Mad Cows and Dust Devils: A Report on the Mt. Kobau and Oregon Star Parties
By Harry Colvin
The first leg of our 1,200 mile star trek began with a drive on Highway 2 crossing the Cascade Mountain Range, then following Highway 97 paralleling the Columbia River, before turning due North to the extreme northern tip of the Sonoran desert and the resort town of Osoyoos, British Columbia. The Canadian border guards asked what our business was in Canada and I told him we were in search of dark skies. This was not a good answer, and we spent the next five minutes explaining why it was necessary to bring so much stuff into Canada, and promising that we had no plans to sell any of it while there.
Osoyoos is in a beautiful setting by Lake Osoyoos, carved by glaciers during the last ice age. It is an active fruit and grape production area, and in some ways reminds one of valleys in central California. It was Friday night and the permit for the Mt. Kobau Star Party did not begin until the next day, so we stayed in the town of Osoyoos that night. After dinner, we were struck by the absolute black skies, even in town. The next morning, however, the black skies did not turn blue as expected, but were a dark gray, as low pressure moved into southern British Columbia. Before going up the mountain, we had time to visit a desert preserve just north of town, and learned about the plants, critters, and ecology of the Sonoran desert, which covers a large portion of the western U. S. and Mexico and a small portion of southern British Columbia. Before our trip was over, we would become very familiar with this desert, a kind of “in your face” experience, as well as in your sleeping bag, your tent, your car, or on your mirror, etc.
The drive to the Star Party site began 7 miles north of town, on a dusty, bumpy, 12-mile wash-board road up to the 6,200 foot summit of Mt. Kobau. The views from the summit were outstanding (as long as you observed downward), with the valley, Lake Osoyoos, vineyards and orchards stretching north and south. The Mt. Kobau Star Party site is fairly small, and the number of participants generally does not exceed 200. After getting a weather report, we set up our mountain tent but not our scope. Observing was just not in the cards.
After sunset, we found that we were not welcome at the site, nor were the other astronomers. Cows started emerging from the woods, below us and also above us. They wanted to get together for the night, and we were separating two parts of the herd. The bovines were clearly not pleased with the invasion of their mountain realm and became extremely vocal. Bearing in mind that most large mammals don’t care for me, I retreated to the safety of our SUV, which has both front and side impact airbags. Things just went downhill from there, as black clouds rolled in, and the wind became very cold. We managed to spend a comfortable night in the mountain tent, but dawn came with gray skies and an even colder wind. The forecast was for more of the same, through Tuesday. It was Sunday morning and we decided to drive south 550 miles to Indian Springs in Oregon in search of black clear skies.
We pushed on to Prineville, knowing that the Oregon Star Party (OSP) permit could be cancelled at any time because of all the forest fires in Oregon. The final leg to Indian Springs included a number of sheep herds, guarded by large scary white dogs, more scary even than the mad cows previously encountered. Smoke from fires burning to the south caused a bluish gray tint in the air and if things were not gloomy enough, black cumulus clouds seemed to be building when we arrived at the site around 5 p.m. It was Monday, the beginning of the permit period for OSP. We arrived very early, the 2nd party there. The site is excellent, with views to the horizon in every direction and plenty of parking. Now the bad news. This is the Sonoran desert continued, complete with hot days, cold nights, dust, wind, and sage bushes (a.k.a. known as dammit bushes, because that’s what you say when you trip on them during the night). No cows, but plenty of coyotes howling.
The next morning things began to look better. The rain had settled the dust, the wind had died, and the porta potties arrived. The tent crew raised the big meeting tent, anchoring it with 50 gallon barrels filled with water. The forest service rangers came by to make sure that the Level III fire prevention rules would be enforced. Then the smoke began clearing. All during the day there was a steady procession of astronomers arriving and setting up. Finally, after a beautiful sunset, it finally happened: DARK CLEAR SKIES! First Venus and a thin sliver of the moon with its earth glow, then the Summer Triangle, the Dipper, Polaris, and Arcturus. All seemed brighter somehow. By 11 p.m. a cloud appeared, but it was a cloud of stars, the Milky Way, with more detail than many of us had ever seen. Magnitude 6 to 7 stars were easily visible naked eye and looking through a finder revealed so many stars that star hopping was actually made more difficult. I worked the Herschel 400 list all night until things “washed out” with the morning light. Using the 10-inch Dob and a 35-mm eyepiece I located and logged 18 assorted galaxies,
clusters and planetaries, all without the use of averted vision, a common tool in Seattle’s light polluted skies.
Wednesday the espresso vendor arrived, and just in time. Getting sufficient sleep is a challenge when one crawls in the sleeping bag at 5 a.m. and by 9 a.m. the tent is at least 90 degrees and climbing. So triple tall mochas are almost as essential as the five layers of clothing required when the temperature drops into the low 40’s and even 30’s. Wednesday’s sunset was beautiful as expected, and shortly thereafter we witnessed a spectacular Iridium flare, lasting at least 5 seconds before fading. Then came the ISS fly-by, 250 miles above. I tried tracking it with my Dob but it was moving too fast. The night’s viewing was just as fine as it was the previous night, and I began the Ursa Major Herschels, mostly galaxies with magnitude 11 to 13. Later Ursa Major got too low and I began to explore the little known and elusive Camelopardalis constellation. It is just to the left of Perseus and is outlined with stars maginitude 6 to 7. Star hopping to locate the Herschels was extremely difficult because the view thru the 6 x 30 finder presents one with a field of view saturated with stars of magnitude 5 to 6. I spent over an hour finding one Herschel. I packed it in at
4:30 a.m., exhausted but with another 18 Herschels logged. The OPS officially began on Thursday and by early morning the shower truck arrived. What a wonderful invention! And by early afternoon the food vendor was open for business with my favorite gut busters on tap. After dehydrated meals since Monday, I was in heaven. The lecture series started and as always at the OPS it was excellent, with topics ranging from adventure observing trips to Australia to cosmic sea ripples. Thursday night was another winner, viewing-wise. I worked Herschels until about 1 a.m., when I began to notice that my platform was not tracking. But I managed to log another 17 Herschels from several constellations including Perseus, Scorpius, Aquila, and Sagittarius.
By Friday morning after another 4 hours of sleep, things were in full swing, with a swap meet, more lectures, and the telescope walk-about conducted by Mel Bartels. The walk-about is always a highlight of the OSP. The telescope construction techniques are cutting-edge, and the scopes are openly evaluated in a quest to find out what works and what does not work. This walk-about also included an up-close and personal view of a large dust devil. It was a funnel dust cloud about 50–100 feet across, filled with papers and other stuff that it had picked up after hitting several scopes and tents, including the Registration tent.
Tom Osypowski of Equatorial Platforms sold me a replacement motor controller for my platform so I was back in business by sunset and again was rewarded with another night of excellent viewing. This evening we took a tour of the big Dobs. The highlight was the Veil Nebula in Tom’s 22 incher. He focused in on the waterfall area and the detail was breathtaking. After the tour, I logged another 20 Herschels before turning in.
Saturday morning promised another clear night. Five in a row! The Perseids meteor showers were near peak and very rich. I spent the night finishing up the Herschels in Scorpius, Taurus, and Serpens Caput, logging a personal record of 25 before retiring when the skies washed out around 4:30 a.m. Saturn and its rings were as stable and detailed as I ever recall.
Sunday a.m. was the official end of OSP but about 50 of us decided to stay another night to observe the Perseids. In the afternoon, the wind picked up and the dust devils came at us with a vengeance. Some of us threw rocks at them, which proved to be somewhat effective. But around 3 p.m. we were hit again by one which this time ripped the awning off our vehicle, threw stakes about and nearly impaled Diane. About 5 p.m. it clouded up for awhile, but by 9 p.m. it had cleared. Another near perfect night, and the Perseids were worth the wait, averaging about 1 per minute for several hours.
The OPS is a well-run, excellent event in a great observing site. If you have time for only one major star party, this is the one you can’t miss. But be prepared for temperature extremes, dirt and grit, and the infamous dust devils of the Sonoran Desert.