Return to Spruce Knob (2014)

My wife and I spent from September 24 to 28 in Canaan Valley, WV with buddies and their spouses from the ChesMont Astronomical Society. I’ve made this trip with them for the past 6 years and each one has been an adventure of varying degrees. Unexpected snowstorms, strong winds, heavy fog, complete cloud-outs and spectacular skies on consecutive nights have all figured into these escapades over the years whose highpoint occurs after the one hour drive from our hotel up to Spruce Knob on Spruce Mountain.  It’s a yearly Fall trip I look forward to almost as much as my annual Spring rendezvous with NEAF, albeit for different reasons.

Wednesday and Thursday (9/24 & 25) were largely cloud outs with unfavorable forecasts, sufficient to take a pass on setting up for observing at the dark hotel parking lot or local Wild Life Refuge but there was plenty to do. With the Leaf Peepers Festival’s Octoberfest, a Car Show, one of the hotels hosting a BBQ with a shootout on horseback, ski-lift rides, horseback riding, trap shooting or hiking trails to beautiful vistas you can fill your day pretty quickly while waiting for clear skies.

Friday the 26th was a gorgeous mostly sunny day with bright white clouds passing constantly overhead against bright blue. The entire party took to studying the weather websites and animated satellite maps trying to get a handle on what the next two nights might hold for us. Heavy fog was forecast but we decided that Spruce Mountain, with its near 5000’ in altitude, was probably far enough above the forecast models to chance taking the drive to “The Knob.” We were right and were greeted with cloudless skies all Friday night and into the dawn hours. Eight observers with 13 telescopes made the drive up the mountain. Yep, many of us doubled up on our scope baggage to take advantage of as many alternative views as possible. Along with my 18” f/4.3 Dob I brought my 80mm f/6.1 apo refractor. Once again, as with a previous year’s visit, there was no wind and mild, not too cold temperatures, making the night’s observing a memorable experience. Some years, the winds were so strong that we had to cut the observing night short. Many of the trees are “flag-formed”, stripped on one side of needles and branches due to high westerly winds. Regardless of conditions, every time I go to Spruce Knob I get lost in that supremely dark sky teeming with stars. A rich, thick Milky Way arches from horizon to horizon, accented by that huge dark rift giving it, almost, a sense of 3 dimensions. Even on lesser nights where atmospherics are issues, one can enjoy no light domes whatsoever and a low tree line around most of the parking area making almost any sky catalog object ripe for picking. Just for kicks I disengaged the clutches of my 18” scope and pushed the scope manually, aiming it without use of the Telrad or any device other than my eyes and not by sighting down the side of the scope either. I stood next to it looking up and just pushed the scope to where I easily saw the Double Cluster resting between Cassiopeia and Perseus as a bright standout of a cluster of stars, not a brighter cloudy patch as at lesser sites, but of actual stars. Looking into the 31mm Nagler in the focuser I found I landed just about dead on it. Vividly spread across the 1° field of view, its colorful red giants were accompanied by dozens of stars of varied brilliances. With my 80mm and a 20mm 100° eyepiece, which displayed more than a 4° true field of view, a bejeweled swath of sky hit my observing eye like no 80mm scope has a right to claim.  After some time admiring the view I thought, “Enough of that.” I engaged the 18 incher’s clutches and began harvesting my Summer and Fall favorites using my ArgoNavis and ServoCat to get me where I wanted to go ASAP. M13 was overwhelming and far from what I’ve seen even in the best photographs which wash out the core. Here, the globular’s stars were well-focused pinpoints down to the bright, enormously dense, central core. I pushed magnification on this as far as I could before the image was empty with magnification, and then backed down to wallow in its wondrous sprawl.   Many of the objects I visited were repeats from the previous week’s Stargaze but every view was like seeing them anew. All were brighter, with easier definition of dark lanes in galaxies. Hickson galaxy groups amassed in the eyepiece more easily, merging and interacting Arp galaxies gracefully appeared to drift in interstellar space. Comet C/2014E2 Jacques was still very visible at 9.4mag, situated high among the stars of Aquila with a sublime star-like core. The night was a complete success and everyone was pleased with the decision to go.

The next night, the eve before the long drive home, we went to observe at Dolly Sods (the Milky Way pictures in the accompanying collage were taken at Dolly Sods) but I couldn’t stay. The ground was too uneven and rocky for my ailing knee and I didn’t want to chance making it worse, so I returned to the hotel but not before unavoidably driving over a skunk that was dining on some road kill. I’ll spare you the details of what ensued and the grief I caught at breakfast the next morning from others in the party who drove the same road back to the hotel much later than I. Well, I did say that it’s an adventure of varying degrees. Nonetheless, I’m looking forward to next year…very much.

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