Sunday, October 19, 2014


My Favorite Star Parties: Peach State Star Gaze 2002

This, muchachos, is another installment of this series in which “favorite” don’t mean “best.” Not regarding the skies or facilities of Peach State ’02. Those things were just middlin’. What made this one a winner was, to start with, the people of the Atlanta Astronomy Club (AAC). Add to that some great speakers, and you have a star party that is still one of my favorites even though it didn't offer outstanding views or creature comforts.

What impelled Unk to start thinking “Peach State Star Gaze” as August melted into September a dozen years ago? I’d just got my NexStar 11, Big Bertha, a few months before. I’d had her out under a dark sky once thus far, at the 2002 Chiefland Spring Picnic. She’d performed brilliantly there, and I was hungry for more of the views provided by her aperture, tracking, and goto. There was but one fly in the ol’ ointment, y’all. PSSG wasn’t PSSG no more.

For a while, I’d been hearing about dissatisfaction in the AAC ranks, among the hardcore observers anyhow, concerning the original PSSG site near Jackson, Georgia. It was not perfect sky-wise. How could it be, only 50-miles from the Atlanta megalopolis? The sky was not bad, however, and the facilities at Indian Springs State Park were first rate as star parties go.

Yes, the field was small for the large club’s audience, which consisted of not just local amateurs, but of folks from Alabama and Tennessee, too, and was topping 300.  There was sufficient field space and overflow space to accommodate everybody, however, and I didn’t think there’d be a growth spurt to TSP levels anytime soon. I put the rumblings of discontent down to the usual sort of give and take that goes on in any big club. I expected to be back at Indian Springs in the fall.

Nope. Afore long, I learned the Peach State Star Gaze was indeed moving to supposedly darker skies for 2002. The event, which would run from October 3 – 6, wouldn’t even be held in Georgia. It would be over the border in Tennessee at a place called “Whitewater Express,” a private outdoor adventure center/camp near Copperhill, Tennessee in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains.

Well, well, well, Tennessee. Two hours farther for me than Jackson. Was I up for the drive? By myself, since Miss Dorothy wouldn’t be able to attend? Given that the site was an unknown quantity, I wasn't sure. However, since the AAC was switching to the new location because they wanted darker skies, I figgered the star party would feature good observing if nothing else. Anyhow, I was all het up to get Bertha out and didn't want to wait for the semi-dark skies of the Deep South Regional Star Gaze (still held in McComb, Mississippi in them days). I’d give Whitewater a try. Once.

Come Thursday morning, 3 October, I packed my old 1996 Toyota Camry to the gills with Bertha and all the support gear I’d need for three days under the stars and headed north on cotton-picking I-65. With me was the NS11 GPS in her enormous case. The eyepiece case and equipment boxes. A (minimalist) tailgating canopy. Cupla jumpstart batteries. Table, chairs, ice chest, and sleeping bag. You get the picture. Cramming all the stuff in the car was actually easy compared to doing the same—plus more—the previous year for the Texas Star Party, howsomeever.

Those fried chicken biscuits ain't gonna eat themselves...
The drive? It wasn’t the length of it that bothered me; it was getting through Atlanta. I married an Atlanta girl, so I’d been to the city many a time, but I’d never made the drive by myself. In the days before GPS, all them Interstate entrances and exits in Atlanta dang sure game me the willies.

I only made a couple of stops; one at the Montgomery Stuckey’s for my traditional fried chicken biscuit, and one just over the Georgia line for gas. I was trying my dangdest to miss the Atlanta lunchtime traffic and the beginning of rush hour (which starts real early in the big city). My hands were a little sweaty on the wheel, but I successfully negotiated I-85, got on I-75, and made it to I-575, which would take me close to the site. 

Once past Hot ‘Lanta, I could relax for a while, ‘til it was time to get off the Interstates and find Whitewater Express with the help of the somewhat vague instructions I’d printed out. I had a rather entertaining book on tape (really on a tape back then) to listen to, Peter Straub’s The Hellfire Club, whose somehow likable serial killer antagonist almost steals the novel from the strong but put-upon female hero. I was just zippng along, since even Georgia 5, which I picked up after I-575, was a four-laner for most of its length.

Highway 5 did eventually degenerate into 2-lanes, and this last part of the journey was different both from the way I’d imagined it and from what the directions seemed to describe. Unk, being the perceptive sort of cat he is, figgered he must have taken a wrong turn about the time he passed a huge sign reading “Welcome to North Carolina.” I turned around, found the missed turn a few miles back, and was soon entering Whitewater Express’ grounds. I stopped at the Registration Tent, got my packet and T-shirt, and headed for the field.

My first task was finding a spot on the large but crowded observing field. Me and the Camry orbited, and we orbited, and we orbited, finally finding a place near the center. Stopped, got out, stretched my legs and took stock.

I was impressed with Whitewater Express, at least as far as the scenery went. Fir trees and hills that could almost qualify as small mountains ringed the field. In the far-off distance were the Great Smokies. The place bordered the Ocoee River, and, as its name implied, featured white water rafting during the summer. In the autumn, Whitewater got by with the occasional church group before the coming of the Atlanta Astronomy Club.

First order of bidness was gear set up. A little over a decade ago, I was younger and stronger and Bertha was reasonably easy to manage. Unlike today, when she has somehow put on enough weight (sorry, old girl) that broken down old Unk is plotting to move her OTA to a GEM. The tent canopy, just a tarp with some ropes and poles back then, went up. Observing table and chairs and equipment boxes went under that, and I was done.

Now it was time to seek out the little astronomer’s room and have a look at the rest of Whitewater Express. First, I dropped my sleeping bag off in my cabin, which was not too far from the field. The little log cabin I had been assigned was something of a paradox. It was attractive on the outside and looked nearly new. Inside, however, it was purty doggone Spartan. 

The bunks were, no exaggeration, more like wooden shelves than beds. There were three tiers of ‘em, and while they had mattresses, it would have been a challenge to find thinner ones. There were a lot of bunks in that tiny cabin. What there wasn’t was heat or AC. I didn’t think we’d need heat, since it was on the sticky and humid side. I just hoped it wouldn’t get hot enough to make me wish for air-conditioning.

The bathhouse and toilets nearest my cabin were in the same large building as the dining hall. Said chow hall was new looking and expansive. Only problem Unk foresaw? The dining area was open to the elements. That was fine during Whitewater’s peak season, the summer. In the fall in the mountains? Not so much. If it got even a little cooler than the predicted late afternoon 70s – upper 60s, that could be a freaking problem.

Unk's modest setup...
I was later to learn I had lucked out. Apparently, my accommodations were several clicks nicer than those some of the other folks had to deal with. From what I heard, some of the other facilities on the site were akin to the infamous Black Hole of Alto Frio at TSP ’97.

What was up next was supper. And it was not bad, not bad at all. I found the grub at Whitewater quite passable. On the first evening, it was simple but OK spaghetti, garlic bread, and salad. There was enough of it and I enjoyed shooting the breeze with my fellow diners, who included Sky & Telescope Editor Kelly Beatty, keynote speaker David Levy, and celestial cartographer par excellence, Wil Tirion. I always enjoyed hanging out with Kelly, and David’s not just a great speaker and observer; he’s a lot of fun to be around.

So, supper was real fun. But, like you, I go to a star party, most of all, for observing. What were the skies doing? Nothing good. You’d think that up in the hills of Tennessee dadgum hurricanes wouldn’t be a problem. But one was, a bad girl named “Lili.” Bands of clouds from this weak late-season storm had followed me all the freaking way from the Gulf Coast and were making their presence felt.

I did get Bertha uncovered and aligned, learning in the process that it was OK to goto align these new-fangled NexStars on Polaris.  I hadn't been sure about that, but the paltry number of alignment stars available due to the degrading sky conditions dictated I give the North Star a try. Yeah, worked fine. 

That first evening, I saw a few things along the summer Milky Way, including a cool nebula in Cygnus new to me that astro-writer and AAC member Rich Jakiel pointed out. But mostly it was touch and go, with clear stretches becoming fewer and fewer. By ten p.m., even the sucker holes were filling in with haze, and the bands of drifting clouds began to put on the brakes.

All too soon, the evil gray things were aided and abetted by thick fog rolling in out of the hills, and I knew Bertha and I were done for Thursday night. Once my girl was tucked in, I spent some time shooting the breeze with old friends, who, in addition to my fellow club members from the PSAS, George Byron, Marvin Uphaus, and Betsy Hopson, included Auburn Astronomical Society stalwarts Russell Whigham and Eddie Kirkland.

My (log) cabin...
What else did I do? I was tired but not sleepy and spent quite a spell sitting under my canopy hoping for one more break in the clouds. When that had not come by midnight, I broke out the Rebel Yell and relaxed, till the fog had just about soaked me to the skin and I trundled off to my hard wooden bunk and my sleeping bag for some welcome shuteye. After I helped poor old George, who had severe back and neck problems, climb into his tier-three bunk. I offered let him have my bottom bunk, but, in typical George fashion, he’d have none of it.

Friday morning was a slow one and so was the rest of the day. The bathroom’s showers turned out to be OK. Having to trot to a bathroom across the street is not like staying in a motel, but the facilities were clean enough. Breakfast, like supper the night before, was plain and institutional but adequate. Unfortunately, the Whitewater folks insisted on serving it at 8 in the freaking a.m. Even given that there was to be a paucity of late night observing in 2002, that was too early for a star party breakfast.

The weather, unfortunately, did not inspire confidence. There were some surprisingly strong wind gusts, no doubt caused by what was left of Lili, beginning in the morning and continuing well into the afternoon. Amazingly, my flimsy tent canopy somehow remained standing. That was the good. The bad was that by afternoon it was fracking raining. What was there to do on a rainy star party day? Listen to speakers and buy cool astro-stuff.

The speaker roster for PSSG ought-two was a very fine one. David Levy spoke on Friday as well as Saturday. He was preceded on Friday by Wil Tirion, who talked about his famous atlases including Sky Atlas 2000. Wil was supposed to have been the keynote speaker at PSSG 2001, but the events of 9/11, just a couple of days before, prevented him from flying in. It was a treat to hear the man who composed the atlas I’d used for so many years explain how it and his even deeper work, Uranometria 2000, had been created—in the days when you didn’t just sit down at a computer and mash “print.”

These little guys seem to follow me everywhere...
David Levy is my generation’s Walter Scott Houston or maybe Leslie Peltier, and even a casual afternoon talk by the man is something you don’t want to miss. The only bringdown concerning David was that, naturally, all the star partiers wanted to hear him, and the presentation hall at Whitewater was way too small. Much smaller than Indian Springs’ main building. The many folks who couldn’t get in stood outside at the windows despite rain showers that came and went, trying to hear what David was saying, not a very satisfactory solution. It was also stiflingly hot in the hall, which, like everything else at Whitewater, was not air-conditioned.

Which brings us to one of Unk’s fave parts of star party attendance, buyin’ that dadgum astro-stuff. There was a decent if not overwhelming lineup of vendors in a small building on the edge of the observing field. There was Chuck Pisa, then with Wolf Camera, Ken Dauzat’s Ken’s Rings and Things, Astronomy to Go, and a couple of smaller outfits besides. One of those smaller vendors was Thomas Bopp of Comet Hale Bopp fame, who was selling posters and pictures of “his” Great Comet.

My buy? I’d just learned Lumicon had closed its doors, and I was anxious to get one of their 2-inch UHC filters while I could, so I turned over some bucks to Chuck. Turned out I needn’t have worried; Lumicon was kept going under new management. Nevertheless, the UHC was (and is) a good filter and it was nice to have it for the star party.

I didn’t buy anything from Ken, but enjoyed spending some time with my old friend and his wife, Karen.  I was actually surprised to see them there with their array of custom-made mounting rings and other accessories—Louisiana had been right in the path of Hurricane Lili. Health problems have since impelled Ken to shut down his pioneering Internet astronomy store, but he made a whole lot of folks, including Unk, happy with his plain but functional accessories over the years.

The vendors’ hall didn’t just offer astro-goodies, but also real goodies. After sundown, there was plenty of hot coffee and deliciously sugar-laden treats like little Debbie cakes on sale all night long. That was an old tradition from the Indian Springs days, and I was right happy it was continuing.

Dining hall and bathhouse...
Sometimes I do get lucky. At sundown, the doggone clouds were beginning to scamper off, and it was obvious we were gonna get in a little viewing. You could almost hear the folks on the field heave a collective sigh of relief. It had begun to look like we might be approaching the outskirts of the dreaded Skunk City.

Once Sol was out of the way, I was able to give Whitewater Express’ sky a better evaluation than I had Thursday. The verdict? The site was okay, if not really much better than Indian Springs. There was a substantial light-dome in the west, from Chattanooga. Surprisingly, there was also a smaller one to the south, from Atlanta 100 miles away, I presumed. The light pollution was undoubtedly made worse by the higher than normal humidity, but there was no doubt in Unk's formerly military mind the light dome from Chattanooga, at least, would have been prominent even under better conditions.

The forecast for Friday night was far from perfect—“mostly cloudy”—and that turned out to be mostly correct. That didn’t stop your old Uncle, however. Thanks to Bertha’s faultless goto, I was able to observe thirty objects before my run was ended after about two hours by another batch of clouds. Before that happened, I snagged quite a few of the elusive nebulae scattered through Cassiopeia and Cepheus, which showed up well with my nice new Lumicon filter. With my old 35mm 82-degree Bird’s Eye eyepiece (which I got from Cousin Herb York), Bertha was almost a wide field scope.

One thing was sure, the telescope performed admirably despite a small glitch. When pointed west, Bertha would occasionally suffer from a small “jump” in tracking. That affected all the early NexStar GPS scopes, was caused by a glitch in the non-programmable motor control board, and was only cured by a board replacement.

Celestron quickly sent me a, thankfully, user programmable motor control board, but I had a hard time dealing with the big and heavy scope and didn't follow instructions as closely as I should have. I wound up nicking a cable and the whole big scope had to be shipped back to California. Luckily, shipping was less expensive in those days, and if nothing else, Unk learned an always valuable lesson:  BE CAREFUL AND READ THE DAMN INSTRUCTIONS! 

When the clouds moved in for good on this evening, they did so with a vengeance and there was just no question about there being any further viewing Friday. Out came the Yell, and Unk spend the remaining hours of his Friday evening wandering around the big field annoying all and sundry.

The weather looked this way much of the time Saturday...
Saturday evening brought one last meal in a dining hall, that, as I expected, was on the chilly side after the humidity and temperature dropped a hair in late afternoon. The day had been spent much as Friday had been, trotting around the field looking at folks’ gear and listening to speakers. In addition to David’s Keynote, given to another SRO audience, there was Kelly Beatty’s interesting (or maybe scary) presentation on the threat posed by near Earth asteroids. And an excellent talk by Rich Jakiel on deep-sky-fuzzy hunting.

Saturday night’s skies were looking to be the best of the event, which was a bummer since I knew I’d want to shut down early to prepare for the drive home. Transparency was never much better than “acceptable,” but Bertha and I saw a lot, especially of the legendary clusters and nebulae scattered up and down the spine of Cygnus the Swan. I’d take an occasional break for coffee (and, yes, I’ll admit it, Little Debbies) in those benighted pre-Monster Energy Drink days, but I didn’t take too many breaks, since midnight was my designated turns-into-a-pumpkin time. Total for the evening was another thirty objects, making my final catch for the event 75, not bad given the conditions.

And that was that. While the clouds stayed away ‘til about 3 a.m., I was snoozing by then. Sunday morning, I was southbound as early as possible and even managed to find the turn off for I-85 in dadgum Atlanta—I’d been pretty sure I’d miss it and wind up somewhere in the Okefenokee Swamp.

I had a good time at the Tennessee edition of the PSSG, but I never went back. Just too many miles compared to Chiefland or DSRSG for skies that were not much—if any—better than what I had closer to home. In fact, there was no denying they were substantially poorer than the Chiefland skies. I was sorry to give up star partying with my Atlanta friends, but in those go-go days of my engineering career, a six-hour drive was better than an eight-hour one.

Whatever happened to Whitewater Express? A Google search shows it to still be in business, but it continues without Peach State. The star party stayed there for a few years, but, apparently, other members of the PSSG’s audience began to feel the same way about the place as I had. The star party was moved again to the darker (Georgia) location where it is today, the Deer Lick Astronomy Village.

I hope to get back to the big Georgia star party some day if I can just get up the gumption to do an event where I can’t stay in a motel (Deer Lick is out in the boondocks). It’s not easy for your ever older and more decrepit Uncle to convince himself to do that, but I do miss my PSSG friends and dang sure intend to join them for another Peach State one of these years, muchachos.

Next Time: Back to Feliciana...

Great reading as always, thanks.
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