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The Webfooted Astronomer - September 2001


From the President's Pen . . . In Search of Big Sky

By Mary Ingersoll

I love Table Mountain. But the nights there are just too darn cold! I admit it, I'm a wimp when it comes to camping with temperatures below 59 degrees. At the last Table Mountain Star Party I spent more time huddled in my tent than at my scope. So my husband, my youngest daughter and I took Daisy (my Orion 8-inch Deep Sky Explorer) on a trip east.

We took I-90 east and turned left at St. Regis, Montana. From St. Regis we headed north around Flathead Lake to Bigfork, where my friends live. It takes about nine hours to get there (depending on whether your husband is a race car driver. If not, add another hour). We drove in town and stopped first at the Garden bar where our friend's 17-year-old son was playing drums for one of his rock bands. The "Doctors In Love" were playing a mixture of classic rock and country. Being a fan of jazz and alternative rock, I was more entertained by the lightening storm that was moving in from behind the stage. When it started to rain, I retired to my friends' home where we watched the lightening flashes from their deck. The clouds didn't break and so the first night was a wash.

From the next morning's paper we learned that the lightening had started numerous fires in the mountains around us. We decided to head up to Glacier National Park that night to find "the darkest skies in the world." To idle away the day, we got out the inner tubes and floated down the Swan River (which feeds into the Flathead Lake). The water was exceptionally lower than in previous years, so we had to expend a lot of energy avoiding large boulders in the river.

We were pretty pooped when we got back to the house, so we didn't start our drive to Logan Pass until 7 p.m. The "Going-to-the-Sun Road" up to Logan Pass (6,646 ft.) is cut out of the side of the mountains, so you have a rock wall on one side of the road and a sheer cliff on the other. It narrows down to one lane toward the top. I realized we were not going to make it to the top before sunset. After traveling 575 miles, Daisy would need to be collimated and the spotting scope put on. The smoke was getting thicker as we got higher. The winds were blowing the smoke from the fires right up into the pass. We weren't able to breathe with the windows open. This didn't look good. We arrived at the visitor center at 9:30 p.m. It was dark, but not "the darkest skies in the world." Unfortunately, the little light there was in the area was reflecting off of the smoke and gave the sky an orange brown tint. The Milky Way was visible, but no clearer than Table Mountain. The Visitor Center's parking lot had no lights, but the ground was at a slant, so we set Daisy up by the bathrooms (they were unlit and stayed open all night). The wall protected us from the increasing wind. I was able to point and focus on a blurred M13. Daisy's primary mirror was askew, but workable.

After an hour, the winds had blown most of the smoke out of the area. We were seeing a lot of "shooting stars" and numerous satellites flying overhead. I spent most of the time teaching the constellations to my Montana friends. One of them is a schoolteacher (3rd grade). She was pleased to learn a couple of new things to pass on to her students. The winds increased, and when Daisy got blown over I called it a night.

We got to bed that night at 3 a.m. and the group was pretty grumpy the next morning. I suggested that we all stay home that night and just view what we can from the back yard. So we relaxed the day away down by the river and the men fixed a massive feast for the women. The temperatures were in the upper 80s all day and the sky was clear. None of the smoke was coming into the valley and it looked like the night would be clear.

After dinner I set up Daisy, aligned the mirrors and the spotting scope. I then had to guard her from the neighbor's dog, Howie, (a cross between a Saint Bernard and a Black Angus). He uproots small trees to play fetch. He'd been eyeing the scope and I didn't trust him.

By sunset the sky was clear, the Milky Way was quite bright, Howie had gone home and the group of observers had grown to 11. The only thing that was going to get into the way tonight was the tree line. Looking overhead M13 was clear and crisp, individual stars seemed to just jump out at you. With the 10 mm eyepiece M57 (Ring Nebula) and M27 (Dumbbell Nebula) were very sweet. Meteors were unofficially about one per minute. Mars peeked out from behind the trees for a few minutes and those who saw it were thoroughly pleased.

Today, back in Seattle, it's raining while I'm writing this. Bigfork, Montana may have as good of skies as Table Mountain but the temperatures are much warmer and having heated rest rooms next to the observing site was perfect for wimps like me! If I ever hope to view all 110 Messier objects, it will be from my friend's back yard. However, I've been talking with my husband about traveling to the Sunglow Ranch in Pearse, Arizona. I've heard that it has "the darkest skies in the world."

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