4th Annual Lassen Star Party

1997 July 3-6

My wife Joan and I arrived at Lassen on Thursday afternoon, July 3. The drive up the east bay freeways and I-5 was nasty and slow with way too much traffic and too few lanes. I was expecting the worst on the 2-lane road from Red Bluff thru the park but it turned out just fine. There was hardly any traffic, the other drivers were being courteous and there were no cops to be seen. That in combination with my unusual inclination to take it slow and enjoy the mountain air made for a very nice drive. We arrived at the Lost Creek campground on the north side of the park with plenty of time to set up the tent, get something to eat and chat for a while before the first night of observing.

The weather was beautiful all weekend. Daytime temperatures in the 80s and 90s (depending on altitude) and nighttime temps only getting down to the mid-40s. (I actually had to *remove* some of my warm clothes my first night at Bumpass Hell!) The first three days the skies were perfectly blue (except for a few tiny clouds that dissitated before sunset). Thursday I was at the Devastated Area site and there was a tiny amount of dew on the cars but none on the scopes. Friday and Saturday at Bumpass Hell were absolutely dry. Sunday had some high cirrus (we left Sunday afternoon so I don't know how the last night was for observing). All in all, you couldn't ask for better weather; the days were warm enough for boating/swimming but not too hot for hiking and the nights were warm enough.

The first night (Thursday), I went with the crowd to Devastated Area at about 6000 feet. There must have been 30 scopes in the little parking lot. But it was fun to see some new faces and different scopes (a 22 inch f/4.2 Dobsonian on an equatorial platform was the star of the show). I was also glad to see at least 4 other Meade LX200s so I didn't have to take the brunt of all the coffee grinder jokes (I did run my scope at its slowest slewing speed which may have helped :)

After a year of hearing about the darkness at Lassen, my expectations were pretty high. It seemed to take forever for the twilight to fade. I tried to hurry it along by looking for Mercury (no luck, western horizon too high). Finally a little after 10pm the Milky Way started to show itself. And what a show! It was better than I've seen in a long, long time. (I stupidly did not do a limiting magnitude count so the best I can say is that I could see 19 UMi, mag 5.5; but I'm sure it was darker than that.) And it was even better the next two nights at Bumpass Hell (elev. 8000). The whole of the Great Rift from Cygnus thru Aquila was obvious; the dim part of the Milky Way in Scorpius was bright and clear; the Pipe Nebula (a large dark spot in the Milky Way between Sag and Sco) was obvious; even the dark lanes separating the Scutum star cloud from the main part of the Milky Way were clearly visible. I spent a lot of time each night just sitting in my chair gawking at the sky. It was simply and amazingly beautiful. Now I know why the Milky Way is sometimes called "the backbone of the night".

Others more organized than I will no doubt comment more on specific objects. For me the highlight of that first night was NGC 6888, the Crescent Nebula in Cygnus. Rod Norden had it in his 18" Obsession and was showing it to all comers. Wow! It was pretty nice in my 12", too. But the highlight of the evening was M 17 (the Omega, Swan, Horseshoe, or Lobster Nebula). I had never been able to see why it is called "Swan" but Joan picked it right out. Then it was obvious to me (I had had it upside-down). Joan gave me a UHC filter for Christmas last year so I was intent on showing her how it worked. But the sky was so dark and beautiful that it didn't help nearly as much as it does at Fremont Peak. Anyway, the highlight of the night was the Veil. There were faint tendrils and streamers all over the place. Filters, smilters; don't need no stinkin filters! This is the way astronomy is supposed to be!

(The seeing was not excellent, however. Just before packing up I decided to kill my night vision with a peek at Jupiter. It was literally so bright that it hurt. But there wasn't as much detail visible as I've seen in the past. The theory going around the next day was that the wind blowing over Lassen Peak and down over Devastated Area messes up the seeing.)

Friday, Joan and I took a little hike up near the summit to Terrace and Shadow lakes. It was very nice, warm but not too hot, a little snow to walk over but not so much as to be a problem, not too many people. The only problem was that you go down first so the hard part is coming back. Later, we heard the good news about Mars Pathfinder while eating our picnic lunch at Summit Lake. This was turning into a pretty good trip!

Friday's potluck dinner came off well: lots of good food, cheerful friendly folks to chat with and many hands making light work. Mark and Pat deserve a lot of credit for organizing it so well. The only downer was that I ate so much I had to take a nap afterward. Such a tough life!

Since it was so nice and warm Thursday night, I decided to try the dreaded Bumpass Hell (8000 ft) on Friday night. I was ready with two sweatshirts, down vest, double gloves, hat, winter expedition jacket and ski suit. There was a little breeze just after sunset that threatened a bitter night. So, thinking it is better to stay warm that to try to get warm, I suited up early. Wrong! By 10:30 the wind had stopped and by 11pm I was too hot. Off came most of the winter gear. I was comfortable for the rest of the evening with just the ski suit (halfway unzipped). The temperature got down to only about 45 by the time I left at about 3am (it was actually a little colder at Devastated Area according to the thermometer in my car). And there were no mosquitos. I'm sensitive to the little bloodsucking bastards. At Devastated I was forced to use some repelant (which is nearly but not quite as bad as the mosquitos themselves) but at Bumpass there was no problem at all.

There were only 5 other astronomers at Bumpass that night. Fortunately for me, one of them was Jay Freeman. I shared my scope with him for a while and he shared his expertise. He found a number of interesting fields with many faint galaxies and helped me to see them, too. It is simply amazing how much more one can see with a little practice and coaching. Otherwise, I was just bouncing around the sky more or less at random. While Jay was studying the nearly invisible faint fuzzies I would sit and marvel at the Milky Way. It was such a feast for the eyes that an organized program seemed wasteful.

Rod Norden was one of the others at Bumpass that night. His big 18 inch Dob saw (and my Powerbook with Starry Night verified) all four of Uranus's bright moons (Oberon, Titania, Ariel and Umbriel). They were almost too easy with the wonderfully transparent sky and the big scope.

By about 2am everyone else had left and I was alone with the mountain and the sky. Saturn was high enough to be seen well and (as usual) it captured me. I spent the better part of an hour just gazing at that fabulous world. Cassini's division was obvious, a little nick off the back of the rings where the planet's shadow falls on the rings was visible, too. I counted five moons easily but I was too captivated by the sight to bother with the computer to figure out which was which. By this time the seeing was pretty good; probably not as good as the best I've seen but close. It was with great difficulty that I tore myself away.

Saturday night was equally warm (well, OK, not warm but not really cold either). As I approached Devastated Area, the site of the big public star party, I saw the parking lot almost overflowing with scopes and figured that one more coffee grinder was not needed and headed up to Bumpass Hell again. This time Joan was with me. By sunset the parking lot was empty and we had the mountain to ourselves. We spent most of the evening looking at easy stuff and just marveling at the Milky Way.

And oh how I love that mountain air! Each breath is a joy. Never mind the astronomical benefits, it just feels so good to get the pollution out of my lungs! The only problem is having to come home :-((

Joan and I took the hike to the real Bumpass Hell on Sunday morning. It's an easy 3 hour round trip along the ridge to the east of the viewing area. At the end is a little bit of Yellowstone. Very stinky but interesting with numbered posts and an interpretive booklet.

We decided to come home Sunday afternoon. We had had three days of hiking the lakes and meadows and clean mountain air and three nights of wonderful viewing. The sky was looking a little less than perfect and I was so tired that I couldn't keep my eyes open to read my book. So it seemed best to end on a high note. It was a close to perfect weekend.

Altogether, I made the 1/2 hour (one way) trip from Bumpass Hell to the Lost Creek camp a total of five times. If it had been from home to Skyline it would have been a major drag. But Lassen is such a nice drive that even in the dead of night and very tired I enjoyed it all the way. This is the way driving is supposed to be!

Sadly on the way out, we spotted one of our number parked by the side of the road next to a big ugly cop car with lights ablaze. Another perfect weekend ruined by California's finest. All I could think was, "there but for the grace of God go I".

The rest of our trip home was uneventful, if a bit slow and boring. It was good to be home but I'll never really be happy in a city.

Bill Arnett; last updated: 1997 Jul 7