A Sprint to the Finish at Three Eastern Oregon Observing Sites: Klondike, Camp Hancock, & the Sunriver Nature Center Observatory
The March wind howled at 40 mph. Driving south towards the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, visions of Galloping Gertie, the bridge.s ill-fated predecessor, danced in my head. We rounded a curve and came upon a large Douglas fir, sprawling across the road, bringing traffic to a crawl. As they say, timing is everything. We got round the tree to be greeted by a .high cross winds on bridge. warning. Diane informed me that the water below the bridge looked like the North Atlantic. I was relieved to get across with the trailer still attached.
Three hours later we were on I-84 going east through the Columbia Gorge. While driving the Gorge, I thought about the catastrophic floods that formed this canyon some 10,000 years ago. Our destination was a place called Klondike, an unofficial observing site often used by Portland astronomers. It is located south of Biggs, just east of the Wasco airport, about five miles out of town. The observing site itself is in the middle of a wheat field, and in the distance one can see a wind farm. The large, perpetually moving wind machines are a good clue to the major problem with this site: WIND! Upon arrival, we could barely open the car doors, let alone set up the Dob.
This was our fourth time at this site and we have always had wind or both wind and rain. One wonders why it is identified as an observing site, although it does feature dark skies and good horizon lines.We backtracked to a state park and campground across the Columbia River. The trailer shook, it rained, it cleared up, and the wind blew on and on. The campground is a great place to park a trailer, but there is no viewing, due to the bright lights of a truck stop in Biggs.
The next morning traffic was snarled by two trailer trucks and a diesel pusher overturned by the previous night.s winds. We drove on to Antelope, once home to the Rajneeshee cult, now famous for the best marionberry cobbler in eastern Oregon.
Camp Hancock is located about 16 miles east of Antelope and was the site of the Rose City Astronomers 2004 Messier Marathon.The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry runs camps there for kids, and a visit is just like going to summer camp. Meals are provided in a dining hall and those attending, about 85 this year, are recruited to help out by setting tables and cleaning up.
Camp Hancock also features great hiking trails and fossil hunting areas; the site is located in the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. But our mission was all-Herschel. I was there to bag the remaining 31 of the 400 Herschels on my list. All were mag. 10.5 and dimmer galaxies in Virgo and in the dreaded Hydra constellation. The list included one faint small globular, NGC 5694. As it turned out, it was a very difficult object to locate and observe.
We set up on what is called Dob Hill, with a good view to the south. Diane held the Dob in place to keep it from shifting in the wind as I began to star-hop, using Starry Night Pro computer charts to identify star patterns. Most of the objects were very closely packed in Virgo. By 11 p.m. I had located almost 20 galaxies. The wind had died down as I dropped down into the muck to locate the two remaining Hydra objects. NGC 5694 is located about 10 degrees off the horizon with very few guide stars for hopping. It took me almost 30 minutes to find its location, but I could not really see much. By 1 a.m. transparency had decreased , forcing me to give up on Hydra and return to Virgo. There I logged six more galaxies. By 2 a.m. conditions had deterio-rated and I retired, having located 26 objects, a personal best, but five short of goal. The weather turned cloudy and the following night was a total washout unless one enjoys looking at Jupiter through haze.
Sunriver Nature Center Observatory
The Sunriver Nature Center Observatory, located in Sunriver, Oregon, is run by the same organization that sponsors the Mt. Bachelor Star Party. The observatory grounds and patio area have excellent views to the south, the only problem being an airport strobe light about one mile to the southwest. I set up the Dob around 10 p.m., determined to bag the remaining five objects. It was a great night, skies black with excellent southern horizon views. The sounds of wildlife seemed to come from all directions, including the howling of coyotes.
This was it: the sprint to the finish. I first went after the three remaining objects in Virgo, NGC 4699, 4546 and 4030, all mag. 11 galaxies. No problem in these skies and within an hour I was down low in Hydra looking for NGC 3621. I found it and now I had only one to go. Would the globular NGC 5694 that had been so difficult two nights before spoil my evening and keep me from finishing the Herschel 400? Not tonight! There it was! Even without averted vision I could make out the small, faint, round disk that looked almost like a planetary nebula or an out-of-focus star. It was after 1 a.m., but my two-year quest was over. I reflected on all the nights I had spent star-hopping. Now it was time to celebrate.