Greetings fellow astrophiles,
Sometimes you pack the car first, then find a place to observe.
The boat take-off… point of Lake Durant. Click for a larger view.
Ryan Goodson and I were set and ready for a short weekend trip down to Cherry Springs State Park for the Black Forest Star Party this past 22 August 2014. Having had great success at the Cherry Springs Star Party in June, I was ready to take in that-much-more of the Milky Way that-much-earlier in the evening (and maybe win a +30mm eyepiece. Who knows?). The tent was set, the dry goods and cooking supplies were packed, and the scopes were ready for business.
The news from the BFSP? Rain, rain, total cloud cover, and more rain. As fun as the CSSP and the hang with our friends to the far south at Kopernik were, the thought of no hope of observing either of the BFSP nights we planned to go put a damper on any interest of driving south.
The solution to miserable conditions to our Southwest? Go Northeast! We frantically googled for close dark sky spots in the opposite direction, having decided anything within 4 hours of Syracuse was reasonable. After some unlucky location reservation attempts throughout the Adirondacks (something about the last weekends before school starts), we finally stumbled on available spots at Lake Durant, a stone’s throw from Blue Mountain.
Rustic setting at Lake Durant. Click for a larger view.
A quick stop for perishables later, we left civilization for a 3-ish hour drive to the western edge of the nowhere particular.
For those who’ve never ventured into some of the very best NY has to offer, I refer you to all kinds of links on the matter. Amateur astronomers interested in taking the drive up-and-over should be aware of a few things:
1. It’s Not All Dark – Many of the campgrounds are very close to well-lit two-lane highways (because the campgrounds are better thought of as base camps for longer excursions into undeveloped areas). There’s probably a great book entitled “Best Campsites In The Adirondacks For Amateur Astronomy,” but that book’s going to require some serious travel to put together.
2. Trees, Trees, And More Trees – Our campsite had a small (maybe 10 degree?) clearing above our heads and we passed several campsites with larger holes, but you’ve got to really love the zenith to observe from the nearby comfort of your tent. We gave the place a good long walk on Saturday morning, then gave the place a REALLY good long walk on Friday night to look for good spots around the campground. You know, there’s probably a great book entitled “Best Campsites In The Adirondacks For Amateur Astronomy,” but that book’s going to require some serious travel to put together.
Campsite #1. Click for a larger view.
3. Safety First – Campsites accessible to large vehicles may be tightly packed around the front gates – which means they have very bright flood lights that don’t go off near the one spot (the tree-free main parking lot for the site) you’d really like to use for observing. If you’re looking in the daytime, watch for poles, then look up to see what’s hanging off of them.
4. Late Arrivals – Depending on your location, you risk people dragging their camping gear late at night with headlights at, at least, medium burn. Now, if you were at any normal location, that might inconvenience you for a minute or so. At our swervy-twirly-road campsite, a 35-foot mobile mansion spent the better part of 20 minutes trying to get around a corner designed for 20-foot roughing-it mansions – and it did so right next to our campsite.
The prime observing location at Lake Durant is to the upper right of the google map – the clearing just off Rt. 30 (but ask first!).
5. Don’t Think If You Don’t Have To – Ryan and I got smart and started asking questions of the Lake Durant staff early on Saturday. After spending our night thinking of contingencies if we couldn’t set up somewhere reasonable, the staff were more than helpful in recommending locations, giving us additional information and, finally, giving us access to the most primo spot at Lake Durant – the helicopter landing pad in the supervisor’s backyard. More on that shortly, but just ask when you get there. Better still, ask before you get there about the location and its feasibility as an observing location and see if anyone has any thoughts on the matter. And speaking of calling ahead…
6. The Most Best-est Spot Not On The Map – Our morning walk included walking right by two or three excellent observing locations – so good we ended up moving to one of them. Right off the main parking lot were a few camp sites that the staff use as (1) over-fill, (2) easy spots for big RVs to get to and (3) spots they can let late-comers squat at until morning (so as not to wake everyone else up). When the campground has camping sites labeled 1 to 65 and you walk by a “2A,” you know something’s afoot. These “[number]A” locations are great bases-of-operation for observing, so call ahead and see about reserving one.
The better campsite (2A).
With much of Saturday used up with walking around and moving camping locations (to a much more open location NOT on the usual reservation map, see #6 above), we got Ryan’s 27” New Moon Telescope Dob setup at the helicopter pad and started the long wait for sunset.
As far as I’m concerned, this IS roughing it.
That said, when you bring the largest portable (visible light) telescope in NY to a dark sky location, you gotta mention it to somebody. Just before sunset, we trekked across the whole campground inviting people to stop over between 9 and midnight for a session. If you feel so inclined as to host a public viewing session at a large campsite, I recommend the following – start very quickly with the noise about “large telescope” and “free viewing session” as you walk up to campers. All they can see is your dark, disheveled outline approach and you could be just about anyone. The sooner they know you’re not asking for a tourniquet, the better.
Around 9 p.m., the skies around the helicopter pad were great and a few people trickled over. At about that same time, little hints of fog began to move in from the west. After about 30 minutes of great viewing, the observers – and the fog – really started to move in. Between patches of clear sky (and as Ryan drove the scope to those clear patches), I gave some quick lectures and opened the discussion up to questions. Our last decent clear spot occurred just after 10 p.m., after which the fog not only consumed the stars above, but went on to consume the trees at our horizon. The fog was bad enough, but the reflected headlights from the highway nearby were right out of “Close Encounters.” So, we packed it up and headed back to camp just in time for the sky above us to, you guessed it, completely open up around midnight.
M111? Fog droplets and LED (to see it in real time was just silly). Click for a larger view.
An observing loss? Hardly. We had over 50 people stop for quick looks and long discussion, the staff loved us and insisted we come back for another session, and Ryan and I were made official Night Owls of Lake Durant (which consists of a quick proclamation and an owl wine bottle cap. Rob and I at left, Rob and Ryan at right (post-cap)). Rob, by the way, works at Lake Durant during the Spring and Summer, works at state sites in Florida in the Autumn and Winter. Quite possibly the greatest job ever. For the time we did have clear skies, they were excellent. Also, having a manager with a large open backyard and a helicopter pad didn’t hurt either.
A Regular Thing?
The three hour drive back gave us plenty of time to think about following up on the staff’s insistence. Those in CNY who want to spend a weekend really honing their observing skills in a very dark location could do much worse than a weekend camping in the Adirondacks. To that end, we’re now pondering how to make “something” official out of it and maybe looking for ideas and interest in the near future. Perhaps a weekend in mid-October so we can enjoy the red, orange, and yellow colors hanging from the trees during the day and the same colors hanging from the celestial ceiling at night?