry Springs State Park were easy to follow. I sure hoped so, since the entire state of Pennsylvania was unknown country for your Uncle. Also, these were the days before I adopted GPS as the only reliable way of getting silly old me anywhere.

My Friday morning journey started out with, natch, the 6 a.m. zombie flight out of Possum Swamp Regional. From there, I had a layover in Charlotte. And another one in freaking Philly. The “service” from U.S. Airways was about the same as what I hear tell an American could expect from the Soviets’ Aeroflot at the height of the Cold War.

The problem for your old Unk wasn’t the skimpy bag of peanuts thrown at him by the frowning stews, it was that then as now U.S. Air was notorious for their efficiency—or lack thereof. They have improved somewhat judging by my recent and fairly pleasant flight with them to DC for the Almost Heaven Star Party, but in 2006 they always seemed to run late. I was beginning to feel antsy when I hit Philadelphia, since the delays were beginning to stack up and the afternoon was sliding away. I hadn’t seen nuttin’ yet:  “Ladies and Gentlemen, there is a maintenance issue with the Elmira flight. We hope to have you out of here in an hour or two. Thanks for flying U.S. Airways!”

By the time I made it to the little Elmira - Corning airport, it was after 5 p.m. and it was getting  dark already due to rain and fog. Unk began to feel more than just a little antsy; he began to feel downright timid about driving off into the wilds of northern Pennsylvania. But what was there to do but head for the rent-a-car place?

RCX400 outside the Dealers' Tent...
For once on the trip, I lucked out. The little girl at the Avis counter said she’d been ready to close up shop for a while, but she knew there was a late flight coming in and had stayed on. The bad part was that she’d already rented just about everything she had with four wheels. All that remained was a Saturn Ion. I don’t know if you remember GM’s short-lived attempt to be “relevant,” but the Ion was small and it was rough riding and it dern sure didn’t have no GPS.

Sat-nav was still rare in rental cars in those days, and Unk didn't own a standalone receiver either. This trip dang sure got him to thinking about one, though.  Luckily, there was still good, old Triple-A with their Trip-tick maps, which by then you could print out on the computer. The difficulty for your old Unk was that his middle-aged eyes had a heck of a time reading the directions without his reading glasses, and the readers made it impossible for him to see how to drive. Whatev’. I started the cotton-picking Ion and headed for I-86.

At first, all was well. I headed south, passing the turnoff for Corning, New York and the Corning Glass Factory Museum. Being a nerd, I was sorry I didn't have time to stop and take it in. It wasn’t until I crossed the Pennsylvania border and left the Interstates that things got a bit hairy. It might as well have been full dark given the weather, and once I got on PA 49, the highway that would get me where I needed to go, I began to run into road construction and freaking detours.

After about an hour and a half, I thought I was in the general vicinity of Cherry Springs State Park, but was not quite sure. Let’s be honest, I wasn’t sure at all. The four lane roads had degenerated into two lane ones and I’d entered a heavily forested area that looked like it came right out of some dark fairytale set in, yep, The Black Forest.

Unk was just about to go all paranoid when I saw a Pennsylvania Smokey the Bear parked on the side of the road, a Pennsylvania State Trooper, that is. I pulled in ahead of him, got out, walked over, said howdy, and asked, “Where in the h-e double hockey sticks is the Cherry Springs State Park?” The trooper laughed and laughed, and when he got over his fit, pointed over Unk’s shoulder. Behind me was a billboard-sized sign welcoming Unk to Cherry Springs.

The Registration Tent...
From there, it was smooth sailing to the star party; I rolled into the park just a wee bit after 6:30 p.m., not too shabby, I thought, given my late arrival in New York. What impressed me right off the bat? Signs that reminded tourists this was a designated astronomy observing field, and that headlights were to be dimmed when entering. On my left was the registration tent. Man, was your old Uncle relieved.

Despite the slightly late hour, there were a couple of ASH folks waiting for Unk at the registration tent. They seemed slightly put-out when I requested a T-shirt (I love collecting star party t-shirts), but in retrospect I believe that was just my imagination. They may have been put-out at my request for some unfathomable reason, but I believe their attitudes had more to do with the weather than with your old Uncle. It was not raining, but rain was threatening and from what they said it sounded like there hadn’t been much—if any—viewing Thursday night, either. Anyhow, it had been a long day for everybody, I reckon.

After checking in, I took a turn around the site, starting with the large tent that housed the vendors. Not much going on there. With evening coming on, the dealers, who included Camera Concepts, Skies Unlimited, and TeleVue, were packing it in. I did get the chance to see Vixen’s brand new Sphinx mount, which I’d been curious about. I had some questions about it, but the person running the booth, David Nagler I believe, seemed distracted--or at least unwilling to pay any heed at all to little old me. That was OK; I’d have Saturday to examine the mount and all the other stuff in the tent. And there would be more cool stuff the next day. I knew Meade Instruments would have their big spread laid out, and I was expecting my friends from Denkmeier, the binoviewer folks, too.

The more I tramped around the park, the more impressed I became. The state of Pennsylvania had set out to build a “dark sky park,” and they were obviously putting time and money into the project. It wasn’t just the signs designating the area an astronomical observing field. They were in the process of building a nice, big dome appropriate for large Dobsonians, pouring concrete observing pads, and installing electrical power outlets on the field. Maybe I should take back all those mean things I’d said about Yankees over the years? Nah, didn't want to be too hasty.

I enjoyed touring the expansive observing field, but it was getting cloudier and damper by the minute—it was just on the verge of misting rain. Most everybody on the site was buttoned up in tents and RVs and had their scopes covered. To be honest, y’all, I almost welcomed the nasty weather. It had been a long, long day and the prospect of a warm motel room (it was already on the chilly side) and a few brewskies was irresistible. Yep, time to head for the room the ASH had reserved for me at the Mill Stream Inn in nearby Coudersport. Locating my hosts again, I got directions, received a warning to look out for “all the deer,” and headed to town.

Winding my way back down through the park at dusk, I did indeed pass plenty of deer, at least ten does, before I’d left Cherry Springs. My old friend back home, Bubba, would have had a fine and illegal time. Coudersport, a pretty little town nestled in the rolling hills and small mountains of the Alleghenies, was easy to find and so was my hostelry.

The Mill Stream Inn was modern, well kept, and had something most out-in-the-country motels didn't have seven years ago, free wireless Internet. The lady at the desk was a little more taciturn that what I am used to, and it finally dawned on me that the people up here were a little more reserved than us naturally passionate and ebullient southerners. 

Unpacked, it was almost time to relax with the cable TV, but I wanted a six-pack of pea-picking Kolorado Kool-aid to help with that. I hopped in the Ion and soon found a local grocer. No beer or wine. That was something of a surprise. I’d just wintered not too far away in Maine, and their grocery stores were packed to the gills with wine, beer, and hard liquor. There wasn’t a single sixer to be had at the filling station, either. There were some good old boys in residence, luckily: “Son, you’ll have to find a bar. They’ll sell you a six-pack to-go. Try the Beef and Ale.”

Mill Stream Inn...
Which is exactly what I did. I thought I’d have supper at the Beef and Ale House too, but a glance at the menu in the bar and a look at one of the burgers the waitress brought out indicated the place, which had looked impressive outside, wasn’t so hot inside (they have since closed, I believe). I’d stick to the ale. I’d had a meal, a great big cheese steak, in the Philly airport anyway. I wound up with a six of Yuengling, which was new to me then, at the suggestion of the barmaid, and made tracks back to the motel.

In my room, I found the Yuengling stuff to my liking, and spent a couple of hours browsing Cloudy Nights and channel hopping on the cable TV before calling it a night. I was happy to be in Cherry Springs after a somewhat trying journey, and was looking forward to checking out the star party’s people and scopes and vendors on Saturday.

Saturday morning, but not bright and early Saturday morning, I headed to the lobby to see what was what breakfast-wise. This was just before the average motel continental breakfast ballooned into the full spread of eggs and bacon and sausage and waffles it is today, but Unk was more than happy with an English muffin or two and a donut or three. As soon as I’d washed the last sinker down with Java, I hopped in the car and headed back to the star party.

On the Cherry Springs field, I finally had to admit that, yes,  I’d been wrong about some Yankees. As the day wore on, I met more and more nice folks, many of them familiar names from my SCT User Yahoogroup (which was still thriving at the time despite the already apparent decline of Yahoo). I admired their scopes and enjoyed the scenery and the weather. It was still partly cloudy, and the humidity was no doubt higher than normal for this location, but it felt like crisp fall air compared to what we’d been having on the Gulf Coast.

The Beef and Ale...
Next up was lunch. While the ASH had their lunch wagon on site doling out burgers and dogs, I thought I might get something in town that was at least once-removed from fast food. Tooling along, enjoying the picture-book Pennsylvania countryside, I eventually came upon a little diner that filled the bill and the hole in my tummy. The diner and everything else in town seemed to have been transplanted straight out of the 1950s. When I looked up at the marquee of Coudersport’s old-timey movie theatre, I halfway expected to see Rebel without a Cause up there.

After resting up back at the motel , I was back in that darned Ion—which actually did OK—and headed back to spend the rest of the day and a good part of the night at the Cherry Springs Star Party.

There, I did some more wandering around and picture taking, but I also spent a considerable length of time in the dealer tent. Denkmeier Optical arrived shortly, as did Owl Astronomy Products. The most interesting display for me, though, was Meade’s. Their Field Rep had a big table showing off the latest iteration of the company’s Ultrawide eyepieces, the first change in their design in years and years. But, most of all, he had a 10-inch RCX400 set up.

If you've read this, you know the RCX400 was supposed to be Meade’s 21st Century breakthrough SCT. That didn’t happen, but it was still an impressive piece of hardware, y’all. Its reduced coma optics, motorized focusing and collimation, and built in dew heater aside, this was one pretty scope. It was a big mutha too, the 10-inch looking to be about the size of an LX200 12-inch to Unk. I spent quite a while playing with it and talking about it with the Meade dude.

With all the goodies laid out before me, what did I buy? I was mindful that whatever I bought needed to fit in my suitcase, so I kept myself in check. I spent most of my time just browsing and shooting the breeze with telescope dealer extraordinaire, Bob Black, the proprietor of Skies Unlimited. Did I eventually make a purchase? What do you-all think? It was small and modest, however, a 3X apochromatic Barlow from Owl that I am still using to this very day for Solar System imaging .

It seemed like I’d only been on site and hour or two, but ol’ Sol was soon sinking. Wandering over to the pavilion where the talks would be held, I had the pleasure of running into the new Editor-in-Chief of Sky & Telescope (and CSSP Keynote Speaker), Bob Naeye. I’d been a little disturbed by the events that had taken place shortly after my visit to the magazine’s old digs on Bay State Road earlier in ’06. Sky & Telescope had been sold to an outfit called “New Track Media,” and a new Editor, Bob, had taken the reins. A few minutes talking with Mr. Naeye assured me that the best astronomy magazine there has ever been was in good, very good, hands.

After rapping with Bob and scoping out the place where I would be speaking, I had just enough time to grab a bite of supper before my talk. That came from the ASH lunch wagon. My burger and chips were just right…not too much and not too little and quite tasty.

Then it was time for me to go on. My presentation was, “Everything you Always Wanted to Know about Deep Sky Video but were Afraid to Ask.” This talk marked the beginning of my crusade to spread the word about video observing. What’s amazing, when I look at my slides from that day, is how far video has come in the last seven years.

Naturally, Unk didn't just tell the folks about video, he interjected plenty of his corny, down-home humor in the form of jokes and countrified shenanigans (“Raise your hand if’n you have EVER owned a Lynyrd Skynyrd Album!”). I’m sure my audience found Unk’s rustic demeanor slightly trying, but they listened politely and asked tons of questions afterwards. It was on this night that I decided video astronomy or something like it really was the wave of the future.

After the raffle, hosted by yours truly, who subjected his long-suffering fellow star partiers to even more cornball nonsense in the process of giving away plenty of good prizes, it was time to observe. It was getting dark, and the sky was actually clearing. It looked like it would be a purty good, if not exceptional, evening. Curse my luck that I was without a telescope.

‘Course, I could wander the field cadging looks through plenty of telescopes. To a man and woman, the CSSPers were nice to me. But that is not the same as having a scope of your own at your disposal. Since I do so many distant star parties, I am used to being scopeless, but you can bet I was some kind of happy when the Meade Field Rep asked if I’d like to use the RCX400, “You know more about it than I do.”

You can read my evaluation of the RCX in the above linked blog article, but suffice to say she worked as good as she looked. Beautiful images and accurate go-to. I even came to like the moto-focus system once I figured out which buttons to mash. One thing I did not like about the RCX was that all its features were a little much for the Autostar II hand control. Some functions required button combinations, and my gut feeling was the scope needed an Autostar designed just for it. Still, she worked right well despite, the rep told me, having been dropped during unloading at the last star party he’d been to.

What did I look at? The summer Messiers mostly. While it was very dark indeed, with hardly anything in the way a visible light dome anywhere in the sky, it was not completely clear. There was usually a little haze if not drifting clouds.  During the clearer stretches, though, I could tell this was a superior site. At those times, the Milky Way was downright dramatic. The way M13 looked in that 10-inch RCX is still locked in my mind all these years later, campers.

The only bad thing? My turns-into-a-pumpkin-time would have to be midnight. There was that long drive back to New York in the morning and another full day in the air. It was awfully hard to pull myself away from that magnificent Meade Ultrawide, but I did so somehow, said my good-nights  and headed back to Coudersport. There, I polished off the last couple of Yuenglings and watched maybe ten minutes of TV before falling into a deep sleep.

If Friday had been stressful, Sunday was relaxing. I had enough time to take the scenic route back to Elmira – Corning, and that’s just what I did, spending several hours oohing and ahhing over the pin-neat farms and small towns of northern Pennsylvania . This was one time when I didn't mind getting stuck behind a farmer’s tractor (and a horse drawn wagon), I was happy to take my time and have a good look at a part of the country I had never visited.

I’ve never returned to Cherry Springs, but I would like to someday. Safe and sound at home in the friendly confines of Chaos Manor South, I couldn’t help but wonder what the sky would have been like at the CSSP on a really good night. And there were all those great people. And that marvelous mountain country. Someday, muchachos, someday.

Next Time: Here and There with Uncle Rod...

Hi Rod...
Star party "reports" usually bore me into a coma-like state. But yours are the exception. Enjoyed it!

I am glad you liked my usual observing site, Uncle Rod. Seven years after starting going there regularly, I am still able to get lost on the smaller roads when trying an alternative route. In town, Mill Stream Inn has expanded and Beef and Ale House indeed closed. On the field the improvements continued and the sign on the gate is now saying in smaller and less friendly letters: “No white light. No entry or exit after dark. Fee required.”
Glad to here the Mill Stream is still going...but where the heck do you get a six-pack NOW (Unk's policy is be-prepared and I may make it back up there someday)? LOL
"hear," that is. LOL
There is a bar on the main intersection in Coudersport, opposite the town hall. Another is where you turn onto the small road to the park in Sweden Valley. Neither seems to have regular hours though. The best bet is Potato City Country Inn further (a good deal further) east on 6. By the time you make up your mind about going, Pennsylvania may have repealed its ludicrous regulations - there is a push for it. A fine state actually in other respects.
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