University Lowbrow Astronomers

Up North Observing—Part II.

by John Causland
Printed in Reflections: June, 2008.

John and Yasu

Yasu and Yumi (the intrepid anytime camper astronomers) and I decided rather spontaneously, and certainly serendipitously to drive up north for the Memorial Day weekend. We were running on pure intuition. The moon was to rise around 1 a.m., but the sky conditions were predicted to be great.

It’s the first trip of the year, no time to plan, and I can’t find my tent! But Yumi and Yasu must have extras of everything. It’s the crazy Memorial Day weekend and was not leaving until 3:45 pm with the need to combine all our gear together in the Aztek. “Lightnin’, Mike Radwick, calls about 2:30 to say he really wanted to come, but couldn’t convince himself to do it, what with Memorial Day traffic. I do must my best to guilt him out of his fear. But he also does encourage us to drive up 127 and avoid the Zilwaukee bridge construction. This did add at least 60 miles, and it took us 5 hours with no dinner break, but it made for a leisurely, no stress trip.

Several months ago, Lowbrows received an open invite to Beth Kingsley’s cabin south of Atlanta right on M65, and given our late start, Yasu and I agree, (as we most always do!), to skip Tomahawk tonight and go straight to Beth’s, a shorter ride by 30 miles. This was also fortuitous, as we found the next day that our favorite Tomahawk site was filled with several cars. We surprised Beth at 8:45 p.m. as her friend and kids made somemores on the bonfire. We walked back a half block on a 2 track between hay fields as the sky dimmed. An ungrown hay field was back just far enough to get us away a little from the lights of M65. We quickly realized that the cross road, Beaver Lake Pond Rd. brought headlights pointing straight at us across the field, so we parked the trailer across the 2 track to block them. But, over the hours, the lights and roar of passing trucks never ceased.

But, the sky was DARK. 21.75-21.79 on the Sky Quality Meter! This compares to 21.65 at Black Forest and 21.8 in the U.P. The structure in M101 and M51 was incredible! What a site. Better than any photo to an observer’s eye. The moon rose at 12:30, but it didn’t matter with Dark and Dry. We put the Denkmeier binocular viewer in and looked at a slew of globulars. They didn’t seem to dim at all with the rising moon. By 2:45, we were in our sleeping bags listening to the passing trucks, all packed up and ready to go in the a.m. We’d had some incredible views, but the ambiance at Tomahawk is better.

As we headed to Tomahawk, our hungry stomachs forced us to stop in Atlanta’s 2 block long downtown at DeJay’s for breakfast. As we left, walking across the street, I felt impelled to suggest that we wander over to the “cookout” in front of a realty company celebrating their becoming a Cabela’s Trophy Properties agency, and, just for fun, tell them that we’d long been considering finding land to buy to do astronomy. We surprise a realtor out front with our tongue in cheek story, telling him we were looking for land nobody else would want, small cabin, no land, but surrounded by fields, no trees, and no water.

The realtors were all quickly taken with our story of how dark the skies were as we showed them Kingfish’s dark sky topo map of Michigan and the Eastern seaboard. The agency head, Mike, intently absorbed our story of search for dark sky, and within minutes, he and his partner, Diane, joined heads and suggested we come to their place that night to set up camp! What a total surprise. Mike drove us out to their place, 7 miles west and there we found ourselves coming up on rolling hills, their house as others on land previously farmed, no trees, and all good horizon.

Sheep looking through John's Trailer

In wonder at our good fortune, we wander around the house, outbuildings and pasture, but notice the mercury vapor lamps on nearby houses. The closest neighbor wasn’t home, so we decided to set up in a closed in area that would block off the light offenders. A very odd location indeed. Half surrounded by low farm buildings and a sheep pen! But our intuitions said “do it!” This was an opportunity not to be missed. And Mike insisted we could stay in the house! They had a big bunk room with several beds. On the way back, we find a real camaraderie with Mike on several levels. He was not one to miss an opportunity that the universe would provide him. Incredible. And he even suggested we come back later for dinner.

With hours yet left in the afternoon, Yumi and I drop Yasu off at the Atlanta beach side park to nap, while we drive 15 miles north to Tomahawk, with no good reason really, since we were committed to Mike and Diane’s. But, we did find that our special Tomahawk site was taken, as with all other sites on nearby site circles. So, Yumi and I drove to the other 4 big site areas at Tomahawk and discovered that not quite all sites were taken. But the big discovery was that one area had another big open field that would be fine for numerous scopes and the sites were open! Yasu must not have explored this one earlier!!! So, now we had 2 possible Tomahawk locations!

We returned to pick up Yasu and tell him the news that his site was taken, but we’d found another one for future use, and head back to Mike’s, at the corner of Secrist and Maneer. (Check Google maps.) I go jogging and their little Yorkie follows me for a half mile. As she wouldn’t turn back with me, I pick her up and, for the first time in my life, I jog for 3 blocks back with a dog cradled under one arm....

Observing Field

Mike, a former butcher, makes us a steak dinner—just like being part of the family! As we set up, Mike says the mosquitoes just yesterday hatched en masse. He spray fogs the perimeter of our area and we’re not bothered the rest of the night. But the grass here is very short, mowed down by the sheep. The previous night’s horde of mosquitoes had even filled up our car, and they were had to get rid of the next a.m.! Here, no such problem. That’s hay vs. sheep chewed stubble for ya. Who’d a thunk sheep would be an advantage for observing.

Soon after dark, quite a group of folks had arrived for a spontaneous star party of 30. These folks all loved this opportunity! And the dark sky objects surprised even us! The enthusiasm here may even one up Peach Mtn! The Sky Quality Meter again hits 21.77!

By midnight, most are gone and we leisurely chat and observe with Diane and a friend or two. Mike has to be up at 5 a.m. to serve breakfast at the Hunt Club! He’s quite a cook. One of Mike’s realty associates, Dorothy, in the afternoon, spoke of getting us onto the “hunt club” (20,000 acres!) site for a star party sometime. That night, she was sure of it. What opportunities were opening up for all us Lowbrows!

The sky had begun to fill with streaks of clouds and we packed up again this night at 2 a.m. Thankfully to sleep in a bed! In the a.m., Diane makes us a big farm breakfast of fresh eggs from the coop and her step father, Roger, joins us. Roger remembers a star party going on years ago. We quiz him about it, and it was SMURFs, only 10 miles east on Pleasant Valley Rd. owned by a guy who since passed on.

On the way back, we look at a house or two for sale, hopeless cases. And we visit Camp Michiluca, Brian Ottum’s vacation getaway. A Lutheran camp. It’s practically deserted and we drive all it’s circles and talk to the care taker and note that it’s 2 possible observing fields have somewhat limited horizons but could be pretty good anyway. But Mike and Diane’s is clearly the best find! And at the moment at least, we have a standing invitation to come back anytime. Ready to go?

Yes, there will be a Part III installment to this Up North Observing adventure!


Remember “shooting stars” can be very dangerous, so keep moving and remember to “duck!”

Photo Credits

All photos on this page taken by John Causland.


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This page originally appeared in Reflections of the University Lowbrow Astronomers (the club newsletter).
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