Sunday, November 29, 2015


Nights of the Living Star Party…

It had been a while since I’d visited the Chiefland Astronomy Village; I hadn’t been there since February 2015, actually. There were a number of reasons for that. Most prominently, the weather. As I said last week, this has not been much of a year for amateur astronomy east of the Mississippi. One of the cloudiest springs, followed by one of the cloudiest summers, followed by one of the cloudiest autumns in memory. Why drive 350-miles to sit in a motel and watch it rain when I can sit home and watch it rain in comfort?

There were other reasons, too. Like maybe a hangover from the many, many nights I spent on the CAV field working the Herschel Project. I’d done the Chiefland journey so many times, especially from 2010 – 2012, that I just needed a break. These things and a few others as well conspired to cause my longest absence from Chiefland since I began observing there in 2002. Other things? Mainly, your old Uncle's continuing struggle with the realities of retirement and a new (and final) phase of life.

I didn’t believe my desertion of the Billy Dodd Observing Field would be forever, though; I just needed the right time and circumstance for my return. And perhaps that time and circumstance had finally come into conjunction. I’d been aware for months that the group that observes on the “old” (formerly owned by Tom Clark) field, the “Chiefland Observers,” was planning to resurrect the Chiefland Star Party. Indeed, I got a call from my longtime friend and observing companion, Carl Wright, telling me that was exactly what he wanted to do, and in a big way.

Even as fall came in, I still wasn’t quite sure I was ready for another journey “down Chiefland way,” but an honest to God star party like in the old days sounded fun, and I wanted to support the Chiefland Observers. I told Carl I’d attend and, in addition, agreed to give a presentation at the event, gratis.

The Quality Inn was much improved...
Does the course of amateur astronomy always run smooth? Not hardly. First problem came when I tried to make motel reservations. One of the best things about CAV for me is the relative proximity of motels, which I much prefer to tents, but when (after waiting until the last minute) I tried to make reservations for Thursday – Sunday, I was stymied. All I could get was one night, Thursday, at the Chiefland Quality Inn. There was nothing else available in town. Not even Miss Dorothy, a master at finding and booking accommodations, could get me anything.  Not e’en at the somewhat seedy Days Inn. This was surprising but not unprecedented.

Despite its status as a small town off the beaten path, Chiefland has its share of tourist attractions and festivals. I’d been caught out because of that once before, one summer during the Herschel Project, but that was summer. I didn’t expect problems in autumn. Oh, well. Since I’d agreed to give a talk, I thought I should bite the bullet and attend the star party anyway. I booked a room at the Quality Inn for Thursday; I’d check out Friday morning and tent camp for another day or two.

The second fly in my ointment came in the form of a phone call from star party organizer Carl Wright. Seemed as there had been some sort of mix-up. They had me down as speaking on Thursday instead of Friday as we’d agreed on. Alas, for several reasons I wouldn’t be able to make it down until after they had me scheduled to speak.

Was I annoyed? Yes, I was, and I believe I had a right to be. I'd spent considerable time tailoring a presentation for the event and felt disrespected. I deserved better than the "Oh, well, sorry about that." Since I'd agreed to cover my fuel and motel expenses on my own, I thought seriously about skipping the event. Frankly, combined with the motel situation and my general feeling of malaise, this was almost the last straw.

On the other hand, I was curious to see if the Chiefland Star Party had a future.  I’d had some great times at the old CSPs and spring picnics, and from what I'd been told, with well over one-hundred registrations this would be a lot like the old days. I also thought getting out and about would be better than moping around the house. So, come Wednesday afternoon, I loaded up Miss Van Pelt, my Toyota 4Runner—or more properly rearranged and switched out a few items.

I’d had the good sense to leave most of the astro-gear in the truck following our return from the Deep South Regional Star Gaze the previous Saturday. All I had to do was remove the old C8 and CG5 (which I'd hoped to sell at the star party but hadn't) and replace them with the Edge 800 OTA, Mrs. Emma Peel, who would ride on the VX mount. The 80mm Megrez II refractor was still in her case and ready to go and so was the VX. Naturally, given the motel situation, I packed my camping gear--tent, cot, sleeping bag.

Thursday morning, I was ready to roll by 8:30 am. While, I'd lose an hour on the journey to CAV, which is on Eastern time, if I left at 8:30 and didn’t waste time, I’d be in Chiefland by three-thirty or so, which would allow me a couple of hours for set up before sundown. Since I did have a motel room for Thursday night, I wouldn’t have to worry about messing with the tent until Friday, which would expedite the process.

Sundown Thursday...
Finally on the road, I passed the time listening to Sirius XM Radio and getting my observing plans settled in my mind. My agenda would be much like at the DSRSG, prime focus imaging with my DSLR in the service of a magazine article I was writing, along with some video astronomy time (on the last night, I thought) with the Revolution Imager.

The 350-miles between Mobile and Chiefland didn’t exactly pass in a flash, but it didn’t seem too terribly long before I was leaving the Interstate and getting on the storied Florida – Georgia Parkway after refueling at the old Sunoco station at Exit 225 (I even allowed myself a little junk food in the form of a SASQUATCH BIG STICK).

When I arrived in C-land a little over two hours later, I stuck to my time-tested Plan: check into the motel, out to the field for gear set-up, back to town for needed supplies from Wally World, return to the CAV to await darkness. This time of year you have to hustle, but the routine is such a familiar one that I usually don’t have any trouble beating twilight.

The big surprise? I hadn’t been overly depressed about the motel situation given the “quality” of the Quality Inn last time I’d stayed there (the Days Inn has been even worse the last couple of years). Now, I was somewhat depressed. The new owners of the Quality Inn have made great strides. It still ain’t exactly the Ritz, but it is now at least as good as the Days Inn was years ago when it was a Holiday Inn Express: comfortable and clean. I enquired about rooms at the desk, but there was still nothing; apparently there was some sort of huge motorcycle rally/meet in progress and every room in town really was booked.

The second surprise was the observing field. I wasn’t quite sure what I’d find, and was gobsmacked, frankly, by what I saw. There weren’t as many scopes on the field as there’d been at the height of the old star party, but the field was as full as I'd seen it in a long time. And once I’d got the EZ-Up and telescope squared away, a walk around the field revealed there were some things the new event had the old star party lacked.

Meals on wheels CAV style...
First of all, food service. There was a food truck—well, trailer—selling inexpensive meals (think “Micki’s Kitchen”). But the biggest surprise was all the vendors. Dealers at star parties have become something of an endangered species the last few years because of the economy, I suppose. But given what I saw at CSP, the welcome presence of gear merchants at star parties is making a comeback.

There was Camera Concepts with a huge, and I do mean huge, layout. There was Explore Scientific with mucho stuff. My old friend Chuck Pisa was there too with a big display of his own—Chuck is now the distributor for Olivon. Howie Glatter was showing off his famous (and famously good) collimation tools and more. Daystar was onsite, too. There was so much cool-looking stuff I knew I would most assuredly wind up buying something if I didn’t win anything at the raffle. All that astro-stuff was just too darned tempting. Since it is unlikely to say the least that I will win anything at a star party, I figured I’d surely be buying.

What the Chiefland Observers had done for their first event was admittedly impressive. Telescopes everywhere, including on the “new” field to the west, the site of the "Nova Sedus" star party that had been held on that property by a separate group a few times following the end of the original CSP. This year's CSP was a cooperative affair between the two groups, something I was pleased to see.

After my quick survey of the vendors, I returned to town for my customary visit to Wally World. Grabbed ice, granola bars, and a couple of other necessities, and with the Sun now well and truly sinking it was time to scurry back to the observing field. There, it was obvious it was going to be a beautifully clear if dew-heavy night. I am constantly amazed that the skies of the CAV remain so good. When conditions are right they can still just blow me away.

Midnight munchies? They had you covered...
The rest of the story Thursday went about like it usually does on the first night of any star party for me. I was tired, and that led to me struggling with the telescope. I just couldn’t get the VX and Edge 800 decently aligned. Everything was off. Till I realized the mount/scope was woefully out of balance thanks to my fuzzy-headedness. When I finally figured out what my problem was, I got an exposure sequence of M37 underway.

When I’d got the scope guiding with PHD2 and the subframes clicking off with Nebulosity, there wasn’t much else for me to do. Nothing, actually, which was a good thing this time. It gave me the opportunity to try out the new products Russ Lederman (Denkmeier Optical) was showing off. One of those products was Russ’ new 3-D eyepieces. When he first told me about these oculars a few weeks before, I was skeptical. Russ said the 3-D effect was “startling,” but I had my doubts. Actually looking through a pair of the L-O-A (“Lederman Optical Array”) 21mm eyepieces changed my mind.

There was M27, the Dumbbell Nebula, floating before me. It was in the foreground, and the field stars were in the background. I don’t mean the subtle 3-D effect you get with any binoviewer and normal eyepieces, I mean a dramatic effect. The eyepieces worked on any object we turned the telescope, Carl’s 22-inch Dob, to. Bright. Dim. Didn’t matter. The 3-D was obvious and impressive. Frankly, I think the results would have been even better with a little less focal length, but it was nevertheless immersive—if a little artificial feeling. Naturally you aren't seeing real 3-D, it's an artificial special effect, but it is pretty.

That wasn’t all. Russ was also demonstrating a pair of 8x42mm binoculars that incorporated the same technology. In their own way, the binocs were as impressive as the eyepieces. The North America Nebula, which was easy with the glasses on this night, showed the faux 3-D effect strongly. Double Cluster? Maybe even better. Would either the eyepiece or the binoculars be something I'd consider buying? Probably not. They work exactly as advertised, but neither is overly inexpensive and I am pretty sure it wouldn't be long before the novelty wore off.

Dealers everywhere...
Shortly after I finished that faux 3D observing, my exposure sequence ended. I went on to target two, M79, which I believed would be it for the night. It had taken me long enough to diagnose and fix my telescope problems that I was late in getting started and it was now almost midnight. I did an hour on Lepus’ little globular (plus an hour of darks) and threw the Big Switch--not at all reluctantly. I was tired to the point where not even a Monster Energy Drink could revive me. I jumped in Miss Van Pelt, who I'd parked out on the access road so as not to disturb anyone when I took my leave, and headed for the Quality Inn.

With the clock having passed two and approaching three, it was oh-so-nice to sip a little red wine and watch cable television in the form of the exceedingly silly UFO Hunters back at the warm, dry motel—the night had indeed been a cold, damp one. I’d had a decent evening despite my problems, and I had to admit some of that old Chiefland magic seemed to be back. But I wondered about Friday night. I’d be transferring my residence to a tent, after all. Well, I’d examine my options on the morrow. For tonight I was done.

After a free motel breakfast—scrambled eggs and fruit to suit the good angel of my nature, and a biscuit slathered in gravy to suit that other angel—it was time to check out of the Quality Inn and head for the observing field. Well, not quite. First stop was Wally-World again.  I had become unsure about the wisdom of setting up my tent. Carl had one pitched, and in the damp conditions it had begun to get moldy in just a few days. I conceived the idea of sleeping in the back of the 4Runner instead.

I was afraid a sleeping bag on cargo bed might be a bit hard on my back, though, so I went looking for something to provide at least a little padding. Cruising the Wal-Mart outdoor department aisles, I was torn between an air mattress and a simple sleeping bag pad. The air mattress would be easier on my back, but I’d have to inflate it and wrestle with it. I decided that for one night one of the thin foam pads would be sufficient.

One night? I wasn’t going to stay through Saturday? I didn’t think so. If I’d had a motel room, it would have been different, but I didn’t. I suspected two nights in Miss Van Pelt would be OK, but that wasn’t the problem. The problem was facilities. It was in the low fifties/upper forties Friday morning, and I suspected it would be the same Saturday and Sunday. That does not lend the site’s open air showers much appeal. And the portapotties were getting a little, well…you know… If tenderfoot me can’t perform my morning ablutions in comfort first thing in the a.m., I am not much good for the rest of the day. I had begun to think I might hit the road Saturday shortly after first light.

Scopes old and new...
I was sorry I wouldn’t have time to work with the Revolution video camera—I needed to do more DSLRing Friday night—but I wasn’t sure conditions would be very good Saturday anyway. The sky had been pretty Thursday, and was predicted to be the same Friday, but Saturday night would tend to partly cloudy. If I had to turn astro-wimp, Saturday was the night to wimp out on.

Back at the CAV, I did some reconfiguring. I removed the tent and cot from the 4Runner, but not to set them up, just to clear a sleeping space in Miss Van Pelt’s commodious rear. With pad and sleeping bag arranged, I got in to give it a try. I am just short enough to be able to stretch out completely and rest in comfort in the back of the 4Runner. The truck is quite well insulated and has AC and DC outlets in back for phone charging or running my radio or DVD player. I thought I might actually be more comfortable in the truck on a cool night than in my (good) tent.

After getting my bedroom area in order, I also reconfigured the scope, switching out the Edge SCT for the fluorite refractor. My goal was semi-wide-field images, especially of the vaunted double cluster, and the Megrez II ought to be perfect for that. This time, I made sure balance was just right:  slightly east heavy, but not too east heavy.

What did I do with all the hours left till sundown? Relaxed. Read (Batman: Earth One). Took pictures for yet another magazine article I am doing. Admired my fellow attendees’ scopes. Cruised dealer tables trying to decide what I wanted. The day was long, very long. One of the reasons I find a motel attractive is that I can surf the Internet and watch TV there, which makes the daylight hours pass much more quickly. Nevertheless, I survived somehow, making it to raffle time at 2 pm.

How were the prizes? As with everything else, they were what you’d expect at a star party that’s been going on for years, not at a new one. Why, the table practically groaned under the weight of goodies donated by Camera Concepts, Explore Scientific, Olivon, Howie Glatter, Orion and more. Which wouldn’t help me, I guessed. Doesn’t make a difference how many prizes there are, I never win anything anyway.

So imagine my dumbfounded amazement when MC extraordinaire Mike Harvey called my ticket number. I’d won something, and not just any something. Thanks to the kindness of Explore Scientific (represented by Greg Bragg), I was the proud new owner of a 4.7mm 82-degree eyepiece. This is a focal length I don’t have in a wide field, and which I’d been wanting and trying to convince myself to pony up for. When Greg brought the ocular by my EZ-Up just before dark, I was duly impressed; not just by the fine looking eyepiece, but by its impressive presentation box. I could hardly wait to try it out…but I hadn’t planned on doing any visual observing. Hmmm…

Darkness came, and I got to work, doing a two hour sequence (with darks) of the Double Cluster. Looking at the raw shots coming in, I could tell it would be a good one—given my modest imaging skills. When Nebulosity played the little fanfare that means “sequence is done,” I went on to target two, which finished up at about midnight. What then? I hibernated the telescope and went to bed.

I went to bed at freaking midnight? Yep. But I had a plan. I’d grab a few hours of shuteye and get up at around 3 am. That would help me be rested enough for the journey home in the morning—I’d indeed had enough of portapotties—but also allow me to get in some visual observing of the winter sky including with my brand new eyepiece.

Snug in my sleeping bag in the 4Runner, looking up through her Moon roof at the wheeling stars above, I found it easy to drop off, and it seemed as if only a few minutes had passed before I was being awakened by my iPhone’s alarm (my new iPhone 6s…in the course of packing for Peach State, I dropped my old 4s on the carport floor and broke its screen). Outside, the winter star pictures were riding high, and it wasn’t long before I had the Megrez refractor, Miss Veronica Lodge, pointed at M42.

Double Cluster...
The sky was dark and clear, and the William Optics refractor, while small in aperture, is very finely made. In it, M42 and the Running Man Nebula were a beautiful dream whether in the 15mm Orion Expanse (I’d brought along a box of 1.25-inch eyepieces just in case) or zoomed in with my wonderful new 4.7 ES. The new eyepiece displayed plenty of contrast and was tack sharp across its entire huge field. I really could not have wished for better. I’d been told the Explore Scientific 82-degree field eyepieces are some of the best values in astronomy, and now I believed it.

Every object that appeared in my telescope was sparkling with beauty, and again and again I couldn’t believe this was “just” an 80mm telescope. What were the standouts? The Tau Ceti cluster was wonderful in the 4.7, and, when I equipped it with a UHC filter, so was the nearby Thor’s Helmet Nebula. In the 15mm and 20mm Expanses, the bigger objects strutted their stuff. M35 was a wonder (its little companion cluster, NGC 2158, began to resolve with the 4.7). The piece de resistance, though? M45, the good old Pleiades.

In the 20mm Expanse, what I saw was much like the image I shot of the Seven Sisters at DSRSG:  burning sapphires wreathed in nebulosity. This was one time I didn’t have to guess as to whether I was seeing the Merope Nebula. It was just there, and so were some of the even less prominent nebulous patches. So it went for a little over an hour, until I reluctantly tore myself from the scope and returned to bed for a while.

At six, I was up again to pack. It was damp. It was cold. And the experience of early morning gear tear-down was even less pleasant than it had been at DSRSG the previous Friday,  but I pressed on, finishing by 8 am, and was shortly thereafter on the road for home.

At journey’s end, I sat in the den of the New Manse comfy and cozy taking stock. Funny thing about Chiefland? It’s always been my favorite observing spot, but it has never been my favorite star party. Even in the old days, I didn’t think it was quite as good as most other events for one reason or another. That’s changed. The new one is already well on its way to being competitive, and if Carl and company can keep doing what they are doing and burnish off some of the rough edges, this star party could not only be “competitive” but might even aspire to “world class.”


Alas, they couldn't.  What has happened in Chiefland over the years that have elapsed since this star party? Unfortunately, the revival of the CSP was short-lived. One reason for that was that changing weather patterns have had a depressing effect. Clear nights used to be the rule in that part of Florida. Now, they seem to be the exception. The 2018 Winter Star Party was held at CAV under relentlessly cloudy skies. Many amateurs, like me, who would head for CAV with the assurance that at least one night out of three would be good no matter what the weatherman said, don't have that assurance anymore. As I say with distressing frequency of late, "I can watch it rain in comfort at home."

Moreso than weather, though, from what I can tell from the outside looking in--I haven't been back to Chiefland since the trip recounted above--dissent amongst the organizers, the residents of the CAV, and the members of the Chiefland Observers club played a large role in the failure of the new Chiefland Star Party to establish itself.

To be honest, in my opinion the CAV was never the same after the Dodds passed away and the Clarks left. I know I never really felt welcome there afterwards. I've told the story of how a certain self-styled Chiefland Observers official accosted me one new Moon weekend, wondering if I was supposed to be there. I had to show her my Chiefland Observers field pass before she reluctantly left me alone. But that wasn't all. This pitiful jerk called me a week later at 6 am in the freaking morning wanting to know why I hadn't left, she thought, a large enough donation in the clubhouse (!). Right then and there I decided, "I'm done with CAV for now and maybe forever."

Hey, things change--I've come to accept that if not to like it.  I'm just sorry my CAV adventures had to end on such a down note. Some of the best times I've had in amateur astronomy have been on that old Billy Dodd field. I would also note, however, that strangely, the best of those times haven't been at star parties, but on quiet new Moon weekends with only a few other observers present. I suppose the older I get the more I look on observing as a solitary pursuit. I want to ruminate on life, the Universe, and everything out under the stars more than I want to have some yuks with my mates. But man, those yuks and those friends sure were fun for well over a decade!

This was the last time I saw Howie Glatter, who was quite a force in our avocation and quite a character. He passed away about a year and a half after this event. I am thankful I was able to spend some time with Howie at this CSP, and that was in retrospect maybe the best thing about it for me.

Finally, in 2021 came what was likely the definite end-stop...coda...finis for me and the CAV. While I hadn't seen my old friend Carl Wright since the star party (I'd long since got over being mad about the speaker business), I talked to him fairly frequently on the phone. Then, one day, I realized I hadn't heard from Carl in a while. I was about to give him a ring when a mutual friend informed me Carl had passed away in January of that year.  All I know?  The Billy Dodd Observing Field simply could not be the same without Carl Wright on it. 

Hi Uncle Rod,

I think you should consider a small camper.
This is us at NSP 2015:

we picked up this used camper just before the Star Party to replace an older one. Yes that is a Harbor Freight 45 watt solar panel setup and you would be suprised how far 45 watts can go when you are camping. Yeah, I am probably going to be getting to old for popups one of these days, but so far I am doing ok.

I like it...if I could convince myself to pull a trailer, I'd be there. :)
I pulled it with my Ford Escape. It kind of hurt gas mileage, but on the plus side there were no hotel bills. 4Runner gets 22mpg on a good day. LOL
Well the Escape has that turbo charged engine. It will get 30 on the highway unloaded, but put a trailer on and the turbo charger kicks in. Pulling the camper I only got about 16, but overall for the year I am a head.
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