Saturday, August 5, 2000

Fremont Peak report

Once Pat and I finished some business here in town, we jumped into our car, just the two of us (no scope, no kids) and headed down to San Juan Bautista for dinner and to check out the current lighting configuration on the towers. I had wanted to do this since Dave North's report and subsequent admonishment that one must make small sacrifices in order to ascertain the facts firsthand. Dave's report of minimal impact by the new lights seemed to fly in the face of views of those lights from Coe.

So, family commitments behind us, we were enjoying an easy and mostly traffic free ride down 101 and into the town of San Juan Bautista. For years, I'd been going to Dona Esthers for meals, either before observing or the mornings after. But over the past year, Jardin's across the street has replaced it as a favorite. This is due mostly to the outdoor seating, roomy feeling, and the ambiance with live music in the cool and comfortable setting. After a light meal, Pat and I were heading up a familiar, yet little visited route that I have not been through other than one time in the past year.

The drive was nostalgic and fun. Without the bulk of my 7,000 lb. Suburban to deal with, I was enjoying the feel of the road. I hadn't taken my old 1980 Mercedes 240 out on a drive like this in several years. Halfway up, on the open ridge part of the drive, we pulled over and watched sunset over the foggy Pacific. A low layer of cloud sat motionless over much of Monterey bay, on up to Santa Cruz, and fingering its way inland toward the northern foot of Fremont Peak.

Although we did not see a green flash, the light show was just gorgeous. Neon oranges and reds across the horizon, an oblate sun lighting up 10 degrees of sky as it set, finally a flat golden/green glow (I don't think it was a green flash thought), slowly sinking into the Pacific, beginning night.

Pat and I talked nostalgically about days at the SW lot at Fremont Peak, how the crowds would be busily readying their equipment prior to sunset, the laughter, the low hum of voices, friends together enjoying each others company. When the sun would sit low on the horizon, appearing to float on the ocean or a sea of fog, quiet would descend on the crowd, and people would line up across behind the vehicles along the western periphery of the lot, while all eyes watched the sun change shapes and disappear, giving a feeling of an official beginning to the observing session. If ever there was a way to call a meeting to order, that was it!

The remainder of the drive was quick. A familiar sign greeted us at the entrance to Fremont Peak State Park. We passed Coulter Row, where two telescopes appeared to be set up on this 1st Q moon night. Into the SW lot we pulled, where there were two other scopes getting some final tweaks before twilight ended. One observer was familiar, although I promised to not mention who it was and they would not let on that I was seen at Fremont Peak! This observer was testing out a brand new 12" RC. Fun instrument, as the cooling fans created a refreshing breeze when one put their face up to the eyepiece!

As the sky darkened, the new lights on the towers became apparent. I was talking about them with Max, the new camp host. He pointed out that the top light seemed to have lost its "red cap" and now shone white, albeit not so bright as to cast shadows or be overtly obtrusive. While there are a good number of new lights, bringing the total on the two towers to nine, they are *not* much of a problem from the SW lot, since the majority of them are hidden by the mountain or sit so low above the Peak as to be in an area where observing is already not worthwhile.

While talking to Max, we got onto the topic of park rules. This was the result of my remarking to him that I had been coming to Fremont Peak for almost a decade, but that with the rules governing our use being an unsettled issue, I was spending my time elsewhere. Max then surprised me by stating that the "new" rules allowed day use visitors to stay in the park at night, as long as they were using binoculars or telescopes. I was astonished. I told him that a friend had a voice mail message from Mary Pass just last week indicating that issues regarding our use of Fremont Peak had been tabled for the forseeable future due to higher priority issues the department had to deal with. Yet, Max continued, saying he'd seen the new rules in written form, shown to him by Cameron Bowers. Amazing! I thought "how can this be true" and "this is too good to be true"...

The evening at the Peak was a classic summer night. Even with the quarter moon high in the west, the Milky Way was bright. Not Lassen bright, but easily visible across the sky. We were in a temperature inversion, and I would guess after removing my shirt so I was wearing just a t-shirt, that temps were in the mid 70's all night.

We walked east, out of the SW lot, looking at the sky as we passed Coulter Row. A few campers lights were obtrusive up there, but the lack of scopes made conflicting uses a non-issue. As we approached the ranger's house, Pat and I began to talk about Fremont Peak under Ranger Rick Morales' administration. How our kids grew up, up there. Mimi with Rick's daughter Carmen, up in the tree house (that is now gone), or inside watching TV or playing games, safely, happily, while the rest of the park had a feeling of comfort, familiarity, friendship, or being a vital and living entity that fostered a great meeting place for science, education and cooperation. I felt the breath of history, times gone by, as we strode by the big pines and up toward the observatory.

A program was in progress in the meeting room portion of the observatory, but the roof over the scope was closed. The swinging window-shutters were open and the room cooling. A handful of astronomers were up there. Ron Dammann (FPOA president) and Jon Ruyle (TACo with the 25" Obsession) were talking. Pat and I joined them. At one point Ron and I talked about the new lights, I saying that I had to agree with Dave North's assessment that they were not obtrusive from the SW lot, and Ron commenting that he felt they had a negative impact from the observatory. All the lights were in clear view from the observatory. While not attractive, I think they are a minor issue. However, from Coulter Row, they stand tall in the SW.

All this time, while Ron, Jon and I talked, in the background the sound of whistles could be heard clearly eminating from the meeting room of the observatory. I asked Ron who was giving the talk, and what was going on. It was Ranger Cameron Bowers leading a group of kids from Hollister in a game of "Astro-Jeopardy"!!!! By now the roof of the observatory was rolled back, and a new FPOA member was readying the scope. Ron was there to help, if necessary. Into the observatory we went and, peeking my head around the corner into the meeting room, I saw a fully uniformed ranger Bowers in front of a large board with categories and $$ value questions. Cameron would read an astro question, and kids would blow whistles indicating they had the answers. What a hoot! Some of the local astronomers chuckled at this, but know what... kids were hearing science facts and learning. While unorthodox by most standards, this activity fulfilled some of the mission of the park (the astro portion), and it was something Cameron, who has little hands-on observing experience (that I'm aware of) could do to foster interest in the hobby.

I kind of chuckled too.

Leaving the observatory to head back to the SW lot, I turned back to Ron and asked him about the "new" rules Max had talked about. Ron stood there motionless and speechless long enough after my query for me to tap him on the shoulder and say "you hadn't heard this one either, had you?" Well, no, he hadn't. Another case of rumor, or lack of communication, or, well, who knows. Ron suggested asking Cameron, but while our "astro Alex Trabek" had finished final Jeopardy, he was on to other subjects, such as red flashlights, park safety, etc. We walked back over to the SW lot.

I spent some time peeking though the new RC and a NexStar 5. The 5 was kind of fun, punching in NGC numbers and seeing them appear in the FOV. While at the RC, a red flashlight appeared coming up the road. Up to the scope walked an older woman. When she said hello, I knew it was our old camp host, Tinika. What a surprise! I think she'd been to the Peak once before in the two years since the State forced her out. She told me it was the new park administration, and their concerns over liability, the waivers or some other official documentation they were requiring of her, that tore the relationshipo apart. What a shame, Tinika was a wonderful asset, appreciated and cared for by a large number of observers who once frequented that place.

One other piece of good news about the park is that the camp host (Max) now closes the gate to the SW lot at sunset. This I assume is at the direction of Ranger Bowers.

Anyway, before leaving, we walked again over to the observatory. Gone were the kids, leaving a few rather novice observers along with Jon Ruyle and Ron Dammann. The Blue Snowball up in Andromeda was in view, with a 22mm in the focuser. A beautiful view. This night had excellent steadiness and transparancy! The central star shown easily in the aqua glow of the enveloping shell. The shell itself had a rather largish disk, which extended through and beyond a bright inner ring. Really a good view. Next, I got a chance to poke around with the 30 (I am still an FPOA member, at least for this year). I suggested we look at NGC 7331, and from the back end of the monster scope I pushed and pulled, looking through the Telrad, until in just about the right location. Up to the eyepiece I climbed, and sure enough... oh.... wait... that bright smudge was not 7331, but Stephans Quintet. Seriously, the transparancy was so good, that even with a low moon to the west, four components of the Quintet (low power view) were very obvious. After others gawked and talked distances and magnitudes, we swung the scope less than a degree to see 7331, with a bight near stellar core, large central bulge and widespread disk of spiral arms. Four other small galaxies could be seen in the same field. This view was by itself worth the trip.

We said our goodbyes, and walked back to the SW lot. What a wonderful night this had been. It was absolutely a trip back to days gone by.

At the SW lot, a few moments talking with DVJ about his new scope, how he was enjoying having some aperture again after years looking through refractors (meanwhile, talking about how refractorlike the RC's views were). The moon was just setting as we climbed back into the car and started driving down the road.

We had had a wonderful night, seeing old and new friends, some great views, and confirming what Dave had reported about the towers.

We drove down the mountain, a road so well known that to this day, it could almost be driven in my sleep. I hope the camp host knows something I don't about park use by astronomers. I hope to hear positive news about the Peak. For now, it is still a place of nostalgia and controversy.

As we approached San Juan Buatista, I unrolled my window and felt the temperature. The warmth of Fremont Peak was gone.

Thanks to Dave North for the accurate report about the light, and for his word-play that prompted my trip there last night.

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