Sunday, September 11, 2016


Issue #508, On the Road III: Almost Heaven Star Party 2016

What is there left to say about a star party I’ve attended so many times over the last decade? That it features beautiful skies? That it’s put on in a professional manner by one of the nation’s premier astronomy clubs? That the attendees to a man and a woman are friendly folks? That the surrounding country is beautiful? Yes, all those things and more.

While I’ve spent many a night up on Spruce Knob Mountain, every year is still a pleasure, and I was unreservedly looking forward to yet another Almost Heaven, which is organized by Washington DC’s NOVAC, the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club. This year’s edition ran from September 2nd to the 5th, and by the time Labor Day began to approach, I was only too ready to hop on a jet and head for the wilds of West Virginia despite a travel-heavy summer.

One good thing about this trip? As with my Wisconsin jaunt, I was spared the 0600 torture flight out of Mobile. Originally, that’s the one the AHSP's Elizabeth Erikson had me on, but after mentioning to her that I was feeling beat-down in a major way after spending all those hours on airplanes this summer, she was able to get me on the more reasonable 0720 plane. Much appreciated!

Getting from Mobile to Atlanta and on to Washington – Dulles on Thursday, September 1 was uneventful in the extreme. Yes, I had a layover in ATL, but I prefer that to worrying about whether I will make my connection in time or not. Soon, I was landing at Dulles, picking up my (big) suitcase, and looking around for my ride, AHSP organizer Alan Goldberg. What was in that suitcase, by the way? Not my little Orange Tube C90  Maksutov. With the weather looking slightly iffy due to Hurricane Hermine, who was heading up the east coast after causing quite a mess in Florida, I chickened out and settled for our Canon 8x30 roof prism binoculars instead.

‘Twas a pleasant ride to West Virginia and Spruce Knob Mountain with Alan. We talked of many things, even to include amateur astronomy. While the journey from Dulles to the AHSP’s location near a spot in the road called “Judy Gap,” West Virginia is not grueling, it’s also not an inconsiderable one. The trip takes somewhat more than 3-hours, with a large part of that on two lane West Virginia highways. The last half hour or so is a climb up a long and winding and often rutted ascending road to the star party site. While the event is not on the summit of Spruce Knob, the highest elevation in the state, it is well above the coastal plain and gets you out of a lot of the atmospheric muck.

I was hoping that would be the case this time, especially. With what was left of Hermine making her way slowly toward us—she’d be over our heads, the weather goobers thought, by Saturday afternoon—we needed some kind of magic to keep the skies clear for the event. A few years back, the same thing had happened, with the clouds from a tropical storm remnant basically preventing any observing at all from being done that year. Had my fingers and toes crossed, you betcha.

Alan and I arrived right at dinner and wasted no time making our way up to the main building of the Mountain Institute facility where the star party is held. This facility has one peculiar aspect: all the buildings, including the cabins, dorms, and that main building, were built in the shape of Mongolian Yurts. They are actual, wooden buildings, not tents, but they do look (a little) like the homes of the tribes of the Asian steppes.

Anyhow, it was good to be back on the mountain after being gone for a whole year. What was even better was seeing all my old friends in the AHSP organizer gang—the star party wouldn’t actually begin until the following day, but for me to catch a ride up the mountain with Alan it was necessary I arrive on Thursday with the set-up crew. That was fine; it was nice to spend the first evening in relatively relaxed circumstances with only a dozen or so people on the mountain.

The food, while plain, baked (I think) fish and salad, was more than adequate for me, who’d been subsisting mostly on airline peanuts and pretzels for the entire day. One cool thing? The Wi-Fi at the Main Yurt (provided by AHSP) was good and strong, and while there were no cellular bars, I was still able to make a phone call to Miss Dorothy to let her know I’d arrived safely using AT&T’s Wi-Fi calling feature.

After supper, I got settled in my accommodations, which were, again this year, in a small yurt-cabin near the bathhouse just up the hill from the Main Yurt. I’ve stayed in this curious little flying saucer shaped place any number of times over the near decade I’ve been doing this star party, and it has always been comfortable enough. Nice big double bed, little writing desk, and, best of all, a skylight that allows you to see the stars as you slip away into dreamland.

While I was as comfortable as always in the cabin, I gotta say, this may be the last year I am able to do this yurt. My current back problems have alleviated for the most part, but at times my cranky back made it a little difficult getting in and out of the yurt’s hatch (I won’t call it a door). It’s slanted outward like the walls, and the steps are basically a couple of rocks. When I was a little stiff, in the mornings, especially, it was a challenge to get back in after a trip to the bathhouse.

The first night on the mountain, the night before AHSP would actually begin, was, wouldn’t you know it, spectacular sky wise. The afternoon clouds hurried off and the Milky Way began to burn. Was I sorry I hadn’t brought the C90? A little, but I was, like my friends, tired from the trip (they had all also been working like dogs to get the event set up), and just sitting under the sky, occasionally looking with the binoculars, enjoying the company, and savoring the wine and snacks laid out on the field (thanks Pat!) was enough. By 11 p.m. I was ready for some Yurt time.

Next morning, but not early the next morning, I was up, showered and at the Main Yurt in time for breakfast—scrambled eggs and sausage. The food was not fancy, but it was adequate and was easy for the young Mountain Institute staffers who prepared our meals to do well. The weather? It was looking a trifle unsettled, but not really bad.

Unfortunately, a glance at the Clear Sky Clock for Spruce Knob showed lots of white squares for the evening. Nevertheless, I didn’t despair, and neither did any of the AHSP attendees who were now beginning to arrive. Again, weather on the mountain can be different from what it is down below and can also be difficult to predict.

One of the highlights of the day was the arrival of my old friend Bob Naeye, Editor Emeritus at Sky & Telescope. As many of you know, one of my interests in addition to astronomy is baseball, and, unfortunately, it seems many amateur astronomers aren’t much interested in sports of any kind and baseball in particular. So, it was nice to have baseball fanatic Bob on hand so I’d have someone to shoot the breeze with about the state of the current season.

Lunch came and went, and soon enough it was time to prepare for my evening talk, The Astronomer Looks at 60. This presentation, which tells the story of amateur astronomy from the 1960s on from the perspective of our changing tastes in telescopes, proved to be a hit at the Maine Astronomy Retreat where I premiered it. It also got a tremendous response at Wisconsin’s North Woods Star Fest, so I was pretty confident my AHSP audience would like the talk. It seems every amateur astronomer, old and new, likes looking at old/classic telescope advertisements.

This is a long presentation, taking up every bit of an hour and a half, and I was gratified that nary a person got up and left before the end. The response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic, and I sure was on a high by the time I wrapped up.

By which time the stars were beginning to peep out. I grabbed the Canon binoculars and wandered out to the expansive AHSP observing field to see what I could see. Unfortunately, the answer was “not much.” Oh, there were sucker holes, but Hermine’s clouds were much in evidence much of the time. Even when a sucker hole was available, the stars therein often sported nasty little halos. I spent a couple of hours just as I had Thursday, sitting on the field enjoying the company of friends and talking of many things.

When the damp began to seep into my bones, I bid adieu to the field, but was not quite ready to return to my yurt. Instead, I spend an hour or two at the Main Yurt watching various stuff on Youtube. The Wi-Fi worked well, and that was a good thing since I’d forgotten to bring the little case of DVD movies I usually take with me to star parties.

Saturday morning came with improved weather, and following a breakfast I was off to check out the vendor situation. There were two canopies set up next to the Main Yurt, one from Hands On Optics and one from Peter Gural. Hands On, a longtime favorite vendor of mine, had plenty of good stuff packed into the space covered by a small canopy. Unfortunately, as you may know, I am intent on reducing the amount of astro-junk in the house rather than increasing it, so, unfortunately, I had to pass.

Pete’s canopy covered an extensive display of meteorites, tektites, and related minerals for sale. He had some incredible bargains, and I was awfully tempted by the Trinitite samples. But I am at least somewhat committed to reducing the amount of stuff of all kinds I buy, and not just astro-stuff, so I declined. Sorry I did so now, though.

Then there was lunch and that long, long stretch to sundown. That was enlivened by dinner and by Bob Naeye’s excellent presentation on the recent discovery of gravity waves by LIGO. The outstanding talk drew quite a crowd, and I was compelled to listen to Bob from the overflow tent set up a short distance from the main yurt. Video and audio from all the talks (and there were plenty of speakers on Friday and Saturday in addition to me and Bob) was piped into the tent, and was of excellent quality.

The above, the techno-stuff, has always been a strong suit for AHSP. In addition to the video/audio relay of talks, and the Wi-Fi at the Main Yurt, several monitors in the area of the main building were continuously displaying (and updating) the Clear Sky Clock for Spruce Knob, a weather map of the region, and a star party events schedule. It’s seemingly small touches like this that can really contribute to an outstanding star party experience.

Dinner and Bob's talk having come and gone, it was back to the field for me to see what was happening telescope-wise. Out on the acres of field—which were now populated by many happy amateur astronomers—was a motley crew of telescopes. There was everything from elegant Takahashi Mewlons to humble Orion Dobsonians. I didn’t do a whole lot of looking though people’s scopes on this evening, but I did have a great peek at Saturn through Elizabeth Erikson’s beautiful 4-inch refractor.  Telescope trends at AHSP? One familiar to me from many recent star parties:  lots of ED/APO refractors, many on German mounts.

I also noted several analog video setups, so maybe that method of taking deep sky images is not quite dead, even though digital video imaging techniques are coming on strong (see my review of the ATIK Infinity in the October 2016 issue of Sky & Telescope). For now, the analog cams, and especially the sensitive and cost effective Revolution Imager kit, are keeping their heads above water. Heck, I’m thinking it’s time for me to get my Revolution back out of its case this fall after way too long a lay-off.

Come darkness, I spent quite a while admiring the skies, which had started off much as they had on Friday—clouds aplenty—but which had, unlike Friday, cleared pretty dramatically by early evening. What did I see? Many fascinating things you wouldn’t think 8x32 binoculars could show. It’s frankly amazing what a modest instrument, a very modest instrument, can do under spectacular skies. Which brings to mind my view of M101, a notoriously dim face on galaxy, at an AHSP some years back. This normally daunting object was starkly visible even in 50mm Celestron binoculars. It was much the same this evening:  objects I’d have deemed impossible with small glasses were freaking easy.

The above made me somewhat sorry I hadn’t brought the C90 with me after all. On the other hand, the addition of even a lightweight camera tripod to my already heavy suitcase would have been a bit much. I’d also, of course, have had to bring the C90 along separately as a piece of carry-on luggage. In its (original) case, it’s small enough that that wouldn’t have been a huge hassle, but it would still have been something else to keep track of, and my lengthy airport layovers would have made that annoying. So, I am still sitting on the fence regarding taking the 90 with me on airplanes. Maybe next season.

What was the weather like as mid-evening Saturday approached? The good was that the sky was growing progressively clearer and prettier. That was also the bad, since the clouds that had been in the sky Friday night had kept Spruce Knob a little warmer than normal. Without them, it was obvious summer was over at this elevation. By 11, the temperature was in the low 50s and falling. I had on a hoodie and a sweatshirt, but I was getting chilled, no doubt about that.

And in the end that was what got my feet headed back toward my yurt. That and the fact that Sunday would be a travel day. While it wouldn’t be an early morning—I would leave the site at 10:30 or so—it would be a long one. I wouldn’t fly out of Dulles until late afternoon, would have a long layover in Charlotte, and would not arrive back in Mobile until after 11 pm. That impelled me to pull the big switch such as it was and say good bye to that wonderful AHSP observing field.

The next day was, yes, a long one. At least the car trip back to DC was a pleasant one in the company of AHSP head honcho Chris Lee’s charming wife, Erin, and outstanding son, Nicholas. I had a great time motoring through the backwoods of West Virginia and Virginia with them, stopping for fast food, and just enjoying a beautiful day in the countryside.

There were no surprises airline-wise, just long hours sitting in airports (I did get an unexpectedly great meal of orange chicken at a Chinese fast-food joint in Dulles) re-reading Stephen King’s It for the nth time. I actually arrived back in Mobile a little before 11, but it then took our Podunk Airport staff half an hour to unload the luggage from the aircraft. Ah, well…it was all good and I was soon comfortable in my den where I sat and watched Braves baseball with my cat Tommy for an hour or so (a replay of the early evening game).

So, what can I say about yet another Almost Heaven Star Party in a long line of Almost Heaven Star Parties? That it was another great one and I loved being there with my friends and fellow AHSPers. Chris, Kathryn, Marty, Pat, Elizabeth, Alan and all those good people I haven’t named, but who I think about all the time and who helped make this and many other AHSPs over the years such fun for me: thank you!


If you're a long-time reader here, you know Almost Heaven is one of my favorite star parties of all time. Alas, I have not been back since 2016. Why? That year I did so many speaking engagements at star parties all across the USA that I must admit I kinda got burned out on that game. In fact, a dear friend of mine and I began calling 2016 "Uncle Rod's Farewell Tour."  

How did I feel about the star party itself in 2016? To be honest, it felt to me that a little of the magic, the soul, had gone away with the loss of the guiding force behind AHSP, Phil Wheery. But that is nobody's fault; it's just the way of this world. There things remained for a couple of years. Now, in 2019 I coulda stood to go up the mountain again, but I still hadn't recovered from my accident by star party time. 2020? Of course there was no 2020...the pandemic saw to that. 2021? Who knows what the new year will bring. I hope no fresh horrors. I know I wouldn't mind seeing the beautiful mountain vistas, friendly people, and brilliant stars again; that's for sure.

I picked up a pair of 8 X 40's for quick views. They work great and compact size and light weight make them easy to hold with enough light grasp for satisfying views. They came in handy for the Persieds to catch glowing trains and some casual gazing at M45, Milky Way, etc. Just like scopes, they don't have to be big to be useful....Dwight
I'm watching your "Astronomer Looks at Sixty" and allow me to refresh your memory. The man behind Sky Designs was Bob Coombs (maybe Coombes, my memory isn't perfect either). I met him at a Texas Star Party and saw him several times in the DFW area. I also have one of his telescopes, a 20" f/4 which I bought second-hand in 1994. I don't know any details but recall when he and his wife got divorced and the company never completely came back. He tried to soldier on for a while making scopes but I suspect it was a crisis of spirit as much as anything. His wife used to go with him to star parties so it was sad when they broke up. I haven't heard anything about him in fifteen years. Some of us in the Dallas club ATM are now rehabilitating a Sky Designs 20" f/4.5 which was one of the first he ever made, so I will ask around.
Clear skies and clean glass,
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