Star Party: Lost & Found

I had never heard of a “star party” before.

I had just renewed a childhood interest in viewing the night sky back in the early 1990’s, and had recently bought an old used 4.5 inch Tasco newtonian reflector from the second hand store. It was my second time viewing with a few people from the Vancouver Center RASC at the now light polluted Aldergrove Park. I hadn’t ever viewed through telescopes the likes of C8’s and C11’s that my fellow observers had, and the objects my new friends were showing me blew the socks right off my feet! I kept saying “OMG!” object after object, and I knew that my childhood fire for exploring the heavens with a telescope was again re-stoked.

My new observing buddies, Frank, Steve, & Mike, laughed at my excited outbursts and said: “You should go to a star party! There’s one coming up later this summer you know. You’d love it!”. “A WHAT?”, I replied. What on earth did movie stars have to do with astronomy I wondered..? “It’s a place where people gather with their telescopes for a week on a mountain named Mount Kobau near Osoyoos, BC, where the sky is really dark. You can see deep sky objects up there you’ll never see near the city! They hold astronomy talks given by different amateurs and sometimes even professionals. There are even a few people that will come from all over North America. You’ll see some pretty big scopes up there too!” explained Frank and Steve. “Woah!” I responded excitedly at this new discovery, this sounded too good to be true! All fired up with excitement, I returned home that night and convinced my wife that we should try to go camping with a group of telescope enthusiasts that summer.

With August came the Perseid meteor shower, and it was time to go to our very first star party. Securing 2 very young sons into their child-protective car seats, we over-packed our 4 door Corolla with our small telescope and camping gear. Our tiny little car sagged almost to the ground, with little clearance left between the road and the undercarriage. We left Vancouver late Friday afternoon, bottoming out in a cloud of dust – not for the last time on that epic journey – as we pulled out of the driveway. With our only directions to the Star Party being that which we found listed in the back pages of Astronomy Magazine, I had decided before leaving to call Frank one last time to try to get more precise instructions on which road I should take, but I was just a little too excited to make much sense of what he tried communicating…

Not having adequate maps or directions to the Mt. Kobau Star Party in hand, the ’3 hour tour’ that began at 5PM quickly became an exercise in rural & wilderness back-roads exploration. “We’re lost!”, exclaimed my wife Kelly in frustration, as we turned off of yet another lonely gravel road into the night, our tiny headlights struggling to do there best to illuminate the endless highway. “You’re never lost”, I assured her, at 11PM, “you’re just out exploring the neighborhood”. I was trying keep things upbeat, but after 6 hrs. of driving, over half of which were spent getting beaten up ’exploring’ desert back-roads (many little better than cattle trails), we were pretty much spent.

The stars beckoned brightly above the distant, mountain-silhouetted skyline as we coasted reluctantly over the crest of Richter Pass and downhill into the black void of this seemingly endless journey. The view through the cars front window looked like we were driving our little Corolla ’spaceship’ straight on into the heavens. We knew right then & there that it was time to pull over and stop driving, because if we didn’t, we surely were going to drive straight on into heaven. I decided it was time to find the first pullover and sleep there for the night, making a fresh, safe start in the morning.

No sooner than when that wise decision had been made, a desolate looking dirt road appeared off to the left of the highway, with a cattle guard spanning the mouth of it between some decrepit looking old wooden posts on either side. By now we felt much as they looked: tired and frustrated, sagging from the stoic, thankless burden of holding up rusty old barbed-wire fencing among the sweet grass and sagebrush, whose only purpose of existence was to keep out the cattle. Attached to the top of one post was a large, square piece of black painted plywood, with what looked like a large white blob of paint that had been perfectly splattered into it’s center. What the..? We immediately pulled over…

We gave our tired eyes a good rub and tried to focus. “Is that M13, the giant globular cluster??” I asked, quite perplexed. “How odd!” No one had said anything about any signs, and it didn’t have any words on it, but surely, this was a globular cluster we were staring at. Or it was someone’s idea of astronomical graffiti. Either way, the sign being here in the middle of nowhere made no other sense. This had to be the turn off. “Ooooh! It’s like some cryptic symbol on a sign to a meeting of some kind of secret society!”, I exclaimed excitedly to Kelly. Reinvigorated with new hope, we sped hurriedly up the road to continue our bumpy, dusty trek to find this elusive ’star party’.

The stars looked simply nothing shy of amazing, (’amazing’ being the most overused expletive in my 4 word list of observational descriptives, sharing equal over-usage with ’OMG!’, ’far out!’, and ’look at that!’) as we bumped & banged along for another hour up the dusty, hard-pan gravel road. We were so dazzled by their numbers & brilliance that several times I almost drove our little ’spaceship’ right over the edge of the mountain. As we took the car out of warp drive, finally deciding for the second (and final) time to pull over & sleep, a dim white object appeared out of the darkness, slightly beyond the limit of our headlights. We wearily pulled up and over to a very large white sign with bold red lettering on it. It read: ABSOLUTELY NO WHITE LIGHTS PERMITTED BEYOND THIS POINT. RED LIGHTS ONLY! TELESCOPES AND DUST DON’T MIX! SPEED LIMIT UNDER 15 KM/HR! It was stated with such authority! “Who are these guys?”, we wondered out loud. They must be very serious about their stargazing indeed. “Wooohoooo!” went the cheer in the car, we had finally found it!

Seeing no other vehicles, no people, & too tired to pitch a tent, we tossed a tarp on the ground and readied our sleeping bags beside “the little Corolla that could”. Our 2 boys were still sound asleep, tucked safely into their car seats for the night. We stood there quietly unwinding for a moment, taking it all in. The desert mountain smelled thickly of ponderosa pine, douglas fir & sage, like a strong incense permeating the still, warm air of a midsummer’s night. We couldn’t help but be awestruck by the incredible number of stars we were actually able to see in a very dark sky. The milky way highway was glowing brightly with millions of stellar wanderers, slowly traveling along through time & space around its enormous galactic center, only to disappear abruptly below the black edge of our once-considered, flat-earth horizon. Patches of nebulosity only guessed at in town came vividly to life, scattered among uncountable stars, peppering our fishbowl-like, almost 180 degree field of view at the top of the world. Our heads swam and our hearts swooned. We inhaled slowly and deeply, savoring every aspect of being alive in that singular, eternal moment. It was just us, the stars, and the soft chorus of crickets whispering in the silence of the mountain night.

“Did you hear that?!?”, asked Kelly. “I thought I heard some soft voices just up the road.” We stood there feeling a little scared, our ears cocked, listening intently. Now I could hear them too. “Let’s go up and investigate, someone must still be awake!” The voices grew louder as we made our way without a flashlight through the darkness. We could make out perhaps 5 or 6 people speaking very softly. You could see their silhouettes against the bright southern milky way, along with what appeared to be the biggest darn telescopes I personally had ever seen. We tossed out a timid “hello..?” in the general direction of the soft voiced strangers that lurked among the giant dark tubes pointed at the sky. A friendly communal “Hello there!” was tossed back in response. “Is this the star party..?” we asked, whispering a little less timidly this time. “It sure is!” came the firm response. “Congratulations, you’ve found it!” they chuckled with warm laughter. Friendly handshakes and introductions were made with these no-longer-strangers-of-the-night, and a lively discussion ensued. We retold our long tale of getting lost on the trail in search of the star party, then tried to excuse our exhausted and punch-drunk selves to some badly needed sleep.

But these gentle folk were having none of it, and starting near the constellation Sagittarius in the southern milky way, thus began a personally guided, educational telescopic tour of celestial delights & wonders that can only be found in a truly dark sky. The ensuing competition between them to show us their favorite deep sky objects was fierce. With 4 telescopes to choose from, they served up a heavenly smörgåsbord of galaxies, nebulae, star clusters, planetary nebulae & globular clusters in a frenzied whirlwind, much like good Samaritans trying to freely dish out hot vittles to the homeless & hungry souls you’ll find lined up at the local soup kitchen on a cold winters day. They shared their knowledge of what we were viewing and explained the science in a manner that even a simple professional driver like me could understand. No condescension was to be found here, just a passionate, egalitarian sharing of their knowledge. The welcome, the sharing, and the hospitality we enjoyed, unexpectedly offered up generously by complete strangers, on a wilderness mountain road, in the middle of nowhere, was simply astonishing. Kelly & I felt completely satiated, our spirits renewed and overflowing from this soul-moving, five-star cosmic feast. It was a day of days and a night of nights to remember – our very first star party. We expressed our heartfelt gratitude, saying goodnight to our wonderful new friends, with promises of the next evening’s grand show. We were nothing less than completely blown away, even if it was only 6 people, plus ourselves…

We began making our way down the road again, with only the light of the milky way to guide us back to our car. Unknown to us, there were also 225 other people attending that star party too, camped beyond us somewhere up the road, further on, hidden away from us on the mountain. We had incorrectly understood that the star party consisted only of just our little group. Suddenly, like a large crack tearing through the heavens, an extremely bright Perseid meteor split the black sky right down the middle, lighting up the ground, blinding us briefly with intense white light. Kelly and I ducked instinctively and hollered, uncontrollably yelling out a huge “WHOA!”. And like a crowd roaring for the home team’s winning touchdown at a college football game, so too, at exactly the same moment, did 225 other people ’erupt’ in a loud cheer from somewhere on the mountain! We were so shocked and surprised by this incredible revelation that we laughed out loud at ourselves, shivering with goose-bumps. With the exception of several times observing with a few members of the Vancouver RASC, I had not met many people at all in my life who shared my vocal degree of passion for viewing celestial phenomena. Here they were, all gathered together somewhere on the mountain, cheering unabashedly with unbridled excitement over a simple falling star, singing the praises of the heavens themselves. I found myself wiping away a couple of tears from unexpectedly misty eyes. Wow, I thought to myself quietly, these folks are just like me. I had finally found my tribe. I was among true friends.

If you have never been to a ’star party’ before, I would strongly encourage you to seek one out & participate in the experience. I guarantee you will not be disappointed.

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