Just back from The Table Mountain Star Party in Central Washington. It was our first star party proper (overnight) - and our astro pal Neil had persuaded us we were ready for the big one - all night under the stars with some serious astronomers ... He also persuaded us with stories of buying hot dogs at 1.00 am ... There would be caterers and scope gear vendors all there too.
We couldn't find an RV for rent - they were rented out months in advance so we settled on a mini van. It was a Kia Sedona - big enough to carry all our gear - and civilised enough (compared to a cargo van) for sleeping in. I hate camping - its the sleeping in a tent I really dislike - problem is you hear everyone else snoring - off gassing (trying to be polite here) - playing their ghetto blasters etc into the wee hours ... I figured a sleeping bag and a van will do me!
First stop the Canada/US Border. I have a UK Passport and a Canadian Citizinship card. But the US Border guards said "what's this? I'm not interested in your citizenship card" and we don't like your UK passport. So into the office for some form filling out and questions. At that point I was thinking we could be heading home. I noticed the guard advising us on form filling had a slight accent. I asked him if he was English? He looked at me and said "Scottish". OK being Scottish myself, that's the first time I have asked a Scotsman if he was English!
I love it when my Canadian colleagues refer to me as English - I respond with "Scottish actually, but that's O.K. I know you Americans get confused".
Canada and The US are so Scotland/England - Canadians are staunchly not US and don't get us confused! But the Americans love Canada, they go hunting, fishing and boating up here and enjoy driving on roads with nobody else for miles. So back to the US Border Guard - he then tells me he was in the Highland Fusileres and showed me his Highlander's Crest attached to his Stamp (the one he stamps Accepted/Rejected on your passport with). The other guard came back from searching the van with a shell shocked look on his face. "Are you taking enough for everyone?" he queried. Now we had three guards listening into our conversation about all things Scottish and Astro .... They also told us to watch out for traffic around Seattle because Chelsea were playing The Seattle Sounders that night. Thinking that might not have turned out well for The Sounders! We were charged $6 for the entry application form and told to head on in (to The US).
It was a nice day for driving south - cloudy with sunny breaks - not too hot. After several stops for lunch, tea, loos, etc, we rolled into Ellensburgh Washington - the nearest town to Table Mountani (about 20 miles from the mountain top) just before 9pm. A little later than I would have liked as I had been told it is a bit tricky finding the mountain access road from town. I stepped out the van and it was 27 C outside - at 9 pm! I gassed up the van - US Gas price was only $3.88 a gallon, not far from half the Canadian price (despite our bigger gallon). I bought a map and we headed for the mountain.
Even in Ellensburgh I was still unclear where exactly this mountain was. There are several lowish looking mountains somewhat distant from the town and I couldn't decide which one was ours. I learned later, Elinsburgh is already at 1500 plus feet.
It soon became clear as we headed North of Ellensburgh. A half hour later we were still pulling over to read the map - we kept heading back towards town. Finally we snagged the elusive Reecer Creak Road - the fire road up the mountain.
The first mile was gentle, the next mile was hair raising with a roller coaster angle of attack and no guardrail on the single track road (it was paved at least). After that it wound with switchbacks up into the forest. The sun was sinking lower in the sky - I guessed about 20 minutes until sunset. Still we climbed - not another vehicle in sight. Can anyone else really be up here? Have we got the right mountain? The tarmac ran out and we bounced for several miles on a dirt road. The sun was almost down as we rounded a corner and looked across an alpine meadow - wowa! - there it was - a city of white gleaming (and giant) RV's Every sized motor home parked in a line across the mountain top - shining in the last rays of sunlight. 700 people on top of a 6,370 ft mountain. It was quite the sight.
We were ushered to a parking area and found our astro pal Dan already there saving a space for us. We set up camp quickly and I unloaded the scope gear and as much of the other gear as possible - since I was sleeping in the van.
That night turned out to be clear right through until morning. It had been a long drive but I wasn't taking a night off just in case the weather turned bad. I had my SCT setup on the CGEM by dark. Saturn was lowish in the West but I slewed there and found a nice view at 180x. The Cassini Division was just on the brink of visibility. But I was really just waiting for dark. By 11.30 pm it was 90% dark. I moved the mount to point at Polars (just eyeballed it) and there the mount stayed for the next 4 nights. The Ring Nebula was my first deep sky quarry. A very nice view I thought. My astro pal Dan and I then spent some time trying to decide whether this mountain top sky was indeed any darker or any clearer than our own back yards, and the local Airport (Sechelt). Were we just dark adapted and so it seemed similar? Or was it pretty samey? Dan pointed out that lots of people here live in Seattle or Renton and don't normally see a dark sky - so for them this would be a huge difference, but for us living near a smallish town it was not so drastic a change. Either way, The Milky Way was bright overhead the whole night and it stretched from North of Cygnus right down through Sagittarius to the horizon.
Later at 1.00am Debra and I decided to walk around to the main scope field. Because we arrived near dusk, we had been ushered to the overspill area - still a very nice spot - but with more relaxed rules about coming and going and lights etc. On the way to the main scope field I encountered a Hot Dog stand! It was actually a full catering setup with tea, coffee, burgers, dogs, etc. We then wandered the main scope field looking for big scopes - I paused and used my red light only to see my hot dog. We soon found Dean setting up his 12 and a half inch Plane Wave SCT. He was aligning and had to brush off a slightly rude visitor who was trying to tell him which NGC Object he wanted to see. He soon left and I asked Dean if it was OK for us to hang around and watch. Of course he said and soon he had The Ring Nebula in the scope. Debra went to the eyepiece first - there was a pause and then 'OMG' - she gasped at the nebua. Next it was my turn - I had seen the ring hundreds of times - what could be so surprising? I looked I thought for a second or two - what is this? Then I too gasped - it was huge and bright! Normally you see the ring either huge or bright - not both! Through the Plane Wave at 280x I could see the smeared top edge of the ring and the star that sits top right. I have looked at the ring through many scopes including a couple of 17 inch Newtonian's but this was in a different league.
When we returned to our own scopes around 2.30 am I immediately slewed The Niner (C9.25) to The Ring. I looked at 180x. Compared to what I had seen with the Plane Wave, my view was like using a 60 mm toystore scope. It will take a while to erase that Hubble Like view of The Ring. We observed the sky from the region of the big dipper - behind us just above the trees - right overhead through Cygnus and down between Sagittarius and Scorpio. Finally at 3.30 am my early rise and 500km drive had caught up with me. The rear hatch of the van had been opened all night - I hoped the Mozzies had gone to bed by now (their own beds, hopefully) and I got into the van and my brand new sleeping bag. It was the 'mummy' type which looked real cosy on the shelf of Walmart but I soon discovered it was too cozy and very difficult to turn over in - you are forced to either sleep face up or face down, neither of which are very comfortable.
I woke up at 4.00am and had to head to the porta loos. When I stumbled out of the van still half asleep I was met with the dazzling sight of Jupiter and Venus rising in a dark blue sky in the East. I stopped and just took in the view for a few minutes before continuing on my way.
Later around 9 am the sun was already starting to cook the van and any tents that did not have shade. It was shorts and sandals throughout the day in around 28 C heat.
(Yikes seem to have lost a big chunk of my blog here - was updating it from another computer)
We spent the day drifting through the different scopes, attending presentations by different astronomy related speakers and heading back to our sun tent to rustle up lunch. Also spent a good deal of time at our own scopes with visitors asking us various questions about our scopes and about the sun.
I looked through a Meade 152 ED Apochromat and through a Meade 8" SCT - both using Baader. Our astro pal Dan had his Lunt 60mm double stacked Ha scope and its views are always a knockout - he had a steady stream of visitors to his scope.
Just before lunch we noticed a large orange tube SCT - it was a Celestron C14 on a CG-PRO mount. Quite the beast we thought. nearby was a Meade Maksutov 7" - nice I thought. Then I looked at Debra and she was pointing without saying anything ... I turned around to see the fabled Questar. But not a 3.5 inch desktop one, It was the Big Daddy Questar - 7" and mounted on a wedge - its chromed base gleaming in the sun. We knew we had to go drag our astro pal Dan round to see this! The owner informed us these three scopes belonged to Belevue College and he was evaluating them for the astronomy class. Three of the class students were sitting at a table doing their homework and were puzzled what all the fuss was about. They had been viewing through the lengendary Questar each night - unaware of its mythical status and history.
Late afternoon soon arrived and we had our dinner tickets in our pockets. I expected there would be a dinner tent with benches or something similar, but it was more BYOC - Bring Your Own Chair. The food was excellent and was professionally catered but it was quite awkward trying to balance your paper dinner plate, a plate of desert and a drink while sitting in a deck chair.
After dinner we all grabbed a nap ready for the nights viewing ahead. It was great not having to set up the scope every night - once set up the first night we just covered everything and then added power when we wanted to resume viewing.
The second night was not quite as pristine as the first, but still pretty good. We were joined by our new astro pals we had met at breakfast the previous morning. Nancy, Catherine and Scott were from Olympia and although they did not have scopes they shared our love of the sky. They had many stories of star gazing all over the US. The spent lots of time at our scopes and it was great fun sharing our favourite objects with them. We observed until about 2.00 am by which point some clouds had rolled in and it turned quite chilly. We planned to take the van down in to Ellensburgh tomorrow (Friday) so I was quite happy to hit the Van (hit the sack) earlyish tonight.
Next day by about 10.30 we were ready to take the mountain road downhill for the first time. It was really no problem at all - although I couldn't figure out how to engage the van's manual override to its automatic transmission. By the time we were on the lower road I could smell the breaks burning - that's the moment I figured the override had been working I just hadn't nudged it into a low enough gear to feel it. It was an open run into Ellensburgh through some dry deserted looking farmland. About 10 miles later we rolled onto main street of the very attractive small town. The town has a population of 15,000 with 8,000 of those being students. That lunch time they all seemed to be in McDonalds! I've never seen so many people serving or so many customers in the one McDonalds! Dan spent about an hour on the phone to India trying to put money on his US Special Phone. We enjoyed an air conditioned lunch. We then headed over to Fred Meyers, the big (Walmartish) store in town. Actually the town has a ton of stores, gas stations, motels, etc. Our coolers were out of ice and both had about 4 inches of water in them. Scott had told us he buys dry ice in the US and so we asked at the store. When it evaporates it turn directly into CO2 (Carbon Dioxide) so there is no water or mess. The store supervisor told us not to handle it then fished in a big bunker with protective gloves on and put a couple of bags in our coolers. It worked a treat and its advertised to be 5 times more effective than water ice.
While in Fred Meyers there was a sudden roar - the lights flickered and we looked outside to see a ferocious hail storm raniing down. It was hailing at 25 C. When we got back outside the temerature had dropped a few degrees but it was still over 20 C. We headed back up the mountain hoping the road hadn't been snowed on. It hadn't but we heard tales of hail the size of golf balls raining down on the camp site. We had covered most of our equipment and the rest was in the sun tent. It did get wet but it was all in cases, so no harm done. It had turned very chilly on the mountain though. Most people donned ski jackets and we got into the van to warm up. It was pretty cool watching the mountain 'weather machine' in action - clouds were spilling down onto the open field in front of us, while much higher up the sky was blue.
That night it was full winter weather gear including ski pants, touques and gloves. The air was very moist though and within 15 minutes of putting up the SCT the corrector plate was completely fogged. I hadn't put the anti-dew strip on and now it was too late. I switched to The AR152 Refractor. Our regular visitors Nancy, Catherine and Scott arrived and we had a mini-party - swilling tea, chips (that's crisps), pepperoni sticks and other miscellanous snacks. We toured through Cygnus: The Dumbell Nebula, The Coathanger, The Veil; Cygnus: The Ring Nebula, The Double Double: Hercules; M13 and M92: then down to Sagittarius and Scorpio: M22, M17 and Antares. Scorpio was higher than we normally see it at home and I could actually see for the first time the entire shape of the Scorpion. I guess this was due to our more southerly latitude (about 350 miles farther south) and our altitude of 6,500 feet.
As the night went on I began to lose the battle with the dew - my eyepices, finder, red dots were all fogged and dripping. I employed some blue small (car towels) I had thrown in the van to wipe my eyepices and finder with. Normally I would never dream of doing this but I didn not want to be denied the views under a dark sky. I threw in the towel - litterally - at around 2.30 am and hit the van (hit the sack). Next morning was warmer and we were back to shorts and sandals and about 23 C by 10 am. We made some breakfast and then headed around to the scope vendors. Dan was eyeing a Celestron Ultima LX 32mm 2" EP. He had tried mine quite a few times and thought this would be a good match for his 13" DOB. I bought the 22 mm version to bring my collection within one of the full set. We returned an hour later and Debra picked up the 17mm version. I came back later and picked up a couple of Celestron Star Maps and an OIII Filter. The prices were very good and the EP's were going for $125 US. including tax. I had payed $150 US plus tax and shipping for my 32 mm LX about a year before.
It was out of the ordinary to buy astronomy gear and get to use it all the same night. That's what we did!
The final night was Saturday and it was back to excellent conditions - about 10 C and dry. Debra embarked on the NGC Challenge but had trouble because she did not have star maps showing many of the challenge objects. She ventured round to the main scope field where some observers had volunteered to assist others with the NGC Challenge. I had great views of Saturn early on in a blue sky and then some good deep sky too. It was in the back of my mind that I had a 350 mile drive back up to the border next day, so I decided I did not want to do it on 4 hours sleep.
I headed to bed around 2.30 am weill satisfied with my last night at Table Mountain.
Next morning there was no mass exodus, people took their time, most staying around for breakfast, and by the time we were ready to leave around 11.00am there were still many RV's and campers preparing for lunch and going walks to the mountain lookout points.
I knew I would love the Astronomy but was not sure if all the packing and camping (ish) would be worth it - it was!
I will be back next year for more and am looking to the next local star party.