1997 Oct 31

On the evening of 31 October, 1997, I took my 5-inch Meade ED refractor to Fremont Peak State Park, near San Juan Bautista, California. Hallowe'en is supposedly not a major holiday, but for the first time in almost twenty years, I had the Peak entirely to myself. No automobiles drove up and down the access road while I was there, and there was no sign of campers. Someone had left lights on in the outbuilding by the southwest parking lot, so I drove to Coulter Camp instead.

The air was warm and quite humid, and sure enough, as I was about to set up, wisps of fog and cloud started enveloping the lights on the radio towers at the very crest of the hill. I watched the fog develop for a while, but after perhaps half an hour, it declined and went away, so I did finally set up.

Although no humans were present, the Peak had its usual share of animal life, with assorted calls, chatters, and cries faintly heard from the dark fields and dense underbrush from time to time. There were some unusually loud branch-breaking noises from the southwest, down the slope from the large paved parking lot at the entrance to "Coulter Row". I started to investigate, thinking it might be deer browsing, but half way there the noise stopped, and so did I. The sounds were pretty loud for deer, and there are wild pigs at the peak. Even though the local strains are said to be pretty benign and perhaps even friendly, I would hate to take one by surprise. So I went back to my car. Then again, on the old Celtic holiday of Samhain, perhaps it was the Wild Hunt. But that I can handle -- no doubt they would all appreciate a look through the telescope.

I began with a bit of Messier hunting. Five inches is enough aperture to show detail in most Messier objects, and all of them are at least visible in my 50 mm finder, so the task was easy. At 92x, M1 showed the familiar "roast chicken" shape of its plasma cloud, M78 appeared a short fat comet with two stars embedded, M79 just hinted of the granularity that sometimes precedes resolution, and M42/3 was wide and glorious, with traces of red and greenish color. I could also see NGC 1973/1975/1977, around 42 Orionis, to the north of M42.

With a big Erfle eyepiece at 36x, I examined the area near zeta Orionis. NGC 2024 was easy, as was smaller NGC 2023, but I could not see the Horsehead. Orion was not far up in the East, so I planned to try again later on. At the same magnification, the Merope nebula in the Pleiades was easy, and I could detect the faint, short, wisp of nebula that heads from Electra toward a point a little north of Merope. Self-deception is easy when looking for faint fuzzies near bright stars, in conditions when dewed optics or atmospheric scattering are likely, but observations of nebulae such as these, that are not symmetric about the star -- as would be the effects of dew or haze -- are convincing.

I started to do some more work on my Herschel-2514 program -- the 5-inch has nearly as much throughput as the Intes 6-inch Maksutov which I have been using for this task. Unfortunately, dew and the return of fog cut short my observations after only four galaxies, and since I had a social engagement the next day, I decided not to try to outwait the fog again.

The Peak is frustrating in such conditions. Only a few miles down the access road, the north side of the hill was clear. Fog was beginning to settle into the flats of the Santa Clara Valley and onto the coastal plain from Santa Cruz to Monterey, but if I had had a good site somewhere part way up the lee side of the coast ranges, I would have been able to observe for many hours in a dark sky, in far better conditions. Perhaps we local observers should do some more site-searching, for locations of particular use in the wet season.

Jay Reynolds Freeman 1997 Nov 3