Saturday, September 30, 2023


Issue 596: My Favorite Star Parties


Miss Dorothy and Friend, 1994...
This one was intended to recount my efforts taking my traditional yearly astrophoto of the Great Globular, M13 in Hercules, y’all. That didn’t happen. It wasn’t weather that prevented it, but equipment snafus.  You’ll learn more about that in the near future, muchachos. But as you know, sometime back I swore I would not let a month pass without a fresh article for the Little Old Blog from Possum Swamp.

What did I start thinking about as I was pondering what to write about here? Star parties. Why? Well it is definitely and obviously the fall star party season in the Northern Hemisphere. There was more to it than that, however. Mostly, how much I miss the star party experience. I haven’t been to one in, oh, about four years.

“Whyzat, Unk, whyzat, huh?”  A couple of reasons, Scooter. The biggest one being covid. 2020 wasn’t any year to gather with a bunch of people even if you tried to keep your distance. 2021 wasn’t either. 2022, the supposed last year of the plague? I had a relatively mild case late that year and I am not anxious to get it again. But… 

I sure got sick of the fracking lockdown and am glad to be back teaching undergraduates in person. Dorothy and I made it through this year’s big Huntsville Hamfest no problem…so, what's to worry? Yes, I can still get skittish about crowds. But I think that is psychological more than anything else, and I can shake it off as I did at Huntsville.

That ain’t all that’s kept me off the star party trail, though. A combination of health issues and me getting older is maybe more the reason I haven’t been back to an observing field than fear of the covid cooties. Miss Dorothy and I made a short trip the other day, to Biloxi, Mississippi, and I realized I was just…I dunno…hesitant about driving I-10. I felt shaky behind the wheel. Of course, that is probably just that I haven’t driven long distances much thanks to the combination of retirement and the virus. I’m thinking I could get more comfortable with it again—though never like in the days of my two-hour daily Interstate commutes.

Anyhow, thinking about these things just naturally led me to thinking about the wonderful star parties I’ve attended. I became a regular at the game about 30 years ago. Oh, I’d been to a couple before that, but wasn’t a regular star-partier. By the 2000s, though, I was star party crazy and you could find me on observing fields from sea to shining sea, both observing the sky and speaking before the assembled multitudes. In fact, I did so many star parties as a speaker in 2016 that a dear friend said in retrospect that that long spring and summer was Uncle Rod’s Farewell Tour.

Maybe, maybe not. I am thinking about the Deep South Star Gaze in November as a way of dipping my toe back in—we shall see. And who knows what the new year will bring? I know I’m interested in going again. But I will only go if I want to. If I know it will be fun.

Be that as it may, over the years I have naturally accumulated some favorites when it comes to star parties, and I thought I would share them with you this morning. As in the old series of articles, My Favorite Star Parties I ran for a long time, “favorite” doesn’t necessarily mean “best.” Sometimes it does…but mostly these are the ones where your ol’ Unk just had him a Real Good Time.

Deep South Regional Star Gaze

This event is still ongoing, now being called the “Deep South Star Gaze.” So why do I refer to it by its older name? I’ve had good times at this Mississippi/Louisiana event for three solid decades, but I believe I loved it best when it was in its original home at beautiful Percy Quin State Park near McComb, Mississippi.

Why is this one of my great ones? I’ll fess up that is mostly because it was the first star party I went to with my beautiful new bride, Miss Dorothy, way back in 1994. But that’s not the only reason. Another is it is focused on observing. Oh, there’ve been talks and occasional contests over the years, but what everybody is out for at this star party is observing. It’s also that I’ve been so many times over the years my fellow attendees have become genuine friends. I will also admit it’s also been wonderful to have a good star party just around the corner, less than three hours from home.

How is it now? I’ll just have to go to find out, won’t I? While the star party is in its fourth home, and while I still miss Percy Quin, I admit I have had terrific times at all of the DSRSG’s locations.  Stay tuned…

Chiefland Star Party

This one is long gone. Oh, various people have tried to revive it a time or two. And a semi-Chiefland was held fairly recently when a hurricane caused the Winter’s Star Party’s usual home to be unavailable one year. I will make no bones about it:  I loved the Chiefland Star Party. Expansive observing field. Motels and (good) restaurants close at hand. Often outstanding skies. Hell, they had wireless internet on the field years ago.

The straight poop on Chiefland? It was held year after year in the first decade of this new century at the Chiefland Astronomy Village near, natch, Chiefland, Florida. Other folks loved it, too, for the above reasons, and also for the incredible friendliness and welcoming attitude of the CAV residents. Maybe we loved it too much. The attendance became so large it overwhelmed the facilities (like porta-potties) and caused various headaches for the residents.

In addition to the WSP year, there’ve been several revivals of the CSP. In fact, I was at one of the last organized ones. But…while it was a good enough star party…it just wasn’t the same. How could it be? The original movers and shakers at Chiefland have like all of us grown older. Billy and Alice Dodd are gone, have passed away. My old friend Carl Wright has left us as well. Others, like the heart and soul of Chiefland, Tom and Jeannie Clark, moved away years ago. I’m thinking I’ll have to be content with my memories. I won’t lie, though:  If somebody decided to put on a CSP in the old mode, your Uncle would be SOUTHBOUND.

Texas Star Party

There’s got to be a number one in everything, ain’t there? There are other events that might lay claim to the title of “The Greatest” when it comes to star parties, like Stellafane or the (now gone) Riverside. Most active observers will admit, however, that when it comes to deep sky pedal-to-the-metal, The Texas Star Party is it.

How could it not be? Where is it? Near Fort Davis Texas. Where is that? Go west till you almost run out of Texas. There’s little there other than the picturesque town of Fort Davis, McDonald Observatory, and, yeah, the Prude Ranch. Sometimes it doesn’t rain for months and months. The dude ranch where the event is held is dark, oh, it’s real dark, folks. It’s so dark the sky is that dark gray color it assumes when there is no light pollution. The Prude Ranch is also very nice, the food great, and if you want to meet the big names in amateur astronomy, you will meet them there.

I am proud to say I was at Prude Ranch twice (as an unassuming attendee, not a speaker or anything). It was wonderful. I’ll never forget it. I haven’t been back, though. It’s such a long way. When Dorothy and I were at the height of our careers, there wasn’t time. Now that I’m retired? As above, the idea of that long of a trip on crazy I-10 is a non-starter with moi.

Almost Heaven Star Party

If you haven’t heard of this one, you should have. It’s another Real Dark One with outstanding facilities. It is held on Spruce Knob Mountain in West Virginia, at the Mountain Institute facility there. Do you long for dark, DARK skies (only compromised, of course, by our weather east of the Mississip)? Do you want to sleep in a wooden yurt? Hear great speakers? Go. Just go. You’ll thank me later.

I have been at Spruce Knob many times thanks to the kindness of a couple of sets of organizers (associated with Washington DC’s outstanding NOVAC) who had me up as a speaker. God knows why they’d want to hear your silly Uncle more than once, but I’m glad they did. I would dearly love to go back. As with TSP, what has prevented me post-pandemic is my physical ailments brought on by the accident I had in 2019. An airplane ride from the ‘Swamp to DC (and a car ride from there to West Virginny) just doesn’t seem doable. Well, it hasn’t seemed so. Maybe next year will be different. Sure hope so…

Five Star Final

Those are my big four, y’all.  But there are other greats, some of which I only got to experience once. The Idaho Star Party is sure one. Dark, I mean CRAZY dark—topped off by folks who instantly became friends. One of the nicest times I’ve ever had and another of the friendliest groups I’ve encountered is the Miami Valley Astronomical Society (in Ohio, not Florida), who put on the Apollo Rendezvous. You want to get out of the heat, meet some great observers, and experience truly dark skies? Try the North Woods Starfest (Chippewa Valley Astronomy Society) in Wisconsin. Their star party at Hobbs Observatory is just….well, it’s fab, y’all, fab, I tell you.

Next time? Keep your fingers crossed for Unk to get some hours with M13…

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