A Sky Full of Stars
By Michelle Swift
The Central Valley may not be an obvious place to find serene moments of tranquil beauty, but you just have to know where to look. Three of my close lady friends and I found this and more on a recent day trip up to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. We were drawn to the parks by a Facebook event promoting the Dark Sky Festival—an event designed to educate visitors about the importance of light pollution, and the nationally recognized “Dark Skies” found in the parks. The true lure of the event was the promise of constellation tours, telescope viewings, astronaut speakers, and the incredible beauty of the natural spaces the parks provide. Being a group of star gazing enthusiasts, we had been planning the trip for months.
The four of us had all been to the parks before, so we decided that we would skip the most popular tourist destinations that we had all seen, such as Grant Grove or the Crystal Cave. We enjoyed a day of meandering about the parks; knowing that our eventual destination would be the “Star Party” at Wuksachi Lodge. The majority of our time during the daylight hours was spent in a picturesque meadow just off the General’s Highway. We shared quiet moments of tranquility—with no urgency of time or obligation—just four good friends with an appreciation for all things natural. Dusk was approaching as we made our way to the lodge. We arrived early to give ourselves time to look around, and after a bit of exploring via wooden bridges spanning fern lined gullies, we came to the clearing in which the Star Party would be.
This three day festival was intentionally and perfectly timed with, what some would say, is the best meteor shower of the year: the Perseid Meteor shower. Every August, the earth’s orbit passes through the trail of a comet named Tuttle, and the result is a magnificent display of burning debris as it enters our atmosphere. Even though our group of gals are self-proclaimed star enthusiast, we had never been to a “Star Party” before, and were unsure of what to expect. There was still a touch of light in the sky as we approached the line of telescopes in an impressive array of sizes, but we weren’t sure if we were allowed to invite ourselves to look through the viewfinders. We overheard a gentleman telling someone that his telescope was homemade, and joined the conversation.
It quickly became obvious that this group of star enthusiasts were not only incredibly knowledgeable, but more than willing to have folks look through their viewfinders into the vastness of space. In fact, that’s exactly why they had come out that evening. The evening’s event was organized by the Kern Astronomical Society, and to the best of my knowledge at no cost to the National Parks Service. There was no cost to attend the event, aside from our park fee (I bought the National Parks Annual Pass for only $80). There were also representatives from the International Dark Sky Association educating folks as to the effects of light pollution on our health, our psyche, and our wildlife.
We gleefully made our way down the line of telescopes taking in the wonders. Some of the homemade telescopes were six feet long and about as wide as a basketball. Others were the same width but only one third the length, and some were a bit longer with a smaller diameter. The cost of these probably ranged from $1,000 to around $15,000. We touched them with the greatest of care.
Each telescope owner had his or her telescope set on something different, so that you saw different features of the universe through the different viewfinders. One was set on Saturn, another Mars, and still others had star clusters, distant galaxies, and the moon in view. All of these were shown with such clarity and closeness that one friend couldn’t help but react with a very poised “Holy Crap!” Believe me, it was warranted. When reaching the end of the line of telescopes, probably about 15 or so, we found a quiet spot to lie down our blankets and watch for meteors.
By this time it was pitch black, and at least 200 other star gazers had joined the party. (Although we couldn’t really see them, so that’s just an estimate.) The meteors were whizzing by at approximately 1-2 every 5 minutes; each more glorious than the last. You could tell if you had missed one due to the reaction of the crowd. The sound was similar to the crowd at a firework display. The “oohs” and “ahhs” more pronounced with the size and brightness of the meteors. Just when we though the moment couldn’t be any more beautiful, a 3 piece band consisting of 2 horns and a tuba set up and began playing “Sky Full of Stars” by Coldplay. This was followed by the theme to Star Wars and several other appropriate pieces. The band was probably some of the remaining members from an orchestra performance in the park earlier that day. When we finally pulled ourselves away to leave, we thanked the band sharing their talents on the way out (they didn’t have a tip jar), and they thanked us by playing the Imperial March as we exited the area. They must had noticed my crown of flowers and recognized me as royalty…
The Perseid Meteor Shower will last until August 24th, with its peak the 9th through the 13th. Even with the light pollution in the valley, they are still very visible. Did you know that the Central Valley Astronomers regularly host free Star Parties in the valley as well? For more information about those events and the club, go to www.cvafresno.org.
We are so blessed in the Central Valley to be absolutely surrounded by natural wonders of all kinds. I encourage everyone to get out and take advantage of them. People from all over the world come to visit these National Parks that we can take day trips to. If transportation is an issue, there are event transit busses that go to the parks for affordable rates, and well as free transit within the parks. Visit www.nps.gov for more info about the National Parks near us, and www.playfresno.org to learn more about park transit.
Ready, set… Have an adventure!