Eden Valley Guest Ranch hosts group displaced by 2012 fire
OROVILLE – Amateur astronomers tend to be a hardy bunch, rolling their telescopes into the night when more sane folk are tucked away in their beds.
So when the site of the annual Table Mountain Star Party burned during last fall’s wildfire in the mountains between Ellensburg and Wenatchee, there was no question as to whether or not there would be a 2013 edition of one of the nation’s foremost gatherings of stargazers.
The only question was, where?
An exhaustive search of dark, high-altitude, dry-climate sites throughout Eastern Washington brought TMSP organizers onto the grounds of the Eden Valley Guest Ranch, 10 miles east of Oroville, where about 300 night-sky denizens and their telescopes gathered for four days last week.
With activities winding down on Saturday afternoon, both TMSP Chairman Thom Jenkins and Eden Valley proprietors Robin and Patrick Stice all seemed more than pleased with how the transplanted event translated to new grounds.
“These guys have been wonderful,” Robin Stice said. “They’ve been very courteous, very eager to explain how their (telescope) systems work.
“I was so excited, I couldn’t contain myself. I was just so honored they selected us… These guys, the layout (of tents, RVs, telescopes, vendors, food) … They’ve done this enough they’re very clever. They know how to use the space and how to protect the land because they’ve worked with the Forest Service (at Table Mountain).”
The new location meant a smaller event than in recent years (which averaged between 550 and 700 attendees), partly because of the increased travel for most, and partly because space was more limited than at the Table Mountain site. But Jenkins said Eden Valley had a number of advantages, including a darker sky.
“Our site near Ellensburg is about twice the elevation,” he said. “But there we have sky glow from Ellensburg, Wenatchee and Yakima. It’s dark here, very dark. We don’t have the elevation advantage but the dark skies more than make up for it.”
What that means to the uninitiated, well, that takes some explaining.
What’s a star party?
First off, most astronomer-types do not like being confused with astrologers. So asking a TMSP goer what their “sign” is would be a big faux pas. But the biggest no-no of all is turning on a light after dark (unless it is red, in the traditional darkroom style). Allowing the eyes to stay adapted to the darkness is sacrosanct, and red light doesn’t ruin one’s night vision the way a regular flashlight would.
More than anything, the amateur astronomer craves photons of light, and not from the lamp across the road or the headlights of the neighbor’s car. When it comes to telescopes, the larger the diameter of the lens or mirror, the more light can be corralled from the depths of space and brought to focus in the eye of the observer.
The trick is finding a place where there isn’t glow from nearby cities obscuring the lights of the heavens, or nearby street or porch lights to ruin night-adapted vision. Since most people live in cities these days, it can be hard to use a telescope from one’s back yard where there is all sorts of unwanted light. Hence the popularity of “star parties,” which are held in more rural areas, usually at higher altitudes (thinner air helps with telescopic observations), and with like-minded friends.
In the early 80s, Table Mountain, just north of Ellensburg, started growing in popularity as a gathering spot for regional groups of astronomy-lovers and telescope owners.
The first “official” Table Mountain Star Party, according to its web site, was held in 1990, thanks in large part to the efforts of the four men referred to as its Founding Fathers: Dale Fiske, John Philip, Gene Dietzen and Thom Jenkins.
Jenkins, the last of the four still living, is the current chairman on a board of 12 that keeps the TMSP at the forefront of astronomical community events, including its emphasis on being a family-friendly gathering.
“When Table Mountain started, the first few years it was just astronomers,” Jenkins said. “A bunch of us were concerned about science in the schools, not turning out many kids with capabilities. We wanted to do something at this event that would draw families with kids and include science-related things for the kids to do that would pique their interest.
“A big emphasis was to make it a family event, something that was attractive, educational to kids and fun.”
Not just at night
To that end, TMSP features three full days of student-oriented programming, including science-related arts, games and hands-on instruction on building a telescope from a kit. This year, thanks to being in the Okanogan, there were daytime geology tours featuring paleontologist Dan Wood.
“Astronomy and geology are related, so they had fun with that,” Jenkins said. “They had Jovian soccer with this 6-foot-5 soccer ball – we tried to wear the kids out so they go to sleep at night. Plus we had some competitions with water-filled stomp rockets.”
“We had about 60 kids this year,” said chairman-elect Russ Vodder. “They make a lot of neat friends every year, and then enjoy coming back and seeing them again.”
Adult programming included a number of guest speakers, most notably internationally renowned astrophotographer Jack Newton and his wife, Alice, who are household names in stargazing circles.
“Some years we’ve had astronauts, shuttle commanders, David Levy the comet hunter, Jack Newton, Al Nagler, John Dobson a couple times – we get some big names.”
“Well, big names to us,” Vodder added. “You rattle that off in a bar downtown Seattle, they’ll be like, ‘Huh?’”
The Stices also sold out their horseback rides, on which the guests got a thorough Okanogan Highlands education.
“We only take about nine people at one time,” Robin Stice said. “We’re small by design. We talk to everybody – we coach, we remind people the way to control the horse, teach horse psychology, herd dynamics. We talk about the wildflowers, native species vs. invasive species and the local geology. We talk about local birdwatching, lakes, waterways, back roads to take for birdwatching.”
Dark nights, bright stars
That, of course, is the daytime. But what people really come for is what happens after dark.
There are strict rules about when and what kinds of lights to use. Arriving or departing the telescope area after dark in a vehicle is … well, don’t try it. Don’t even think about it.
The hardware is impressive, and varied. Some roll out massive Dobsonian reflectors (the design originated and popularized by the aforementioned John Dobson) that yield impressive views to the eye but in most cases are low-tech in terms of operation.
Then there are those with fully automated, computerized telescopes that do all the sky hunting for you, festooned with cameras and filters and an ever-expanding array of observing aids.
It can be either the ultimate low budget hobby, or a very, very, very expensive one.
There are “observer’s challenges” – lists of challenges to complete, designed to test skill level, visual acuity and equipment alike.
For some, it is the rare opportunity to ply their passion under the velvety dark skies sometimes taken for granted in the Okanogan. For others, it’s about the communal experience, passing on knowledge. And for many, it’s about indulging in the envious pleasure of looking through a telescope that is three times larger than the one they can afford.
Jenkins cautioned that it can be a mistake to seek out the most impressive telescope on site and catch a view through it, especially right off the bat.
“We’ve had them as big as 42-46 inches (in diameter, which is primary measure of a telescope’s ability to gather faint light). But those are pain in the neck. You have to climb an 18-foot ladder just to look in the eyepiece. Of course the image once you get up there is incredible.
“But don’t do that first. It’s like having your first date being a Playboy bunny – it’s not reality.”
North Central Washington won’t soon forget the 2012 fire season, but more so than most, Table Mountain Star Partiers watched with dismay as their traditional site was engulfed by a 42,000 acre fire that burned for weeks.
By November, after discussions with the Forest Service, the final determination was made to move TMSP for at least one year.
“My brother is a county commissioner in Douglas County,” said Jenkins, who was born and raised in Bridgeport and now lives in Spokane. “We got up a couple of mornings and drove from here to Mansfield, to Jameson Lake, to Badger Mountain, to 25-mile Creek on Lake Chelan, to Mazama, across the top, up to here, down to Canaan Ranch, the Boy Scout Ranch on Disautel Pass.
“We collected data on whatever sites we could. (In terms of) accessibility and dark skies, this was the best one.”
“We took ideas that people tossed out, or that we read about, that could accommodate large crowds,” Vodder said. “We just hit them all.”
As it turns out, the TMSP directors dodged a bullet as one of their other highly-rated choices, Satus Pass near Yakima, was engulfed in flames just a few weeks ago.
“We do like Okanogan County,” Jenkins said. “The skies are a lot darker than Table Mountain. Finding a location we can get everything into isn’t easy.”
The Stices weren’t aware of the star party’s existence before they were contacted by the TMSP board.
“It was these guys who came across what we were doing at the ranch and said hey, that would be a good location,” Robin said. “So they short-listed us and eventually selected us.
“Pat has much more background with stars than I do and he’s an engineer,” she added. “We both like stargazing and we both have kind of a science bent.”
A little excitement
One reality all amateur astronomers must cope with is the unpredictability of the weather, and that was a factor at the 2013 TMSP, especially during an eventful Friday night thunderstorm.
“It was nuts up here,” said Jenkins. “I’ve spent my whole life in this country and don’t think I’ve ever seen a storm quite like that one.”
Star partiers did their best to keep their equipment dry while keeping a wary eye on nearby lightning strikes, but a number of families that came and stayed in tents weren’t so lucky, and the rain-saturated crowd thinned out considerably on Saturday.
But unlike at Table Mountain, Eden Valley Guest Ranch has its lodge, which the Stices kept open past midnight to shelter the drenched astronomers.
“We really want to thank our neighbors, too,” Robin said. “They called to offer whatever help they could if we needed it. That was really great.”
Her husband said that, despite the natural fireworks, the stargazers actually were in a good spot.
“You’ll notice if you look around,” Pat said, “with the number of trees we have around here, they’ve not been hit by lightning. You don’t have to go far to find ones that have, but not here.”
The hospitality was certainly appreciated by the TMSP crowd, and they expressed their thanks by giving them a print by noted Western artist and amateur astronomer Hulan Fleming.
“Robin and Pat have been wonderful,” Jenkins said. “They’ve been so nice to us. They’ve just been very helpful, and they’re good people.”
What this means for the future is still up in the air. It’s a virtual certainty that the TMSP will eventually return to Table Mountain, but the decision for next year won’t be made until the Forest Service determines that the area has sufficiently recovered from the fire to be reopened.
“Our exact site didn’t burn but everything around it, including the approach roads, are toast,” Jenkins said. “They’re toothpicks. There are safety issues as far as widowmakers (detached broken limbs that could fall from trees), roads being blocked by downfalls … (The Forest Service) has been great about keeping us in the loop but we just don’t know.
“As for this place, we won’t really know either until we find out if Pat and Robin are happy with what we’ve done here,” he added. “They’ve been wonderful; we just want to make sure we haven’t caused them too many problems.”