University Lowbrow Astronomers

The Black Forest Star Party Revisited.

by Mark Deprest
Printed in Reflections: October, 2003.

By now you’ve probably heard at least a little something about the Black Forest Star Party, but just in case you haven’t, I’ll start this article with a little info about the party and the people who put it on.

The 2003 Black Forest Star Party marked the fifth official year of its existence, and in that short span of time the event has grown into one of the premier events of the summer for us astronomy enthusiasts.  The Central Pennsylvania Observers (CPO) in cooperation with and full support of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources have managed to put together an event at a truly “Dark Sky” site, that is an Observer’s Star Party!  What I mean is; although there are a number of vendors that come to the BFSP and there are some talks scheduled for the daylight hours, they do an ATM walk-about and a number of “door prizes” are raffled off, these take a back seat to the skies, which are some of the darkest east of the Mississippi river.  This event has become so popular with astronomers that the organizers had to limit the number of registrants to 300.  In 2002 the BFSP saw crowds of 550+ and those crowds experienced a weekend of incredible skies, but also facilities which were taxed to their limits, at one point the organizers asked that the participants practice water conservation as the supply was getting very low.  The BFSP for 2003 set the number of participants at 300; this number of people was very easily tolerated and managed by the facilities and organizers.

The BFSP is held at Cherry Springs State Park in Potter County, Pennsylvania, at an elevation of over 2300 feet, in the middle of Susquehannock State Forest.  Cherry Springs State Park is Pennsylvania’s First Official “Dark Sky” Park; the nearest town is Coudersport, PA. (Pop. ~3k) about 20 miles and one range away to the northwest.  After just one night of observing it becomes obvious that this is one of the very darkest sites in the eastern U.S.  The local area is dominated by farmland and vast tracts of state forest lands so there are very few sources of local light pollution.  Potter County has only three traffic lights and a total population of ~17,000.  The nearest sources of significant light pollution in the region are State College, PA (metro pop. ~80,000) ~75 miles and several mountain ranges to the south and Olean, NY (metro pop. ~30,000) about 50 miles to the northwest, so as you can imagine THE SKIES ARE VERY DARK!  The limiting magnitude is usually in the 6.7 range and approaches magnitude 7 on very dark, transparent nights.  Cherry Springs is also far enough inland from Lakes Erie and Ontario to escape most lake-effect cloud cover events.  A good illustration of the sky darkness at this location is that when a cloud drifts by it is BLACK; there is simply no sky glow to illuminate it.

I went to this event last year and had such an incredible time that there was no doubt in my mind, where I would be when this year’s event was happening.  The 2003 Black Forest Star Party would find me as one of the guest speakers but I am getting a little ahead of myself though.  Let me go back to the Wednesday before the Star Party weekend; John Causland, Jim Wadsworth and I decided to caravan the 430 miles to Cherry Springs.  Chris Sarnecki joined our little group for the first part of our trek, at least as far as Cleveland.  Chris wanted to take a little more adventurous route; Jim and John were both pulling trailers and preferred to stay on the main highways, so we stayed on the interstate while Chris went on his way.  I had 4 of those 2-way radios that have a +2 mile range, so when the four of us met up at Cabella’s in Dundee, MI and headed down the road, we had a good way to keep in touch.  I had planned a route that I liked and took the lead followed by John, and then Chris and Jim brought up the rear of our little caravan.  Jim and I were having a wonderful time with the 2-way radios and Jim provided some geological history of the area we were driving through during the first part of our trip, which I found rather interesting.  I also found it rather interesting that after a few miles down the road John and Chris were unusually quiet.  I found out why when we got to the first rest stop.  When they had set their radios down they inadvertently changed channels... somewhere between Dundee and Toledo!  No matter, we got that fixed at the first rest stop and we all had fun chatting as we drove on toward Cleveland.  After Chris had left our little group, the three of us settled into some very leisurely driving across northern Ohio and Pennsylvania’s northwestern corner to New York’s southern tier Freeway I-86.  We got to Cherry Spring’s at about 4:00 pm, which was just enough time to get our tents and scopes set up for what would be the first of three very good nights of observing.  Wednesday night was clear (4 out of 5) and steady (5 out of 5) but not very transparent (3 out of 5).  We all got some great views of Mars and John’s new 24” was ‘kicking butt’ on some very faint fuzzies.  I spent most of that night working one constellation; Cassiopeia.  I like to do this every now and then, just work one constellation and find every deep-sky object that it has to offer.  Jim Forrester and his delightful wife Jenna had arrived earlier that day, and although he had to park his camper across the road from our little group, he did set up his scopes in our ‘observing field.’  After driving all day, most of us kind of ‘pooped-out’ around 2:00 am, I was looking forward to a long weekend of great astronomy.

Cherry Springs State Park is a rustic campground with few amenities; it does have clean pit toilets and potable water, and a few recently added electrical outlets for running laptops, telescope drives or recharging battery packs.  But that is about it, so, if you camp there you really need to bring everything necessary to sustain yourself for the duration of your stay.  CSSP does not have any showers or vending machines, and the nearest restaurant is in Sweden Valley, PA about 11 miles north.  There is a small but well stocked country store up the road about 2 miles and other than the pay phone across the road at the little unattended airfield, there is nothing but forests and hunting lodges within a 15 mile radius of the park.

Thursday morning was cool and clear, and after a breakfast of coffee, 2 hard boiled eggs and peanut butter and orange marmalade sandwich, I was ready for the day.  Bobby G and his wife Joanie, Gary Perrine and his wife Cy, Doug Scobel, and Doug Nell would be arriving sometime during the day.  As the park began to fill up with more and more people, it became evident that we would have to save some spaces for the rest of our Lowbrow contingent.  I had planned to make some of my famous Jambalaya that night and I needed a larger pan than I had, so John, Jim and I went into Coudersport, PA around lunch time for some shopping, sight seeing and lunch at May’s Family Diner.  Jim was looking for a bolt for one of his scopes, and John needed to find some mounting screws for the license plate on his trailer, so we needed to hit a hardware store.  Luckily Coudersport had a well stocked “Pro-Hardware” and we able to satisfy our needs, I even found the pan I needed.  We picked up a few odds and sods from the local super-market and then headed back to camp.  About mid-afternoon the rest of the Lowbrows showed up and without too much effort we got Doug Scobel and Doug Nell’s pop-up campers in place next to Jim Wadsworth’s “Scamp” trailer.  Bobby and Joanie G setup their tent next to John’s and Gary and Cy parked their camper next to Jim and Jenna Forrester.  The telescopes were placed in the open area encircled by our tents and pop-ups.  John ran into Bill Denkmeier who manufactures his own version of the binoviewer and somehow managed to talk Bill into letting John use a sample of his binoviewer for that night’s observing session.  The weather reports for Friday were not good at all and Saturday was not real promising either, so we were thinking that Thursday night’s session might be the best.  After dinner we started to get ready for a long night of observing.  My Jambalaya was a hit with all who tried it.

The sky was clear (5 of 5) and much more transparent (4.5 of 5) than Wednesday night, however the seeing or steadiness had dropped off a bit (3.5 of 5), which was an indication of a low pressure system moving in.  There were moments of steadiness and the night would have rated EXCELLENT at Peach Mt. and by 4:00 am most everyone had called it a night.  The binoviewers on John’s 24” Starmaster gave us some of the most incredible views of the night.  It did take a little practice to get the two images to merge into one, but once you relaxed and allowed you eyes and brain to put them together the views were AWESOME!  Using both eyes is a very comfortable way to observe.

Friday morning came with overcast skies and rain which would continue on and off all day long and through the night.  Jim and Jenna Forrester, Chris Sarnecki, Doug Nell and I decided that a shower and some sightseeing would fill the day nicely.  So, after breakfast we headed down to Ole Bull State Park and the nearest showers (10 miles south of Cherry Springs).  We had also noted on our map that the “Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania” was only a few miles east of our camp and this seemed like a nice way to spend the day, driving along what was noted on my map as the “west rim” road.  With Jenna riding shotgun and doing a superb job of navigating cross country and over at least one range of the mountains we were in, Chris and Doug dutifully followed in Chris’s SUV and probably wondered if this was such a great idea.  We managed to come out of the forest at the bottom of the south end of the canyon.  There was a nice little restaurant and bar situated over looking Pine Creek (the river that carved the canyon) and it was close enough to lunchtime for us, so we had a nice little meal on the deck before we made our way north along the river.  Now the “West Rim” road showed as a paved road on my map, but we soon found out that my map had some short comings.  Although well maintained, the West Rim road was not paved.  The road cut through some incredible forests of maple, ash, poplar and birch trees, and I kept thinking that this must be an indescribably beautiful place in the fall.  Although the road wound its way along the western rim of the canyon, there were very few places that afforded any view of the canyon below.  However every once in awhile a scenic vista would be cut out of the forest to reveal the grandeur of the canyon and river some 3000 feet below us.  As the afternoon went on the clouds began to thicken and we realized that sky was not going to afford us any views of the stars and planets that night.  So, we drove back to CSSP and stopped by the registration tent to check in and get our door prize raffle tickets.  I took some time before dinner to do a practice run through my talk up at the pavilion, and while I was going through my talk one of the members of the CPO stopped by to see what I was doing.  Richard (I can’t remember his last name) and I talked about comet discoveries and the BFSP.  He mentioned that this year’s original chief organizer backed out rather suddenly and kind of left a lot of things unfinished.  The previous chief organizer had to come in and get the event back on track.  He explained that although they don’t lack volunteers and support, it is always difficult to find the right one person to coordinate and bring everything together.

The rain started to fall around 6:00 pm and lasted all night long.  John Causland decided sometime during the afternoon that the weather was not going to cooperate, so he packed up and left to visit some relatives in Connecticut.  The organizers provided some video tapes and were showing movies in the pavilion that evening, which was a good diversion from the weather.  Perhaps Saturday would bring clear skies.

Saturday started out with rain and overcast skies but the forecast called for clearing by the late afternoon.  Bobby and Joanie G decided not to hang around and packed it in about noon.  I was a guest speaker and I am also an eternal optimist, so leaving wasn’t even a remote possibility for me.  Our little group spent the day browsing through the vendor’s tent and listening to the scheduled talks.  The time came to give my talk and although I was bit nervous and this was evident at the beginning of my talk, I did loosen up and finished well.  I may have over practiced and seemed a little stiff at the beginning.

By mid-afternoon the skies started to open up and after the door prizes were raffled off it was clear and steady.  The temperature was dropping quickly and it was going to hit the dew point very fast.  Despite the start of the day this was going to be an unbelievable night.  Clear (5 of 5), Transparency (5 of 5), Steadiness or Seeing (5 of 5).  Other than the dew forming on the scopes very quickly after 10:00 pm, the sky was crystalline and the sounds of 12 volt hair dryers filled the air as everyone battled to keep their optics dry.  I found myself time after time being pulled away from the eyepiece and just staring naked-eyed at firmament of the night.  The Milky Way stretched from horizon to horizon and was bright enough to cast a shadow.  Throughout the evening meteors streaked across the sky and one was so bright that even with your eye at the scope looking in the opposite direction you knew that it had lit the sky.  By mid-night I had given up on trying to keep the dew off my 12.5” dob and concentrated on the 5” f/6.5 refractor.  The views of Mars were fabulous and both Doug Scobel and I spent a long time drawing the red planet.  Doug was so taken with the clarity of the night that he made two separate drawing several hours apart.  By 3:00 am many of the astronomers had given up on the dew battle and crawled of to the warmth of the sleeping bags.  Saturn was rising and I could not pass up a chance to turn the scope to the ringed jewel.  Saturn never disappoints and while I was sharing my scope’s view of Saturn with Jim Forrester and Gary Perrine, I turned my gaze toward the western horizon and that’s when it happened.  The Milky Way was now traversing the sky from east to west and the meatiest part of it (the Aquilla Rift and Cygnus Star cloud) was illuminating the western sky.  The trees at the edge of the observing field looked like the backlit shadows of the three of us against an infinite screen of stars.  I kept waiting for someone to yell, “Down in front!”  I suddenly felt infinitely small and infinitely large at the same time, I felt somehow changed in a way that I cannot put into words.  I hope that someday all of you find this same kind of feeling in something you love.  Even after I packed up my equipment for the night and crawled into my tent, I sat there on the edge of my cot looking out through my door flap to the west, just trying to savor every last bit of the night.  As the first signs of dawn began to show in the east, I laid my head back and fell deep into restful sleep.  I will remember this night forever.  My wife calls it, “My Astronomical Epiphany.”

Sunday morning came cold and damp from the dew of the night before, and breaking camp was the activity of the day.  By noon Chris, Doug Scobel, Doug Nell and Jim Wadsworth had all packed up and left for Michigan.  Gary and Cy decided to stay one more day, Jim and Jenna would stay an additional night also.  I finally got my stuff dried and packed up shortly after noon and headed home.  I will be back again.


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