Observing Among the Hoodoos
Last fall, I had the privilege of volunteering in the astronomy program at Bryce Canyon National Park. Bryce is on the Colorado Plateau, part of a diverse collection of national parks and public lands. The plateau is one of the most sparsely populated regions of the United States, and consequently, has some of the darkest skies. Bryce is able to boast that it has one of the few remaining magnitude 7 dark skies. I discovered this opportunity last spring, on a cloudy Pacific Northwest evening. I had been unable to use my new roll-off roof observatory for most of the winter. While waiting for the skies to clear, I picked up the Reflector, the Astronomical League’s publication.
My spouse Diane had book-marked a news item in the magazine announcing that Bryce Canyon National Park was seeking volunteers to help in its “expanding astronomy program.” I submitted my astronomy resume. After a series of emails I received notice that Bryce had an open slot in September. I had visions of imaging galaxies each night and sleeping most of each day. It did not turn out that way exactly, but the experience was rewarding in many unanticipated ways.
Ranger Kevin Poe
Getting to Bryce Canyon National Park is an easy two-day drive from Seattle, mostly on interstate highways, except for the last 50 miles or so. With the car absolutely stuffed with telescope and backpacking gear, we took off.
Bryce Canyon is amazing—known worldwide for its distinctive beauty and geological features, especially the hoodoos, peculiar orange spires formed from erosion in areas called breaks.
The public viewing program at Bryce Canyon National Park is the epicenter of the National Park Service’s Night Sky Program. The program promotes the preservation of dark skies to park visitors not only at Bryce Canyon, but also at national parks across the country. The head of the program is Chad Moore. Ranger Moore formed the multi-park night sky team concept in 1999. In his role as night sky team leader he advises parks on facility lighting, works on technical issues, and shares his vision of the night sky as a park resource with other park resource managers. He has been carrying out base-line studies of the impact of light pollution on national parks for the past several years. Ranger Moore is assisted by “Dark Ranger” Kevin Poe and Park Interpreter Angie Richman.
Diane and Harry Colvin as ‘Smokies’
Volunteer amateur astronomers play an essential role in the program. Astronomy volunteers are selected based on astronomy accomplishments: many are professional astronomers. The volunteers provide interpretative astronomy at the well-attended and numerous night and solar viewing events in the park, and conduct full-moon night hikes, moon viewing sessions, and fireside astronomy programs. Free housing is provided. We were in a comfortable classic cabin, part of a W.P.A. project.
Upon our arrival we were issued Park shirts, jackets, and caps, fondly known as our Smokey the Bear costumes. We were given an orientation, with briefings on NPS rules and regulations, emergency procedures, and radio operation. It was rather military, but without the guns of course. Valuable interpretative skill training was provided and came in handy when dealing with the high numbers of public viewers, most of whom had never seen a telescope, much less looked through one. The volunteer work hours were long, averaging about 32 hours a week, but rewarding.
Our work week usually included daytime and nighttime viewing. The Park owns a H-alpha solar scope. Conducting solar viewing was just plain fun. Most park visitors, with that maternal admonition about never looking at the sun firmly in mind, were absolutely amazed when they realized they were looking at sun spots the size of the earth and solar flares that rose 100,000 miles or more above the solar surface.
For the night sky programs, volunteers set up telescopes in a parking lot next to the visitor center. The Park owns two 8” SCT telescopes and a 3” refractor. We also used telescopes owned by rangers and volunteers. Each program began with an interpretative lecture, presented in the visitors’ center by park staff—among the best public astronomy lectures I have ever had the pleasure of attending. Dark Ranger Poe, in a presentation entitled “Dark Wars,” warns about the reckless use of light aiming to vanquish the night. He skillfully uses multiple slide screens, animations, video clips, surround sound music, and Power-point tricks, all of which combine to drive home an emotional message, bringing many in the audience to tears, about the importance of preserving dark skies.
Ranger Richman’s signature presentation is called “The Common Denominator In All of Us.” She takes the audience on a journey of human discovery through the cosmos, spanning 13 billion years from the big bang to the present.
Park Interpreter Angie Richman
After these presentations folks were pumped to see the skies. We set up as many telescopes as we had but we never seemed to have enough to handle crowds of 150-200 eager visitors. Most telescopes had lines of over 30 people each. It was quite an experience to be delivering naked-eye sky presentations with laser pointers to 50 visitors at a time. I never thought of myself as a sidewalk astronomer, but after a few nights I began to feel a certain “rush” as I would sweep my laser pointer across the Milky Way from horizon to horizon, stopping to describe the vastness of our galaxy. But as the temperatures began to drop, often into the low 20’s, people would start to clear out. We would break down and store the telescopes before retiring to our cabin, usually too tired to sleep easily.
On some days we would load up the park telescope gear and travel to surrounding state and national parks. These events would begin with solar viewing, followed by a fireside presentation, then the “laser shows” as we called them, and finally telescope viewing. Antelope and deer darting in front of our trucks made the long drive back treacherous.
Full-moon hikes down into the Canyon offered strange but beautiful views of hoodoos in the moon glow. These guided hikes were usually totally booked. They were followed by moon viewing sessions. Of course the full moon is not the best time to observe lunar details, but visitors seemed happy to see washed-out lunar features. Bryce sponsors an annual
Astronomy Festival with the assistance of the Salt Lake Astronomical Society. In 2006 the dates are June 21-24. For more information, go to www.nps.gov/ brca. Click on Education Programs, then Astronomy Programs.
We also had non-astronomical tasks. We regularly worked the information desk at the visitors’ center, answering questions from newly arrived park visitors, most of whom were European, and we roved the park on the various trails, meeting visitors.
Our tenure at Bryce Canyon was not all work—we made weekend trips to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park, and Capitol Reef National Park. The night skies at these parks seemed as dark as those at Bryce Canyon.
But I didn’t write this article to tell you what I did on my summer vacation. I want to spread the word to amateur astronomers about the impact of the astronomy program at Bryce Canyon. The program teaches masses of people the value of dark skies. In 2005 approximately 27,000 visitors participated in astronomy events at Bryce. These people go home with a simple message—YOU can do something about light pollution, in your yard, at your business, in your community. We as amateur astronomers should be grateful to the Rangers at Bryce.
They deserve our support. If you are interested in volunteering, information for the 2006 season is on the Bryce Web site at www.nps.gov/brca. Follow the link to Bryce Canyon’s Volunteer Astronomer Corps from Astronomy Programs. But the program needs more than volunteers. It needs better equipment and increased funding. We are writing letters to Meade and Celestron and other entities requesting that they donate telescopes and equipment. REI provided funds for housing the volunteers last year: we are writing a letter urging continuation of that funding. We are also writing letters to the Utah congressional delegation to make them aware of the need for increased funding and support. I hope some of you do the same. For additional information, feel free to contact me at email@example.com.