University Lowbrow Astronomers


by John Causland
Printed in Reflections: September, 2007.

The first thing you need to know about northern Michigan is that it’s within a hair of being as dark as darkest Arizona!

Yasu and Yumi have been trying to convince us now for the last 2 summers that we really ought to get our duffs up and off of Peach Mtn., or even Lake Hudson, once in a while and try observing not so far north. Though “new” to observing, our 2 asian transplants have scoured the state searching out campgrounds to observe from. I have personally had the privilege of using their Michigan county map book and reeled in shock at the endless numbers of highlighted roads that they have traveled in the northern tier of southern Michigan!

Yasu knows the campgrounds by heart and, out of them, has ferreted out only ONE that is really appropriate for observing. But, Tomahawk Creek Flooding is phenomenal! Yasu escorted me there the second weekend of August. In addition, we scouted out a few more campgrounds he hadn’t seen, and I got a firsthand look at why 98% of all campgrounds don’t work for a Lowbrow’s night’s pleasure. Invariably, they’re all treed in! And Yasu and Yumi have seen practically all of them! There are many campsites around Tomahawk, but some few give horizons matching at least what we get from the observing area near the radio telescopes at Peach, and about as much area. We could easily hold a good size star party there, as Yasu is rather intent on organizing eventually. Additional campsites and observing areas are just adjacent. Though outhouses are the only amenities a few yards away.

Tomahawk lake is quite large, about 10 miles south of Onaway and 15 miles north of Atlanta on Route 33. The quickest way to get there is straight up 75 for 140 miles and then another 90 straight north on Rte. 33. The 230 miles is doable within 4 hours of reasonable driving conditions. My first experience found us arriving at 9:15 with darkness descending. By 11, we were set to camp and observing. Not having gone to Black Forest in 2006 when Lowbrows had to make due with Messiers between the lightning bolts thru Yasu’s binocs, it had been 2 summers since I’d had DARK sky. The ever popular objects we always “resort” to became my sole targets, as they seemed like a different class of objects altogether with their splendor revealed. I will only mention the unforgettable double dark lanes in M31, Andromeda, and the sweep of light extending out to M32! Using the Sky Quality meter, we got a 21.70 reading, within spitting distance of the 21.79 I’d gotten on the rim of the Grand Canyon. By comparison, Leslie Park is 19.5, my driveway is 20.0, Peach is 20.5, Clayton’s 20.7, and Lake Hudson 20.9. The dark sky topo maps of northern Michigan use the same system of measurement and no wonder, then, that the skies are rated at about 21.7 (dark gray) for the area largely above Mio and east. Just to note, we got ever so slightly darker readings on the shore of Lake Superior in a brief observing session in 06 after canoeing the Two Hearted River in the UP.

By 4 am, we were zonked. The next day we explored campgrounds and found that 5 miles north of Onaway, a huge campground provided showers, only 20 minutes from Tomahawk. And a really good restaurant for a very small town. Unfortunately, the weather went south for the second night and we headed back home.

And then, there was the following weekend of mid August.

What do you do when obsessive observing is now in your blood, even temporarily, and Peach is rained out?

Head north. Really north! With the new moon just barely in evidence, I felt possessed by thoughts of going back up north again for 2 days this weekend, and extend what Yasu and I had begun the previous week at Tomahawk Creek Flooding. But, Yasu wasn’t available, the Lowbrow mtg was Friday night and Krishna Rao expressed some real interest in going too, but only for one night.

So, Krishna and I jumped aboard the red Albireo brother’s Aztek (Kingfish has the grey one) and hauled the 61 and the 14 up north Saturday at noon. With Friday traffic behind us, we assumed a quick trip to Tomahawk with an early arrival. But, what we got was an immediate traffic jam/stop on 23 north of Ann Arbor and snaked our way up to Brighton via dirt roads. The “partly cloudy” sky didn’t budge from mostly cloudy the entire trip north, and we regularly wondered what possessed us to go! And we recalled the various web sites promises of mostly clear skies in Onaway, over and over. Onaway, we’ve got to get to Tomahawk Creek Flooding.

Ok, with most of the 90 miles up Rt. 33 behind us and Tomahawk Creek Flooding dead ahead (230 from AA) what we’ve gotten depressingly used to seeing, in fact, was heavy clouds above us, as usual, but now a precise line of absolutely blue sky lies just ahead, but just not at Tomahawk! Since Krishna hadn’t seen Yasu’s dark sky gold mine yet, we veered off the road just long enough to prove to Krishna that the promised land existed and then quickly decided that since we couldn’t know if the clouds would settle southwards, that we MUST continue north. But where???

With Krishna’s copiloting and a new, more detailed map of campgrounds, we first headed up the remaining 10 miles north ot Onaway, and sure enough, the blue sky line was more or less above us. Vindicate the weather services. On to the west for some campground scouting, but heck it’s only 6 pm and we have hours to go before dark. There must be somewhere to go... or so we figured. Even though Yasu had learned months ago the hard way that campgrounds of any kind are invariably treed in.

Our first foray and a lost half hour took us onto a sand trail in search of a trail camp. After kissing wheels with a horse trailer passing us, we gave up, as the sand deepened. Try two, another 20 miles north of Onaway, and we’re at Aloha for another lost half hour. 300 campsites, but, but, but, a big parking area for boat trailers, away from the campsites. We really debated this one, but with the clouds pushing in on us, only 20 miles north of Tomahawk, we reluctantly moved on. This forced us past Cheboygan onto the Huron coastline on 23. Heading northwest now, the sky really is clear! Yes! And our next site to check is a small private site, Roberts Landing, on the lake. Just a couple dozen, mostly unoccupied permanent looking trailers, and practically no one to be seen, and no one to take our money. But look at that HUGE lakefront lawn (twice the size of “the Hill” by the radio dishes) with no obstructions!!! And look at those mercury vapor globes along the small roadways. Eeek. So, reluctantly, we cosntinue on down the road to within a couple of miles of Mackinaw City, and stop at Mill Creek campground. 300 more campsites and they guarantee us they have lots of lights to “protect the children” and no open field spaces. They won’t let us even drive in to look!

It’s now 8:30 and we’re frigging desperate! Do we do a banzai run for some campsites just over the Mackinac Bridge in the UP with no hope of setting up? Or, and this we do, go back down the road to the place we just left, Roberts Landing, with sparse trailers and globe lights and beg and plead to stay. Back we go and some very few campers, a family, tell us that, yes, the best of all sites down by the lake are rented to tenters periodically and assure us, the woman who owns the place might well let us stay. We’re directed to the oldest of the permanent trailers, and Pastor Hooker, a sweet retired old guy and his wife, look us in the eye, and smile and say go right ahead, they’ll take responsibility for letting us stay. Yee Haaaa! We’ve arrived and it’s about 9 pm. About the globe lights, only a couple come on and rather dimly. We later cover the only one that affects us with a blanket. This is vastly better than any state campground and god knows how anyone really gets permission to camp here, as it feels like you’ve invaded some extended family campground, where only word of mouth could ever get you in.

We begin setting up camp and scopes and are quickly joined by 3 of the camper family group, we make conversation and help bolt together the 61. The 14 goes together fast with a few recent mods, and Krishna shows them some sights while I vainly struggle with the 61, finally realizing a screw fell out of one of the secondary vanes, and the assembly is looser than a goose. By 11 pm, we’re happy campers/observers. The sky is clear and dark, but the transparency isn’t as good as it looks it should be. Periodically, the Sky Quality Meter comes out and we get a consistent 21.45 compared to 21.70 at Tomahawk, but this place really is dark though only 10 miles from Mackinac. The double dark lanes in M31 appear but not as distinctly as the week before with Yasu. This is true for most objects, but heck, this place is more than as much darker than Lake Hudson is to Peach by the meter numbers. Krishna’s pretty thrilled with views in the 14 and the 61 teases out some good details. But, the dew thickens finally creaming the 14 altogether, dew shield left behind. We struggle with this all night and by 4 am, most of every horizon is dark as can be, but no stars can be seen. The zenith is still clear—we have seen stars and we gratefully crash.

4 hours later, Krishna is up and ready to bolt south. Our closest “neighbor” has heard us stirring and comes over with a full pot of coffee!! At 9 am, the sun has burned off the fog, and we’re on the road. As we get to Gaylord, the blue sky has long disappeared, the heavy clouds are back and light rain follows all the way back and by 1:30 we’re in Ann Arbor.

OK, 2 weekends in a row, one nighters under really really dark sky, 250 plus miles up and back on back to back days.

Would we do this again? You betcha. We KNEW stars could be found up north. And our mutual good company made the extra 3 hours drive meandering to Mackinac a fun, decision filled adventure. Here’s the best part: When we left the campground, the owner still wasn’t around. So we later called her and thanked her for her tenant’s tacit agreement to let us stay mentioning how we enjoyed her regular year in and year out campers who came over to see the stars. They must have told her of us, and as hung up, she said that the next time we come up north—if she’s not around, that we should just “make ourselves at home!” Hey, there’s room on that lakefront for two dozen Lowbrows. So, we now have an alternative to Tomahawk if ever need be!

Photo Credits

Images provided by Yasuharu Inugi & John Causland


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