Saturday, January 24 1998, the south San Francisco bay area awoke to clear, crisp skies. Much discussion had taken place regarding the wide range of weather forecasts our local "experts" had been delivering, but as usual, it is the observer of the sky who is best equipped to make that most difficult of all calls, whether to make the journey south of San Jose, to the place we spend our hobby time, some of our social time, our relaxation at, Fremont Peak.
After an easy drive, woofing down some fast food slop :-( and stopping at the local market in San Juan Bautista for a minimum of supplies for the night, I proceeded up San Juan Canyon Road, a drive I am probably more familiar with than any other in the bay area, excluding the one to my home. The green of winter was in full evidence as the once brown and recently tilled farmer's fields were now covered with a blanket of fresh grasses. The stream was running, the sky a clear blue, the roads were sanded where water and night ice presented a hazard. It was a relaxing, free-wheeling fun race up the hill in my 7,000 lb. GMC Suburban. "The Drive" is as much a part of the experience of Fremont Peak as the sky, the views of the coastline and Pacific Ocean 2500 feet below, and the friends I get to see.
I had left early, and was the first to arrive. Other park visitors were in the observing site. Hiking, picnics, enjoying the scenic overlook, all draw visitors to the park. I opened the tailgate of the truck and immediately began unloading the 14.5" dob. Curiosity won out and the "tourists" began asking questions. "What kind of camera is that? How far can you see with it? What are you up here for tonight? What can you see? I bet you get tired of these types of questions." But, I don't get tired of them. Most people are genuinely interested when theystart to learn about the sky and our equipment. Some even stick around into the evening and get their first looks through a telescope.
After a short time, John Hales pulled in. Soon after John, we were joined by John Kuklewicz, Alan Nelms, Rich Neuschaefer, Bill Arnett, Mark Taylor, Richard Navarrete, Bruce Jensen, Doug Snyder, Steve Dorff, Jerry (with the Pronto) and the nice couple with the 10" Starsplitter (Starmaster?). Sorry to those whose ames I do not know!
A layer of cloud threatened us as sunset approached, but the prevailing onshore winds and tendency for change after sunset kept us all there. Low above the shoreline in the distance below, a nice layer of fog appeared to be beginning its push into the lowlands. Jupiter and Mars were the early hits of the party, many people using binoculars to view them together. Polar alignment and collimation was taking place now that some of the bright alignment stars were out. I collimated after dark, unsatisfied with the star images on the Trapezium in M42. I have to admit, the laser collimators are quick and sure. Gotta get one.
Dark finally settled in, if one could call the Peak's skies "dark" (no way). The evening temps were mild, and the clouds had dissipated. All was well at the Peak. The fog was muting the cities along the coast, and a tongue of the light killer was reaching around the western end of the mountains, from the south toward Salinas. This night definitely held some promise.
As the sky darkened, the winter Milky Way emerged. The seeing steadied up, there was virtually no breeze.
So, now that the sky was ready for us, Arnett punched in the coordinates for comet Temple-Tuttle (is that name correct?) on his LX-200. Meanwhile I was putting Comet Hartley 2 into the FOV of my dob. We compared the views. Hartley 2 looks larger, and much like an unresolved globular cluster, as I remarked out loud at the Peak. I immediately was "razzed" as describing solar system objects in terms of "deep sky" ones, since everyone seems to know now that I spend my time far past the furthest outliers on our street in the cosmic neighborhood. The comets were fun, and drew long lines of viewers from our party.
I had printed charts, using Bisque's "The Sky", for objects I could not find on the HB AstroAtlas. The HB is a great atlas, but no single atlas can contain the detail of a good software program. So, armed with additional charts, I began hunting down the dimmest denizens of the Herschel list that I had left in Aries, Cetus and Eridanus. It was *not* easy. Some of these are mere "suggestions" of light. Tapping the scope to see if the apparition moved with the field, or if my eye was just playing with my brain. I was successful, but eventually, I decided to move to more fertile ground in Cancer.
Still the night was warm by even California winter standards. I never put on my winter boots, I left my heavy jacket in the truck. I had on thermals, blue-jeans, sweat pants, two t-shirts (one long sleeved), a rag-wool sweater and a windbreaker. I wore my Soviet Ushanka hat as I know that best way to keep warm is to not lose heat from my skyward part.
Suddenly, as if from some mass consciousness, everyone with few exceptions, noticed that is was *dark* at Fremont Peak. Summer's weather was paying us a visit in the middle of winter. Looking out to the west, we could not see the city lights. To the northwest, even San Jose was muted (although its light dome was still obvious). Salinas seemed to just graze above the Peak to the southwest. The east had no domes. Looking overhead, the sky had changed starry gray to stars on a velvet background (speaking relatively, since it still is a far cry from Lassen, Yosemite. or other higher elevation non-urban encroached areas). But, this was getting dark enough where people's faces were beginning to disappear. Ah, for the "old days" when such darkness would be more of a norm.
Now was the time to hit an area rich in galaxies, where I had not done any Hershel hunting. Cancer, highlighted by The Beehive Cluster (M44), is an area of dim stars. A quadrangle around the Beehive was useful to star hop from, as were Castor and Pollux in Gemini. There were many, many dim galaxies in the area. Some were easy pickins, others required checking and rechecking the print charts. But, the hunt is part of the fun.
The night was progressing wonderfully, and should serve notice to those of you reading this who wavered in your decision to come up or not, due to the weather forecasts. The saying "you don't know if you don't go" is my guiding phrase, and it has given me many enjoyable nights where I would have thought it was a waste of time to go. Anywho.... summer's brief visit again made her presence known last night, when suddenly, you could hear everyone saying, almost in unison "what's that?".... What we were noticing was a cover of fog that had moved over us with such rapidity that it seemed to come from nowhere.
So, what do we, as observers do when faced with such adversity? ;-) First, several partiers took out their laser pens and did their best Luke Skywalker and Darth Vadar imitations. It is *amazing* how far those tight beams carry when shined into moisture! Someone then got the idea that the old trick of mag-liting their telescope from the focuser and shining it on the Peak would be fun. What a laugh to see half a dozen "car-lot sky beacons" putting huge light columns into the sky and up on the Peak.
So, that lasted for a while. Some party members tore down and headed home, since the fog stayed for perhaps up to an hour. But the rest of us pulled our chairs into the now customary circle of observers, and talked about remote viewing sites, Art Bell's form of "remote viewing", fund raisers for local astro clubs, equipment, and several other topics.
The sky then cleared, but the fog had obviously pulled back from the cities too. The sky now looked gray compared to summer's earlier visit that evening. But, the big and bright were up. A couple returned from dinner in San Juan Bautista, and were given a tour of some big globulars, M51, M81/82, M42, 4565, M104 and so on. They seemed genuinely interested. There were discussions of Ken Croswell's book "Alchemy Of The Heavens" and what it told about the evolution of the Milky Way and some interesting info about some of the big and bright stars we were viewing, their ages, composition and motions. Some of our brightest neighbor stars are extremely transitory visitors to our little neighborhood. Some are even, if one accepts the theory, originally from other galaxies.
I decided to stop looking at faint stuff and moved over to M53, NGC5053 (okay, it is a faint one :-), M65/66/NGC3628, some planetary nebulae (Ghost of Jupiter), and then, Virgo was up.
I finished the night just panning around in Virgo. There is so much to see there. It reminded me of the season to come. Spring and summer viewing. Summer was again visiting me, at the Peak, in mid winter.
Our party was now down to perhaps half a dozen, and we again pulled our chairs into a circle, sitting and watching the sky at zero power, seeing meteorites, and enjoying the relaxation and comraderie of amateur astronomy. We talked a bit about people that had been active and had not been seen in some time. Winter thins the ranks, no doubt.
Such talk made me realize how much I look forward to summer, when other visitors will appear, in our group and overhead.