The 3rd Annual Mount Lassen Dark Sky Star Party rewarded those who had patience. Although early on there was plenty of room for doubt, the seeing was at times absolutely spectacular.
Perseverance, or just survival instinct was my frame of reference for this year's trip. On the way to Lassen, we lost the radiator in our truck. Can you imagine 4pm, 112 degrees F just south of Redding, the vehicle packed to the roof, and my wife, two kids and sister-in law inside? Fortunately, we had left one day early, so spending a night in Redding and obtaining a new radiator the next morning was only a matter of money and ultimately a minor inconvenience.
So, instead, we arrived in camp early Wednesday. Jim Bartolini and John Hales were already there. Hales had spent the prior night at Lassen, and was doing what I had been... watching the thunderstorms rain lightning bolts to the north and west, illuminating the entire sky. This, of course, triggered many fires. The largest sent a huge plume of smoke above Lake County to our west, which gradually drifted to our skies. But, back to the observing and rest of the trip...
Wednesday night, we all assembled at Devastated Area for observing. The seeing was soft, with smoke on the horizons and thin layers overhead. Most of us were tired from the drive, setting up camp and enjoying Hales' (Brewer John) home-made ale. John has quite a knack for brewing! So between midnight and 1 am, I would guess most of the crew turned in.
Thursday we had our group dinner. At least 40 of us dined on hors d'ouveres, BBQ salmon and london broil, various salads, wine, sparkling cider, home-made breads and cookies for desert. Dinner was very enjoyable. Steve and Yoshiko Deiwert thoughtfully set up a table at the observing area and served hot coffee, tea and cocoa for all. What a treat! Only if the sky was as gracious as the Deiwerts! By midnight, the south sky disappeared. The smoke layer soon blanketed us high above, making the Milky Way look more like views on bad nights at Fremont Peak, instead of the great darkness and transparency of we've had at Lassen. Back to camp early (1 am or so), and yacking and enjoying a few beverages till late, by starlight and the red glow of our flashlights.
Friday. What an experience. My son wanted to go fishing, I know where the locals go, and I had a promise to keep. So, away we drove, over the 10,500 foot summit next to Lassen Peak, south past Bumpass Hell, Sulfur Works, and out of the park. A few miles b eyond Mineral, I turned right onto the dirt road that leads to Battle Creek, home of the feistiest trout in the area. But wait... a locked gate! Argh.... another case of litigation ruining access, no doubt!
So, back we drove, to fish in the shallows upstream, without success. Then, driving back into the park, the truck began pouring coolant again. Two hours later, hot and filthy, I knew that it was not the water pump or radiator, which meant a ride in a tow truck and night in Red Bluff for me. A call to the rangers on the other side of the park resulted in SJAA members Haro Schmidt and Pat Connelly rescuing my family and returning them to our campsite. Thanks again guys! Maybe a better choice for the day would have been to go with others on a tour of Hat Creek Radio Observatory, which was organized by Robert Shelton. I heard it was a very interesting and enjoyable trip. Maybe someone will write up that excursion for the Ephemeris?
After spending a Friday night in the "nightlife capital of Northern California", I found myself Saturday morning at Red Bluff's GM dealer. After hours of searching, a pin-hole was found in the heater line. A quick weld and I was headed back to Lassen again. And, what an arrival! Most of our group was sitting by Ed Erbeck's tent near the road, and stood up cheering as I pulled in. Richard Navarrete was there with an enormous bottle of ice-cold beer for me. Even Jack Zieder's ribbing "what's the leak under your truck?" remark was perversly enjoyable! Then, from in back of the campsite, my wife and daughter came running up to greet me. It felt great to get back with the group and have such a warm reception.
After a good dinner, and that cold refreshment, we headed out one last time to the observing site. We were all looking hopefully at a promisingly clearing sky. This was the night of the public star party. Even before sunset park visitors were pulling into the parking lot and looking over the telescopes. We knew to expect a good crowd, as the rangers had announced the star party at their talks, and our posters were up on park bulletin boards announcing the event.
Once dark set in, the crush of people was unbelievable. I was laughing out loud. I couldn't get my scope off M57! There was no break for a good couple of hours. I had looked in Burnham's to learn a bit about The Ring so I could answer questions, and I can now say, after repeating hundreds of times what I'd read, I now know more about the Ring than any other celestial object. Estimates of crowd size ranged from 300 to 500 people. All were well behaved, considerate and interested. I had another laugh at Alan Nelms, who needed to take a break, after being swamped by the crush of people. This event was great experience in a great location.
What really made it so good was, thankfully, a cooperative sky. And once the crowds went back to their campsites, we, the intrepid remaining members of this year's star party, were rewarded with the best skies I've seen since last year's trip. M33 showed so much structure I could barely take my eyes off it. Same for M101. Alan and I worked Hershel objects for hours. Dean Linebarger's 20" and John Kuklewicz's 18" were sucking in Hickson clusters. It was intense but enjoyable observing for about three and a half hours. John Gleason was doing astrophotography with his 6" AstroPhysics, Hales was shooting using the JMI 18.
Just before tear down, we all went over to Kuklewicz's scope for an astonishing sight. There was the Veil Nebula, with so much detail it was mind boggling. Then, John said.... "that's without an OIII filter." Impossible! It was so contrasty and full of in tricate filaments! Then Gleason brought over a 35 Panoptic with an OIII and dropped it in. That sight alone, I'm sure, sold everyone on returning next year. Next, John put in a UHC filter and jumped up to the North American Nebula. It was so thick and det ailed that not only was the NA easy, but the Pelican was obvious too. They looked like warm white frosting on a black cake. Navarrete joked about sending Jack Marling a new quote .... "look, I can see the dolphins in the gulf!"
Back at camp, we had a few drinks, talked about the trip, and looked up overhead at the dark black dust areas north of Cassiopeia. Fingers of black crept into the Milky Way everywhere along the Cygnus Rift. I could follow, naked eye, the dark lane leading from northwest of Deneb back to the location of the Cocoon Nebula. You don't see that at home! What a great night.
The drive back home was easy. Four and a half hours including two short stops.
Thanks to all who came and those helped make this year's trip so much fun: the Rangers and fine staff of Lassen National Park, Dean Linebarger, Terry Kahl, Richard Navarrete, Rich Neuschaefer, Alan Nelms, Ed Erbeck, John Hales, Doug Ferrell, Bruno Beinenfeld, Ray Gralak, John Kuklewicz, Haro Schmidt, Pat Connelly, Robert Shelton, John Gleason, Ken Miura, Jim Bartolini, Kevin Medlock, Jack Zeiders, Gary Papani, Robert Hoyle, Gary Madison and Tony Cirone, and all your wives and children! See you all there next year.